Friday Book Pick: The Embrace of God’s Mercy: Mother Elvira the Story of Community Cenacolo by Mother Elvira
Every religious community is a work of God. †Fr. Benedict used to turn to †Fr. Andrew at every one of our community events, as he would observe the sea of grey habits, and whisper, “It is a work of God.” The charism of a Religious Institute is like its life’s breath, its personality and mission all rolled into one. A charism is a gift from God given to a founder or foundress of a Religious Institute but meant for the whole Church. Very often, it seems that a charism is like a balm for a wound or a medicine for a sickness. It is as if God supplies a remedy for whatever is ailing the Body of Christ in a particular time and place. And God’s medicine is very often dispensed through a religious community.
The Community Cenacolo, founded to welcome and heal the drug addict, is God’s remedy for one of the greatest illness of our time—addiction.
Rita Agnese Petrozzi, now known as Mother Elvira, is the author of the inspiring true story The Embrace of God’s Mercy. Rita was born into a very poor family in southern Italy shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. One of five children, Rita was a servant within her family and lived poverty and obedience long before she professed these vows as a religious sister. At the age of nineteen, Rita entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity and became known as Sister Elvira. Neither her mother nor any of her brothers and sisters understood or supported her decision, but nevertheless, in spite of their objections and lack of support, the call was strong. “It was stronger than human affections, stronger than blood, stronger than flesh, stronger than all the problems at home, stronger than the objections of others, stronger than my own understanding,” Mother Elvira remembered many years after that decisive departure from all that was familiar. After making the painful break with her family and entering religious life, Rita persevered in her community for 28 years, serving in humble ways, mainly as a cook.
Even though Sr. Elvira was faithful and content in her consecrated life with the Sisters of Charity, a new call began to take hold of her. She became aware of a desire within her to serve the youth. She saw the lost and aimless young people who seemed to be searching for meaning yet numbing the pain of their lost condition by drug use. “I saw them wandering aimlessly on the streets and public squares. It seemed to me they were crying out their need for life and truth. They screamed out by taking drugs, numbing themselves, despairing, and letting themselves die day by day.”
This “call within a call” had to be discerned and tested, and it was—on her knees before the Eucharist. Sister Elvira prayed and put her desires to do something for the youth before her superiors, and she waited. After many years of prayer, suffering and patient waiting, her superiors granted her permission to leave the Congregation and follow the call of God to serve the youth lost to addiction. “After years of waiting and prayer, the superior permitted me to leave. At that moment, after the labor pains, Comunità Cenacolo was finally born.” This detail, that Sr. Elvira humbly waited on the blessing of her superiors, rather than simply departing the community armed with self-confidence, I find deeply edifying.
Beginning with an abandoned house in great need of repair on an Italian hillside, and with two followers who shared Sr. Elvira’s desire to serve the youth, Sister’s vision began to take shape in brick-and-mortar reality. Long before the house was ready and the plan crystalized, the first “lost sheep” appeared on the doorstep. “I saw a man arrive at the gate, and I went to meet him. He had a sad look, full of shame and disappointment with life. His face betrayed the anger he felt toward himself, life, everyone. I felt in my heart that I had to say these simple words, so while looking into his eyes and holding his hands, I said: ‘I was waiting for you. Finally, you have arrived!’” Mother Elvira goes on to describe that this first person who arrived at her gate, who never knew his mother or his father, found healing and new life and is still with the community today.
From that first home and the first man who found mercy and peace there, the Comunità Cenacolo has grown to seventy houses around the world. Men and women whose lives had been decimated by addiction to drugs find healing from their addictions, the love of a family, and very often reconciliation with their own families of origin. This is a dramatic story of hope. It is an uplifting story because it is true. It is an impelling story that begs the question: What if every follower of Jesus Christ was attuned to His call? What if every praying person was listening? What if we were all on our knees before the Eucharist asking the Lord: What else can I do to help Your kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven? How can I become a “medicine” for wounds in the Body of Christ?
Mother Clare, CFR