Rome's Pontifical Universities: Not Just for Clerics and Religious

Interview with Donna Orsuto, Director of the Lay Center at Foyer Unitas

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ROME, NOV. 1, 2002 ( Twenty years ago, the classrooms of Rome pontifical universities were filled with seminarians, priests and men and women religious. Today, thousands of young people flock to those same schools.

One of the centers in which the laity reside is the Lay Center at Foyer Unitas, directed by Donna Orsuto, who is also director of the Vincent Pallotti Institute, which offers laity courses in Rome. ZENIT spoke with her about the mission of the laity in regard to Rome.

Q: Are Rome and her pontifical universities the right place for lay people?

Orsuto: Of course! Lay people in Rome have numerous opportunities that they would not have elsewhere.

First of all, lay students in Rome are privileged with academic opportunities that they might not find in their own country. For example, the pontifical universities have an international staff of professors and excellent library facilities, with books and journals in different languages.

Second, the experience of the universality of the Church is an education in itself. Encountering others from different countries and cultures broadens their horizons. Also, Rome is itself a classroom where one walks in the footsteps of the apostles, martyrs and saints.

Third, studying in Rome allows lay people to do their academic studies in an atmosphere that encourages “communio,” with an attitude described by St. Ignatius of Loyola as “sentire cum ecclesia.”

Finally, ecumenical and interreligious contacts in Rome allow lay students to share in a small way in the Holy Father’s passion for promoting Christian unity and to understand his commitment to encourage dialogue with people of other religions.

Also, some of the pontifical universities have made serious efforts to offer their students a program that integrates formation for both ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

Q: What are exactly the Vincent Pallotti Institute and the Lay Center?

Orsuto: The Vincent Pallotti Institute at the Lay Center is the Rome Branch of Education+Parish+Service Network [EPS].

Founded in 1978, EPS offers laity courses in Scripture and theology, together with practical insights into communicating faith, building community and serving others — at home, in the parish, on the job, in the civic community.

The Lay Center at Foyer Unitas, founded in 1986, provides, within a Roman Catholic environment, an international residential community that fosters the intellectual, spiritual and human growth of lay students pursuing degrees at pontifical universities in Rome.

Q: How do you help lay people develop a spirituality that integrates faith with everyday life?

Orsuto: For Catholic lay people studying here, it is important to encourage them not only to be committed to serious academic study, but also to be actively engaged in a life of prayer and service.

At the Lay Center, we try to offer our students various opportunities to do this through, for example, community Mass, liturgy of the hours and “lectio divina.”

This is coupled with service to those in the community and in the city. The simple task of serving others in community helps to promote a life of integration.

Through hospitality and volunteer work, this service is extended also to others outside the Lay Center. Academic studies are enriched when balanced with prayer and service.

Q: Do you believe that lay people could strengthen the faith of priests?

Orsuto: Whenever anyone in the Church fully lives their vocation, the faith of others is strengthened. We need one another, for we are all part of the body of Christ. So, yes, the witness of lay people can strengthen the faith of priests and vice versa.

Q: Which are the obstacles to live as a fully lay people?

Orsuto: I prefer to speak of challenge rather than obstacles. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to recognize Christ’s presence in the busyness of everyday life.

Using the image of the vine and the branches, the Holy Father notes that “the branch, engrafted to the vine which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity.

“In fact, every area of the lay faithful’s lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God, who desires these very areas be the ‘places in time’ where the love of Christ is revealed and realized for both the glory of the Father and service of others” [“Christifideles Laici,” No. 59].

The 12th-century mosaic in San Clemente, where the cross is portrayed as a tree of life and out of it are a vine stretching throughout the whole apse, offers a visual reflection on this.

Encircled within the various branches of the vine are not only some doctors of the Church, but also ordinary people caught up in their daily activities.

Their ordinary lives become extraordinary because they are nourished by the life-giving power flowing from the cross. Designed today, perhaps the mosaic would include someone working at a computer, a scholar poring over her books, or a mother nursing her child.

Having eyes to see this extraordinary grace flowing from Christ into our ordinary lives and the interconnectedness that we have with others in him is the greatest challenge for the laity.

Q: Do you think lay people have to be leaders in the Church?

Orsuto: Vatican II places great emphasis on the primary vocation and mission of the laity in the world where they are called to be like leaven, light or salt. Thus, the laity must fully embrace their civic, family, and work responsibilities in the world and seek and find Christ there.

The task of leadership in the Church has been entrusted to the bishops, who together with priests, are called by God to this ministry. Thus, the hierarchical structure of the Church is always to be respected.

Keeping this in mind, and with care to avoid the clericalization of the laity, there are situations where they laity are invited to put their expertise at the service of the Church — see “Apostolicam Actuositatem,” No. 10. “Gaudium et Spes,” No. 62, encourages laity to receive adequate theological formation and even for some to dedicate themselves professionally to these studies.

Also, those with scientific training and financial expertise can, at times, offer valuable services to the Church. Thus, the voice of the laity can be an enrichment because they have charisms that, when used in a spirit of communion, can build up the Church.

Q: Don’t you find that in the courses dedicated to … great Christian women to Christian spirituality, the audience will include only female students?

Orsuto: You refer to the course “Women at the Well: Witnesses to Contemplative Living.” The insights of these women are a treasure for all members of the Church — women and men alike.

Three of the women studied have been proclaimed doctors of the Church and their teaching has a universal significance. The courses at the Vincent Pallotti Institute are designed for laity and the majority of our students are women.

Having said this, let me add that we do have an international study week planned on Christian spirituality where the focus is on the contribution of Sts. Augustine, Benedict, Ignatius of Loyola and Vincent Pallotti to lay spirituality. It is a great joy to make the spirituality of both men and women writers accessible to interested laity.

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