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How laity, too, can get a Rome education

Special Report Writer

This city, in all its splendor, can be a bureaucratic, cultural and economic nightmare for the uninitiated, as many laity who come here to study quickly discover.

Laity have never been on a level playing field with seminarians, priests and nuns when it comes to ministry. The uphill struggle is especially apparent here where foreign priests and nuns studying in Rome can count on the financial, psychological and spiritual support of their communities. Traditionally, they have had housing, meals, companionship and laundry services at the ready. They also have the backing of their superiors and local bishops. And above all, they have church jobs to return to when they leave Rome.

Not so with lay people, even 30 years after Vatican Council II lifted up their role and importance in the church. While anyone who has lived in the Eternal City knows that things take time here, there are signs of change. Some dioceses in the United States and elsewhere are beginning to underwrite the education and formation of lay people who then return to serve the church. And in Rome, there is Foyer Unitas, a center that increasingly serves as a welcoming beacon.

Located in a 17th century palazzo at the historic Piazza Navona, the Lay Centre is a simple setting. It offers housing to a dozen theology students who share a common sitting room, kitchen and chapel. In 1994 Lay Centre II opened near the Piazza Farnese with housing for six more students.

The students -- whose average age is 27 -- eat five meals together each week and gather on Friday evenings for a eucharistic liturgy and shared supper. They take turns shopping, cooking and cleaning. Morning and evening prayers provide another opportunity for coming together.

Retreats, discussion groups and lectures also put many laity who don't live at the center in contact with one another as well as with professors from the numerous pontifical universities and institutes here.

Donna Orsuto, who runs the Lay Centre, sees its mission as one of "challenging its lay guests to grow intellectually and spiritually." Its residents, who have come from 16 nations -- the majority from the United States -- have returned to their homelands to serve the church as university and seminary teachers, as diocesan workers, tribunal staff, employees of bishops' conferences, a bioethical adviser for a medical center, pastoral associates and parish business managers.

During Vatican II, the Holland-based Ladies of Bethany opened a hospice for Protestant observers to the council and called it Foyer Unitas. The Dutch sisters grew older, as did the council documents. Meanwhile an American lay woman, Orsuto, who came to Rome to study theology in 1979, witnessed the struggles that other lay students had with housing, finances, with "learning the ropes in Rome," with loneliness and with the Italian language.

Along with her Dutch friend, Riekie Van Velzen, Orsuto founded the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas just as the sisters were preparing to retire. Late last month, the Lay Centre celebrated 10 years of providing an academic and community environment for lay theology students.

Aurelie Hagstrom, who lived at the Lay Centre from 1988 to 1992, called it "a laboratory of lay spirituality and a hothouse for the theology of the laity." Living with other lay persons from around the world taught Hagstrom much about "the vocation and mission of the laity," she said. This prompted her to choose theology of the laity for her doctoral thesis at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) here.

"When are our bishops going to get on the bandwagon and invest in the education of lay persons and offer them a job when they finish their studies and formation?" Hagstrom asked. She relied on student loans and summer jobs to finance her Rome study.

Upon returning, she spent a year trying to find a job commensurate with her training. Today she serves as an assistant professor of systematic theology at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill. She also works in the Joliet diocese, teaching in pastoral leadership and deaconate formation programs and coordinating adult religious education at St. Raymond Cathedral.

The internationalism of Rome and of life within the Lay Centre where residents have come from Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and Australia, made for some of the richest moments of Hagstrom's life. "It helps me give my students a broader and deeper view of the church and the world," she said. "It's fantastic to bring all this to my Midwestern students."

Lynda Robitaille, a canon lawyer on the faculty of St. Paul's University in Ottawa, Canada, spent more than four of her five plus years in Rome residing at the Lay Centre. The experience taught her "how to live with others, how to respect them and listen to them," she said.

Although the majority of those who live at the center are Catholics, Robitaille said she valued the chance to live with Lutheran, Anglican, Russian and Serbian Orthodox Christians, who were also guests. Unlike Hagstrom, Robitaille had her studies paid for by the Vancouver archdiocese, which offered her a job on its tribunal when she returned.

Susan Timoney, whose five years at the Lay Centre ended this summer, said that she was surprised to learn that American lay theology students had less financial support from their church than any other group of foreign laity studying in Rome. She estimated the cost of a typical student's stay in Rome at $10,000-$12,000 per year. While tuition is fairly inexpensive by American standards, the cost of living in Rome is much higher than in the United States.

Timoney, who worked as an assistant to Orsuto to help defray her costs, said she is determined to help lay students and the Lay Centre find more sources of funding. "We don't want only the wealthy to come to Rome to study," she said. Her larger goal is "to help the church grow in its understanding of the diverse and rich vocation of the laity."

She is using her own education at the Angelicum in her new job with the Education for Parish Service Foundation, which operates out of Trinity College in Washington. EPS offers a two-year program of adult theology and formation courses in five U.S. sees. Some 1,500 laity have used EPS to prepare for work as catechists, hospital and nursing home chaplains and pastoral associates.

Besides her work running the Lay Centre and a related institute, Orsuto also teaches courses -- in Italian -- in lay spirituality and on women mystics at the Jesuit Gregorian University. She said she has always found "much acceptance at the 'Greg' " and in Rome, and she pointed to a growing number of women faculty -- mostly Italians -- at the Gregorian.

"This is an important moment for church women to look for creative ways to share our gifts," said the Ohio native. She pointed to two female ambassadors to the Holy See -- the new Filipino representative and the outgoing British ambassador. In addition, more and more women are working in the Vatican, she said, and are part of and even head Vatican delegations -- such as the one to the 1995 Women's Conference in Beijing.

Orsuto was a member of the Roman Catholic delegation to the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1993 and last year was invited by the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue to participate in an interreligious conference in Bangalore, India.

Msgr. Donald Zimmerman of Christ the King parish in Dallas credits Orsuto's "genius" with both the birth of the Lay Centre and for enriching the church in Texas. With the support of his diocese, Zimmerman sent one of his RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) graduates -- Sandra Magie -- to Rome nine years ago. More recently he hired two former residents of the Lay Centre, Bill and Cathy Hare, as the parish's business manager and pastoral associate respectively. In addition, Bill Hare now directs the tribunal for the Dallas diocese and recently headed the committee that negotiated the diocese's pension plan.

Magie, a Southern Baptist convert to Catholicism, is a molecular biologist and now a professor of moral theology at St. Mary's Seminary in Houston. She said she was about to give up on Rome, noting "its lack of order and (its) inefficiency," when she met Orsuto in 1987.

Orsuto invited her to the Lay Centre. She stayed because of its hospitality. "It's remarkable how much even a student of moral theology can absorb about systematic theology, spirituality and even canon law through interaction with others who pursue their discipline with consuming passion," Magie said.

That passion has remained with Magie and has inspired the Hares, too, who were the first married couple to live at the Lay Centre. In 1990 the Hares, their children nearly grown, decided to shift careers and devote the rest of their working life to the church.

Zimmerman called the Hares and Magie "highly motivated people who can do the job(s) better" than the priests he no longer has to assist him. While he believes that there are better places than Rome for a theological education, there is no finer place for lay formation, he said.

"It pains me," he said, that more dioceses don't make similar investment in their laity. The life experience, the professionalism and the fact that "these three people were successful in doing something else," means that the church could do no better than to secure their services for its ministry.

By giving lay persons the chance to learn more about their faith in the place where it has been lived out for so many centuries, the Lay Centre is helping both to send them back to lead the local church as well as to keep them connected with other laity and other models of church worldwide.

National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1996