National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 7, 2003

Lay women make headway in clerical Rome

Even in this very clerical town, lay people with vision can make a difference. American laywoman Donna Orsuto, who has built the Lay Centre and the Vincent Pallotti Institute into indispensable resources for laity in Rome, offers one example.

Nicoletta Gaida presents another.

Gaida, born in Tacoma, Wash., and fluent in four languages (including Italian), was once a rising theater star. At age 23, she won Italy’s best actress award for her performance in a musical called Cinecittà. The more she climbed the ladder, however, the more she realized that her spiritual understanding of the craft was not always shared by her audiences.

Or as Gaida put it, “All they were looking at was my legs.”

That frustration led her to seek a way of blending art with her interests in spirituality and dialogue, which prompted the creation of a theatre festival for Third World playwrights in 1991, and eventually the Centro Dionysia in 1998, dedicated to dialogue among peoples and across cultures.

Gaida, 41, is sort of a Horatio Alger of the nonprofit sector. Having nothing but an idea, she convinced the region of Lazio and the city of Rome to give her a dilapidated property on the Via Aurelia Antica, overlooking the Vatican, called the Villa Piccolomini (named after Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini). Although the last Piccolomini had stipulated that the property should be used to support the arts, many a well-connected Italian realtor no doubt had dreams of converting it into condos or shopping outlets.

How did Gaida pull it off?

She takes her Roman Catholic faith seriously, and having read John Paul II’s 1994 letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, calling for creative approaches to the Jubilee Year of 2000, she marched off to see the Vatican’s man for dialogue with the arts. It happened to be then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Francesco Marchisano, who to his credit knew a good idea when he heard one. Marchisano backed her request to the Roman authorities, and in 1998, after a few other twists and turns, the Villa Piccolomini became the headquarters of the Centro Dionysia.

When she first walked on site, Gaida told me, she almost needed a machete because it was so overgrown. Today, the villa is one of Rome’s truly beautiful spots, a tribute both to her good taste and determination.

Since then, the center has sponsored important conferences on the Israeli/Palestinian problem, human rights in the Islamic world, the Balkans, and Christian/Jewish relations. In every case, the performing or visual arts were connected to the initiative. Gaida is currently planning an event on UNESCO’s declaration on “human duties and responsibilities,” a companion to the U.N. declaration on human rights.

Gaida may slow down just slightly in coming months, since her main project is her brand new baby boy, Milo Joseph. Yet those who know her dynamism expect that the show will go on, and Milo will become part of the act.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 2003

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