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In this clerical company town, a spot for ‘just plain Catholic’

NCR Staff

Like many young Catholic men who come to Rome to study at a pontifical university, Chris Gustafson of Green Bay, Wis., believes the experience has broadened his vision immensely, giving him a sense of the global church and an up-close exposure to its leaders.

Unlike most young men in Rome, however, Gustafson -- at least for the purpose of registration at the Angelicum, his university -- has a mother superior. And he pays for most of his theological studies himself.

The difference between Gustafson and the flocks of seminarians who fill lecture halls of Roman universities is that Gustafson is, and intends to remain, a member of the Catholic laity. He is not a member of a religious community, nor does a diocese sponsor him as a future priest. “Just plain Catholic” is how he describes himself, as he aspires to an academic career.

Gustafson is one of 16 students from 10 countries currently living at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas Institute, located in Rome’s monumental Piazza Navona. Now in its 14th year, the center, which offers living space and support for lay students in Rome, represents a lay toehold in what often remains, in ways large and small, a clerical “company town.”

That the lay presence is still something of an anomaly here is reflected in Gustafson’s encounters with ecclesiastical bureaucracy. When he registers each year at the Angelicum, for example, a form requires him to list his seminary residence and his religious superior. In response to the first question, he writes “Lay Centre.” In response to the second, he identifies American Donna Orsuto, the laywoman who directs the center, as his “mother superior.”

“The forms are in Latin and they’re probably 100 years old,” Gustafson said. “It’s pretty funny, but it also illustrates how the system is taking some time to catch up to reality.”

For centuries, education at a pontifical university in Rome, a gateway for leadership in the church, was largely restricted to priests. Officially, as part of the revolution that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the system is now open to laypeople.

During a Nov. 25-30 “Jubilee of the Lay Apostolate,” which brought tens of thousands of laypeople to Rome, Pope John Paul II stressed the council’s vision of an expanded role for laity.

Yet more than 35 years after Vatican II, a layperson hoping to pursue a theological education in Rome still faces roadblocks. Rents are high; financial aid is scarce. The transition to another language and culture can be disorienting. Further, laity lack the support system that aspiring clergy or members of a religious community are likely to find.

A diocesan seminarian from the United States, for example, can count on room and board in a facility a five-minute walk from the Vatican, help with admission to a pontifical university, and abundant advice on navigating the system from older classmates. A layperson, by way of contrast, often has little more to go on than the apartment listings in a Roman newspaper.

That is precisely the gap that the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas Institute was created to fill.

Orsuto first stayed in the building that would become the lay center in 1978, when she was a junior at Wake Forest University. It was then home to an ecumenical center called the “Foyer Unitas,” run by a community of Dutch sisters called the Ladies of Bethany. Orsuto was on a university-sponsored trip to Europe.

Smitten by Rome and by Foyer Unitas, Orsuto returned in 1979 to begin studies at Gregorian University. She eventually attained a doctorate in spirituality from the Gregorian, focusing on Catherine of Siena. She has taught at Regina Mundi, the Angelicum, and, since 1994, at the Gregorian.

Though she is hesitant to put herself forward as a pioneer, Orsuto acknowledges that being a laywoman at the Gregorian in the 1980s made her a bit of a curiosity. When she finished her licentiate, the stage before a doctorate, she was the only woman in a class of 50. (Today, she notes, women represent some 20 percent of the Gregorian’s enrollment). Based on this experience, those who know Orsuto say, she understands from the inside what it’s like to be a laywoman in a clerical world.

In 1986, the Ladies of Bethany closed their operation. Orsuto and Henrica Van Velzen, who had also lived at Foyer Unitas, proposed keeping the facility open as a beachhead for lay students.

“The dream was to create a sense of community, of family,” Orsuto said. “I would hear horror stories about people having to switch apartments right before exams or facing problems with no one to take an interest in their lives. I wanted to start a center where people would feel at home.”

Since 1986, more than 100 students from 20 countries have lived at the center, which can accommodate roughly 16 people at any given time. Though 45 percent come from the United States, the remainder represents a wide variety of backgrounds. Two Muslims are living at the center now, and a Baptist minister arrives in the spring.

Students pay approximately 60 percent of their costs, with the remaining expenses covered by private donors, Orsuto told NCR. Often the center helps students find financial aid.

Students stay varying lengths of time, some for a semester, some for as many as eight years. The language of the house is English, though Italian is also widely used. The center has guest rooms that, through July 1, 2001, can be rented on a short-term basis by visitors to Rome. A volunteer helps organize pilgrimage itineraries.

The other part of the vision was to provide an experience for laity similar to that afforded students at Roman seminaries, including regular exposure to church leaders and professors. To that end, the lay center offers gatherings where students are joined by guests from Rome and points beyond, giving them a chance to meet some of the most distinguished figures in contemporary Catholic life.

Last year’s visitors included Dominican Master General Fr. Timothy Radcliffe and Jesuit Archbishop Guiseppe Pittau from the Congregation for Education.

The center has attracted the support of influential figures in Rome. English Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, the No. 2 official in the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, is on the board of directors.

Through collaboration with the Vincent Pallotti Institute, the Rome branch of a program for lay leaders based at Trinity College in Washington, the center has access to an impressive lineup of lectures and other events.

Fitzgerald noted that in a time when movements such as Focolari and the Neocatechumenate often seem to dominate the church’s attention, the lay center “offers possibilities for people engaging in formation as committed Catholics not necessarily engaged in a movement or an organized form of Catholic action.”

It’s important to offer such laypeople the chance to experience Rome “with all its riches and frustrations,” Fitzgerald told NCR.

Some wags have suggested that a lay center in the heart of ecclesiastical Rome fosters “clericalism without the collar.” But Fitzgerald said it isn’t so.

“Laypeople don’t have to come to Rome to study theology, just as clergy don’t,” he said. “But it’s useful to the church that some have had this experience. There is an intellectual dimension, as well as the sense of being part of the world church. Why should we deny laypeople this opportunity?”

Gustafson, now in his seventh year at the lay center, agrees.

“I’ve had the greatest intellectual experience of almost any student in the world,” Gustafson said at a holiday dinner sponsored by the center. “I’ve seen the international dimensions of the church, and not just from a clerical, Roman perspective.”

Gustafson said that the multicultural dimension of living in a city that is a global crossroads has changed the way he sees the world.

“I got to know a student from Rwanda whose family was decimated in the massacres,” he said. “That will never again be a distant story for me, something that happens to people I don’t know.”

Gustafson also said that during his years at the lay center, through regular contact with Vatican officials, he has felt some “anti-Roman prejudices … fall away.”

“You get to see people who work in the curia for who they really are, their greatness and also their humanity,” he said. “You’re dealing with an honest view of the problems of the church’s central government, rather than a media-imposed view.”

Though Orsuto says the center has no aspiration of being a “huge operation,” she also knows that life in Rome inevitably means playing on a big stage, and sometimes to mixed reviews. Some of the center’s most natural supporters -- Catholic progressives committed to expanded roles for laity -- have at times criticized it, and by extension Orsuto, for not being more “prophetic” in pushing for church reform.

Orsuto said this has been a deliberate choice.

“I’ve made the decision to work within the structures of the church as it is,” she said. “We will be prophetic within the context of those structures. Personally I think this is the most constructive way to move forward.”

Church politics aside, many observers stress the center’s community life as its most appealing aspect.

“It comes close to providing something of what the religious houses and seminaries provide, a community life in which to anchor the academic study of theology,” said Rick McCord, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ office on family, laity, women and youth. It fosters “an awareness that theology has its roots in a community of faith.”

That community, however, will soon be transplanted. The lay center’s lease runs out Aug. 31. Orsuto and Van Velzen are searching for new quarters, no easy task in the heart of Rome. Further, Orsuto said the center will soon be making an appeal for funds to support the move. Rome, she said, can be a daunting place for lay-run groups to find backing.

“We have to constantly explain there’s no big organization behind us. We’re nothing more than baptized Christians trying to offer a humble service to the church,” she said.

Nothing more -- and, many of the center’s supporters would add -- nothing less.

The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas Institute can be found on the Internet at www.laycentre.org.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000