How Laity, Too, Can Get a Rome Education

Article excerpt

ROME - This city, in all its splendor, can be a bureaucratic, cultural and economic nightmare for the uninitiated as many laity who come here to study quickly discover.

Laity have never been on a level playing field with seminarians, priests and nuns when it comes to ministry. The uphill struggle is especially apparent here where foreign priests and nuns studying in Rome can count on the financial, psychological and spiritual support of their communities. Traditionally, they have had housing, meals, companionship and laundry services at the ready. They also have the backing of their superiors and local bishops. And above all, they have church jobs to return to when they leave Rome.

Not so with lay people, even 30 years after Vatican Council II lifted up their role and importance in the church. While anyone who has lived in the Eternal City knows that things take time here, there are signs of change. Some dioceses in the United States and elsewhere are beginning to underwrite the education and formation of lay people who then return to serve the church. And in Rome, there is Foyer Unitas, a center that increasingly serves as a welcoming beacon.

Located in a 17th century palazzo at the historic Piazza Navona, the Lay Centre is a simple setting. It offers housing to a dozen theology students who share a common sitting room, kitchen and chapel. In 1994 Lay Centre II opened near the Piazza Farnese with housing for six more students.

The students - whose average age is 27 - eat five meals together each week and gather on Friday evenings for eucharistic liturgy and shared supper. They take turns shopping, cooking and cleaning. Morning and evening prayers provide another opportunity for coming together.

Retreats, discussion groups and lectures also put many laity who don't live at the center in contact with one another as well as with professors from the numerous pontifical universities and institutes here.

Donna Orsuto, who runs the Lay Centre, sees its mission as one of "challenging its lay guests to grow intellectually and spiritually." Its residents, who have come from 16 nations - the majority from the United States - have returned to their homelands to serve the church as university and seminary teachers, as diocesan workers, tribunal staff, employees of bishops, conferences, a bioethical adviser for a medical center, pastoral associates and parish business managers.

During Vatican II, the Holland-based Ladies of Bethany opened a hospice for Protestant observers to the council and called it Foyer Unitas. The Dutch sisters grew older, as did the council documents. Meanwhile an American lay woman, Orsuto, who came to Rome to study theology in 1979, witnessed the struggles that other lay students had with housing, finances, with "learning the ropes in Rome," with loneliness and with the Italian language.

Along with her Dutch friend, Riekie Van Velzen, Orsuto founded the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas just as the sisters were preparing to retire. Late last month, the Lay Centre celebrated 10 years of providing an academic and community environment for lay theology students.

Aurelie Hagstrom, who lived at the Lay Centre from 1988 to 1992, called it "a laboratory of lay spirituality and a hothouse for the theology of the laity." Living with other lay persons from around the world taught Hagstrom much about "the vocation and mission of the laity," she said. This prompted her to choose theology of the laity for her doctoral thesis at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (angelicum) here.

"When are our bishops going to get on the bandwagon and invest in the education of lay persons and offer them a job when they finish their studies and formation?" Hagstrom asked. She relied on student loans and summer jobs to finance her Rome study.

Upon returning, she spent a year trying to find a job commensurate with her training. Today she serves as an assistant professor of systematic theology at the College of St. …