Sunday, December 28, 2008

From a Far Country

The triple-wide top feature in this Sunday's New York Times was a notable one for the beat as the Grey Lady related that one in six priests in ministry on these shores hails from abroad.

In the long frame of history, it's worth recalling that only in 1913 did Rome see fit to remove the US' status as a mission church under the jurisdiction of the Propaganda Fide... and not even a century later, here we are again.

While the Times' Laurie Goodstein did her on-ground reporting in western Kentucky's diocese of Owensboro -- home to some of the nation's highest Sunday Mass attendance, yet no ordinations in the last five years -- it's a good moment to shine a light on the mother and head of the "import churches": East Texas' diocese of Tyler, where half the clergy are foreign-born... including the vicar-general, Msgr Xavier Pappu, a son of India's Tamil Nadu state named top aide to Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio SJ a year after his 1999 arrival in America.

Home to 55,000 Catholics spread across 42 parishes in 33 counties, Tyler's overseas recruitment has borne considerable fruit. While its contingent of foreign clergy hovered at 60% a decade ago, the growing diocese now boasts its own complement of 24 seminarians -- a figure rivaling, or even exceeding, the old bastions of the Northeast.

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The overseas wave changing the Stateside church's consecrated ranks doesn't end with its priests, and one need look no further than the weekend papers to reinforce the point.

For now, just three Stateside locales feature the presence of the growing, Rome-based Apostles of the Interior Life. Founded in 1990 by Susan Pieper, an American expat, and formally recognized by the Urb's diocese six years later, the core of the Apostles' charism is spiritual direction; its sisters, who spend four hours a day at prayer, take five years of formation at the city's pontifical faculties of philosophy and theology.

Part of the University of Kansas' campus ministry since 2003, a Jayhawk Nation paper profiles the "living joy" of its migrant community of three (above):

“Interior life is the life of our spirit, of our soul, and so our community wants to pay attention to this part that is more hidden,” says Sister Elena Morcelli, an apostle.

This life involves thoughts, desires and emotions.

“We try to recognize how those are from God and lead us to God,” Morcelli says....

Morcelli is quick to note that the apostles’ casual, everyday attire isn’t a statement against traditional Roman Catholic sisters’ habits.

“It’s not like a choice against the habit, or we want to hide ourselves,” she says. “We want to live a life that people live, in a very simple, sober way.”

The job requirements, so to speak, of apostleship involve four elements. The first is a strong prayer life — a minimum of four hours a day. This includes the rosary, Mass and other liturgical services, Morcelli says.

“Those are really the gems, the pearls, of our day,” she says. “This is where we get our oxygen, our motivation.”

The second element is the apostolate, or their activities on campus or in the center. The third is ongoing formation, or time in theological study.

Fourth, the apostles use community life, or meetings with other sisters, as Morcelli says, “to witness together the joy and the beauty of the love of Christ.”...

Morcelli estimates that each year, the sisters see about 100 students regularly — about 30 to 40 students per sister.

No exact figures are available on the number of Catholic students at KU. The Rev. Steve Beseau, the center’s chaplain, puts the estimate at 4,000. Each week, 1,000 students attend Mass at the center.

Beseau says the apostles are witnesses to joy, community life and prayer. “Apostle,” he says, means one who is sent — and these have been sent to teach the interior life.

“They don’t give in to worry,” he says. “Even when bad things happen, it still falls under the providence of God.”

The apostles have room and board from the center, and they live on donations such as money, clothes or furniture. They send any surplus donations to Rome to support those studying to become apostles, Morcelli says.

“People at times kind of wonder, but we want to show them that we are normal people, but yet with a different call,” she says.

For Morcelli, that call involved coming to Lawrence from Italy, with no knowledge of the culture and little understanding of English.

“On the human level, it was just like, ‘You’re doing what?’ It was totally insane,” she says. “Here everything is just so perfect, organized and efficient, almost like a machine. We Italians are more laid-back and enjoying some time.”

She says the sisters brought with them “not Italian style, but really Jesus’ style, where Jesus wants us to experience the joy of life.”

“It’s not like Italian versus American type of thing, but this concept of holy leisure and joy — breaking the craziness of this machine,” she says.

Becca Ashley, Olathe senior majoring in Spanish education, has spent all four years of her time at KU under Morcelli’s spiritual direction.

“You meet them, and you see their joy, and you see how utterly happy they are, and you say, ‘I want that,’” she says. “And you don’t have to become an apostle of the interior life to have it.”

Ashley says the apostles taught her how to live in joy as Mother Teresa described it, to put Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last — J-O-Y.

“I understand who I am and who I’m supposed to be because I understand more that I was created to live in this joy; I was created for a specific purpose,” she says.

Morcelli would agree. She says consecrated people are created to be a sign — “a sign of joy, a sign of hope, a sign of life that has a meaning that goes beyond what we see here,” she says. “So whatever we do, we try to be this sign.”

PHOTOS: James Estrin/The New York Times(1); Thad Allender/Lawrence Journal-World(2)