The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, an international community of students and professors in Rome’s numerous pontifical universities, and a pivotal part of my own formation as a theologian and person, hosted two events this week. First, a 30th anniversary celebration marking the nearly 300 scholars and estimated 12,000 visitors who have passed through their gates in various locations as the centre has moved around the city since its founding in Piazza Navona in 1986. Today it overlooks the Colosseum at the top of the Caelian Hill.
Then, as part of these two weeks of festivities, an academic symposium was co-sponsored by the centre and the College Theology Society. Its theme was “Full, Conscious, and Active: Lay Participation in the Church’s Dialogue with the World.” Nearly 50 participants from around the globe attended, including some with local connections. Mary Beth Yount from Neumann University and director of Content and Programming for the pope’s recent visit to Philadelphia, Nicholas Rademacher of Cabrini University, and a group of undergraduate interns from Lehigh University, met to explore the various contours of what it means to have a “lay vocation” in the 21st century.
Since its inception as the brainchild of Gregorian University Professor Donna Orsuto when she arrived with 200 dollars in her pocket to explore Rome for a few months in 1979, the Lay Centre has become a hub of academic, spiritual and ecclesial discourse about the life of the laity in the global church and has grown into a Roman institution.
Orsuto and artist Riekie van Velsen have nurtured the community and continue to live its principles daily. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, Bishop Paul Tighe of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Benedictine Abbot Edmund Power of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, and Father Jim Puglisi, director of the Centro Pro Unione, all longtime friends of the Lay Centre, celebrated Masses for those gathered.
People with every conceivable kind of specialty having to do with ecclesial life have for years come to enjoy events, lectures, meals and fellowship. This past year, over 20 countries and 13 languages were represented in its body of residents and sabbatical guests. There is perhaps no better place on earth to experience firsthand the pulsating heart of the global church than in the quintessentially European and yet utterly international setting. The Lay Centre provides a practical means of combating what Pope Francis has often decried as the “globalization of indifference,” instead bringing people together in their diversity into a place of prayer, study, and conviviality.
Its roots go back to the Ladies of Bethany, an order of Dutch nuns committed to ecumenical hospitality and fraternal dialogue among peoples before and during the Second Vatican Council. Donna and Riekie’s project grew out of their time living and working with them. Even the chalice in the chapel and leather chairs in the salon once belonged to Cardinal Montini, long before he became Pope Paul VI, when he cherished the nuns’ labors and donated them.
Today the Lay Centre inherits this profound patrimony. I have continued to develop a wide range of professional contacts and what will undoubtedly be lifelong friends through my repeated visits. My students always feel it a highlight of their time abroad to interact with such interesting and diverse people studying everything from archeology and art history to European socio-political affairs, media communications and sacred music, as well as every imaginable branch of theology.
Welcoming to people of all faiths and none, there is a decidedly Catholic esprit de corps in the house, albeit one consciously and intentionally ecumenical and inter-religious in the mold of Unitatis Redintegratio and Nostra Aetate.
“My short stay at the Lay Centre was an amazing experience. The people I met continue to impress me both with their different fields of expertise and their commitment to living peacefully and learning from one another,” said Tim Lankford, an American hospital chaplain with five grown children.
Twenty-nine year old Brazilian journalist Filipe Domingues mirrored his sentiments. “My favorite part of living here for four years has been meeting people from around the world. I think in that sense it really manages to be a ‘hearth of unity,’ a place of encounter and proximity. The setting continues to be a space for a lay community of scholars to become engaged in the church and in authentic dialogue.”
Donna and I are in the process of publishing a book on “living Christian joy” through the Vatican Press and the proceedings of the conference will be available in a separate volume in the coming months.
While more events are already planned for the summer and autumn, many participants expressed hope to be able to return for the 35th, 40th and 50th anniversaries.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.