Religious guiding college students to the joy of Christ
By Mary P. Walker
Upon meeting Apostle of the Interior Life Sister Elena Morcelli, one is greeted with a big smile and infectious joy. Sister Elena is a reminder that Christ’s love is often transmitted through the generous “yes” of consecrated women religious.
Sister Elena is one of three sisters who serve the students of Texas A&M University and Blinn College at St. Mary Catholic Center in College Station. They offer spiritual direction, education, hospitality and a prayerful presence to the students under their care.
Sister Elena is the daughter of Lina and Orazio Morcelli, and grew up in Brenno Useria, Italy. She has two younger brothers, and credits her parents and parish with giving her examples of choosing to follow God. When she attended a Catholic summer camp at age 14, she experienced a profound realization that God loved her and was present in her life.
“From that moment on, every day I started praying the Liturgy of the Hours, reading a passage of the Gospel, and spending some time in meditation,” Sister Elena said.
A year later, she began to meet with a priest for spiritual direction. A turning point toward religious life came during her senior year in high school, when the Apostle of the Interior Life (AVI) sisters visited her class. She immediately noticed their happiness and joy, and felt that God was calling her to join them.
While she was discerning whether to apply to the order, she met a young man who seemed to be “perfect” for her. Although they decided not to date, she was confused.
“It seemed that God’s providence was placing this guy on my path, but God put in my heart and mind the desire for consecration,” Sister Elena said.
Through prayer and spiritual direction, she understood that giving her life totally to God was the path to her deepest happiness. In September 1996, she left her hometown and went to Rome to begin formation.
The Apostole della Vita Interiore (AVI, or, in English, the Apostles of the Interior Life) were established in 1990 in Italy by Father Salvatore Scorza and a group of young women who wanted to alleviate spiritual poverty. To be intellectually equipped for their work, the sisters study philosophy and theology at a pontifical university, and continue their intellectual formation throughout their lives. Through God’s help, a number of sisters were able to come to college campuses in the U.S., and in 2007 the order grew to include a male branch.
The sisters wear simple clothes, and are often asked why they do not wear habits. Sister Elena emphasized that their dress is not a statement against habits. Rather, they are being faithful to the way their order was founded and approved in Rome, and their attire allows them to approach others dressed in a similar way, as Jesus did. Also, they rely on God’s providence for their needs, including wearing donated secondhand clothes.
“People don’t have habits in their closets!” Sister Elena joked.
In addition to intellectual preparation, Sister Elena is grounded in the three other pillars of the order’s religious life: prayer, community and the apostolate. The sisters spend four hours a day with Jesus in prayer, which includes Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and spiritual reading.
The sisters share warm bonds of friendship, nurtured through community life. Each convent has at least three sisters, who share meals and recreation time.
“We are not together because we chose one another. We are together because we chose the same Lord,” Sister Elena said. At St. Mary, this is a powerful witness to college students who often have challenges living with their roommates.
The sisters’ introduction to the Catholic Center came when they were invited to serve as spiritual directors for a retreat in 2005. The experience was so successful that all worked together for a more permanent arrangement. In 2008, they established a convent near St. Mary, and have become an integral part of the campus ministry program, said Father David Konderla, director of campus ministry and pastor of St. Mary Catholic Center.
“The AVI bring an international dimension of the church, of spirituality and prayer. They are a source of quiet calm and prayerfulness around the student center, as well as fountains of common sense and love of the Lord,” Father Konderla said.
Sister Elena came to the U.S. in 2003, and has been at St. Mary for three years. On Jan. 29, the Aggie community celebrated with her when she became a naturalized American citizen.
Each sister offers regular one-to-one spiritual direction to 30-40 young adults. They also participate in other campus ministry programs, teach classes and give parish missions. Hospitality is a cornerstone of their ministry through “nights at the convent,” where students are invited to see religious life firsthand.
James Halpin, a student in spiritual direction with Sister Elena, is grateful for her guidance.
“When I started spiritual direction, I wasn’t yet Catholic. I had never even met a sister. The way she taught me to pray and to be in tune with the desires of my heart transformed everything about my life. She never once pressured me to join the church or to pursue consecrated life. In humility, she’s only directed me back to the God I know, and he has opened my heart,” he said.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of the order, which is being observed by pilgrimages to Italy and a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. Although “young,” the AVI are growing fast, with houses in Rome, College Station and Kansas.
Today there are 16 sisters who have professed vows, with another expecting to profess in December. The male branch includes five priests and one seminarian. Sister Elena reports with great joy that there are eight women in formation, including three Aggies, with others also considering whether God is calling them.