Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas marks 30 years in Rome

The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas has promoted ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue for three decades

By Laura Ieraci.

In a city more than 2,770 years old, an organisation’s 30th anniversary is not something most people would consider notable — unless its impact has touched every corner of the globe.

This is the case of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, a Rome-based, Catholic-inspired non-profit institute that has worked tirelessly and quietly to build bridges of peace and dialogue with people from all over the world. With a mission firmly focused on forming lay people for leadership in the Catholic Church, as well as on promoting friendship and understanding among Christian denominations and different religions, the 30th anniversary of The Lay Centre is worth noting.

The centre’s closing event for its anniversary year last December — a packed conference hall, including Vatican diplomats, leaders of the Catholic Church and many millennials, for an evening with best-selling author and Jesuit priest James Martin — was a testament to the esteem and recognition the centre has earned in Rome since its modest start.

The Lay Centre was founded in 1986 by two Catholic lay women: Donna Orsuto, from the United States, and Riekie van Velzen, from the Netherlands. The meeting of the two in Rome was a matter of circumstance. Van Velzen, at the time, was working at the reception desk of an ecumenical hospitality centre called Foyer Unitas, where Orsuto was also working while studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Ladies of Bethany

Foyer Unitas, located at Piazza Navona, was run by the Ladies of Bethany, a Dutch religious order. Their mission had included hosting ecumenical observers in Rome during the historic Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which sought to re-focus the Catholic Church in its mission in the modern world.

When the Ladies of Bethany decided to downsize their efforts due to ageing members and changes in Rome’s municipal codes for guesthouses, Orsuto and van Velzen came up with the idea to keep the ecumenical and welcoming spirit of Foyer Unitas alive in a new initiative they called The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas. It would offer an intentional and international structured community for lay students studying at Rome’s pontifical universities.

The Lay Centre opened on 1 October 1986 on the Piazza Navona site, with nine students from three countries and four Christian denominations. Thirty years later – and following a brief period on the grounds of the Pontifical Irish College – the Lay Centre has moved to the Coelian Hill property of the Passionist Retreat of Sts John and Paul, amid secluded gardens near the Colosseum.

The Lay Centre inaugurated its 30th year with a lunch for ambassadors to the Holy See.
The Lay Centre inaugurated its 30th year with a lunch for ambassadors to the Holy See.

The centre hosts an average of 22 students and visiting professors per year from various countries, Christian denominations and religious faiths, and its co-founders Orsuto and van Velzen continue in their respective roles as director and administrator.

Since its opening, nearly 300 graduate students and visiting professors from more than 60 countries have called the centre home during their time in Rome. Many of the students who have lived at the Lay Centre have gone on to teaching or research in universities worldwide. Some hold positions as deans of Catholic universities. Others are working in various leadership roles within the Catholic Church in their countries of origin.

Mission of lay people

Many of the former residents have become theologians and together we have been able to reflect more profoundly on the role and mission of lay people in the Catholic Church and in the world,” said Orsuto, a professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University and recently-appointed consultor to the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship.

I really believe what Pope Francis says about the future of the Church depending on the laity,” she said. “I believe that lay people have an important contribution to play in the future of the Church.

I also think that the young scholars who stay at the Lay Centre, through their friendship with one another, build up important networks of dialogue and peace,” she added.

Role of the laity

The mission of the Lay Centre has expanded over the years, from solely providing a community to lay students to offering faith formation programmes for English-speakers living in Rome — more than 180 such programmes to date – through its Vincent Pallotti Institute, named after the 19th-century saint who spent his life in Rome promoting the role of the laity, over a century before the Second Vatican Council's document on the importance of the laity in the Catholic Church. It has also organised or facilitated more than 220 educational programmes for visiting groups of students, professors and retreatants from around the world.

Local and international programmes combined, some 12,000 people have come through the doors of the Lay Centre in the past three decades.

Spirit of hospitality

Over the years the Lay Centre has also reached out more to people of various Christian denominations and religions, said Orsuto. “The Lay Centre has always had hospitality, welcoming the other, as its focus,” she said. “We have deepened that initial inspiration by welcoming people from other religions.

There has been a marvellous mutual exchange of gifts. The opportunity to welcome people from other religions has been key,” she said.

To date, this spirit of hospitality has allowed The Lay Centre to welcome residents representing 13 religions, including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, and T’ienti Teachings. Among the Christians, the majority have been Roman Catholic. However, other Christians have included Anglican, Coptic, Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox, Reformed, Syro-Malabar and Chaldean Catholic.

Yearlong celebration 

A number of events were organised throughout this last year to mark the 30th anniversary. These included a benefit evening in Washington, DC at Georgetown Visitation on 1 February. Celebrations in the spring included a conference in Rome in May on the theme Justice and Mercy: Christian and Muslim Perspectives. The event was held during the annual programme of the Cambridge Muslim College and the Center for Islamic Theology of the University of Tübingen in Rome.

The Lay Centre hosted a colloquium involving the Cambridge Muslim College and the Center for Islamic Studies of the University of Tubingen in May 2016.
The Lay Centre hosted a colloquium involving the Cambridge Muslim College and the Center for Islamic Studies of the University of Tübingen in May 2016.

Three interwoven anniversary events in July highlighted the past, present, and future of The Lay Centre. A colloquium, co-sponsored by the College Theology Society – a Roman Catholic organisation of lay and religious teachers of undergraduate theology – and the Lay Centre, gathered theologians and academics in fields of religion to discuss the theme Full, Conscious, and Active: Lay Participation in the Church's Dialogue with the World. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States, gave the keynote address.

Orsuto said this past summer’s colloquium was among her favourite moments of the previous three decades. Another highlight for her has been “welcoming our Muslim friends from Cambridge Muslim College and the Center for Islamic Studies of the University of Tübingen.”

However nothing compares with the daily sharing “with people from every part of the world” at mealtimes, in conversation and in prayer,” she said. The daily “dialogue of life” that occurs among Lay Centre residents is the hallmark of the life and mission of the centre.

Future mission

Given the growth and accomplishments over 30 years, the Lay Centre board and staff decided to take some time this past year to reflect on its future mission as a small organisation and on how best use its resources. While some re-focusing is underway, Orsuto said, the commitment to the centre’s fundamental mission remains the same.

As we launch into the next decade, we have come to the conclusion that, more than ever, the Catholic Church and society need well-trained leaders, as well as men and women committed to dialogue,” said Orsuto.

Looking ahead, Orsuto said she hopes the Lay Centre will “continue to draw lay men and women from every part of the world, who will excel academically and who, through their experience at the Lay Centre, will develop into leaders promoting ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.”

Some events in 2017

With this in mind, the Lay Centre invites readers to join them for lectures and conferences in early 2017: on 21 Jan it hosted a talk by Bernard McGinn, a theologian affiliated with the University of Chicago, on What is mysticism and is it for every Christian? On 16 February the six-week Thursday morning lecture series started offering reflections on different approaches to the theme Welcoming the Stranger.

The centre will round off March with the annual Lenten retreat led by James Corkery SJ and the closing Mass will be celebrated by Rev. Paul Gallagher. For more information about future events and to learn more about The Lay Centre, please contact the centre directly through its website. You will receive a warm welcome.

This article was published in the February 2017 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.