For Students, a Home in Rome; Eucharistic Treasures

A Center for Laity Goes Beyond the Classroom

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, NOV. 11, 2004 ( At the multicultural pontifical universities, a Roman education is much larger than what one learns in the classroom. This conviction is what led one American laywoman to found a center that helps students make the most of their time here.

Back in 1986, while studying for her doctorate at the Gregorian University, Donna Orsuto recognized the «need for a place in Rome for lay women and men to live while they pursued their theological studies.»

«Rome is filled with seminaries, colleges and religious houses that welcome students who frequent all of the pontifical universities,» she told me. «But our Lay Center is the only institute that offers not only a home for these international lay students, but also a formation program to prepare them to better serve the Church and society once they finish their studies.»

Situated between the Colosseum and the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Lay Center at the Foyer Unitas Institute has a very particular mission which Orsuto briefly laid out for me.

«The center aims to provide, within a Roman Catholic environment, an international residential community; spiritual formation opportunities; and education enrichment to lay women and men who are studying theology at Rome’s pontifical universities,» she said.

«I am challenged by the opportunities we have to serve others in the community and beyond,» she said. «But what brings all of these together for me are those quiet moments of collective prayer, especially vespers.

«Our prayer together is simple and not always in the best Italian — and I even wonder whether God understands the heavily accented words that come from our lips. And yet, there is something sacred about our little flock from Germany, Ghana, Japan, Rwanda, Switzerland and the USA, joining the Church gathered around the world in this praise of God.»

Orsuto insists that the experience of living and praying in such a diverse community is an important part of the whole experience.

«Opportunities for informal ecumenical and interreligious dialogue are also an integral aspect of a solid formation,» she said. «Cultural exchanges, dialogue about social issues, and cultural visits also make a Roman education unique.»

The Lay Center is committed to promoting various forms of dialogue. Orsuto pointed to the example of a lecture it recently sponsored on «Catholic Education and the Reception of ‘Nostra Aetate,'» the Second Vatican Council declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions. There was also the colloquium on «Hunger in the World: A Dialogue Among Journalists, Theologians and Diplomats.»

Orsuto has also helped initiate the Vincent Pallotti Institute (VPI) which makes available a range of courses to anyone from anywhere.

VPI’s assistant to the directors, Robert White, explained how every Thursday morning, «a diverse crowd — from professionals, diplomats to parents — come to the center to learn more about the Catholic Church and its theological tradition so they may be inspired to live out their faith in their everyday lives.»

«VPI is a unique program offering lay people excellent courses in Scripture and theology throughout the year, together with practical insights into communicating faith, building community, and serving others — at home, in the parish, on the job, in the civic community,» White said. «Teachers at the institute are experts in these topics from a variety of pontifical universities.»

A glance at the program shows that one of VPI’s participating professors is the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald.

Another contributing professor, who just completed a series on the suffering and dying and who will now begin one on the Gospel of John, is Blessed Sacrament Father Anthony McSweeney.

Usually invited as a biblical scholar, he said that the experience teaching at the center is «challenging and enlightening» due to the fact that «lay people, as opposed to clergy, have questions which are much closer to the ordinary, everyday events from outside the borders of the institutional Church as such.»

«The fascinating cross-section and ecumenical presence among these students is numerable and keeps me on my toes as I try to translate theological terminology into one that is more practically comprehensible,» Father McSweeney said. «Quite the responsibility.»

White said that the VPI is also an English-speaking Rome branch of a U.S.-based program begun by Sister Julie Blande in the 1970s called EPS. «Her vision was to provide some kind of formation program for the laity as a response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for the participation of all the people of God … in the life and mission of the Church.»

This was the same general vision that Italian priest Vincent Pallotti had, thus inspiring the institute’s name. Among other things, this saint founded a program to incorporate lay people in the apostolate of priests. He began the special observance of the octave of Epiphany for the reunion of the Eastern and Roman Churches, and the return of the Church in England.

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Delving Into the Mystery of the Blessed Sacrament

Rome is known, among other things, for its immense quantity of Catholic resources. And during this Year of the Eucharist, some people are taking the opportunity to travel here, actively seeking the best, most accurate information on the Blessed Sacrament.

They do this in order to respond to the Pope’s call in «Mane Nobiscum Domine» to proclaim the Eucharist «in our streets and homes, as an expression of our grateful love and as an inexhaustible source of blessings» (No. 18).

Christine McCarthy is one of these faithful who was in town last week to promote the Italian version of her book of Eucharistic reflections, «Io Sono Sempre Con Voi» (English title: «I the Lord Am With You Always»).

During our meeting, she recalled that one of her last visits to the «heart of Christendom» had been with her youngest son to tap into the city’s resources.

«We spent days in libraries and bookshops, researching and compiling texts and finding the exact translations to the English prayers on the Blessed Sacrament,» she recalled.

Another point of reference that is available to McCarthy (and anyone) is the Center Eucharistia, run by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament.

Its director, Father Anthony McSweeney, told me how his team has the largest «biblioteca» filled with documentation and database bibliographies on the Eucharist. He also offers «any consultation for those working on books and presentations on this topic in various languages.»

Father McSweeney explained how the center’s personnel «also have a Web site that offers texts on the topic from the Bible, Church Fathers, papal teachings, etc. —

Given that the Eucharist is so central to the livelihood of the Church, Christine McCarthy desires to bring it to everyone.

She hopes her book «will be especially popular during this year as the Holy Father has asked us to concentrate on the true Presence, both at Mass and beyond. … This book is especially designed for those making their holy hour in front of the Sacrament.»

She recommends that people simply take a couple of pages and «mull over the prayer and meditation on one page, combining it with the scriptural quote on the other which unifies the contemplation.»

«The prayers,» she said, «come from the first century right through to the present day and there are a lot of references to ‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia’ in this new Italian edition.»

In 1993, McCarthy and some fellow parishioners in Australia founded the Society of Eucharistic Adoration.

«Our members make a holy hour once a week in front of the Blessed Sacrament for the intentions of the society which are for the Holy Father, for vocations, our families, our parishes, for the sanctification for our nations, seminarians and the holy souls in purgatory,» she said.

«Originally we were just a group of 20 people in my lounge room trying to encourage Eucharistic devotion in their parishes with varying degrees of success,» McCarthy recalled. «And now we have more than 2,000 members.»

This mother of six has traveled around the world in the course of her work on the Blessed Sacrament. Her Rome visit came just after she was a guest speaker at the International Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

«It was truly wonderful,» she said of the congress. «The spirit was one of extraordinary reverence and love for this sacrament.»

McCarthy believes that this spirit is spreading. «I think that amongst young people particularly, there’s a growing love for the Blessed Eucharist … though many don’t practice their faith, the ones who do are very strong and faithful to the magisterium. But we can’t sit back and wait for the spirit to move, we need to pray more before Jesus to promote this growth.»

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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