Foyer Unitas was a ministry of hospitality operated by the Ladies of Bethany in Rome for nearly 35 years – just above the Centro Pro Unione and overlooking Piazza Navona. Asked by Pope Paul VI to provide lodging for the ecumenical observers at Vatican II, and then for other ecumenical and interfaith pilgrims to Rome, Foyer Unitas saw its share of Council fathers and peritii, from Cardinal Bea to young theologians Walter Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger.
When the decision was made for Foyer Unitas to close its doors in the mid-1980’s, two women who had been student employees assisting the Ladies developed the idea for a lay student residence to meet the obvious need for something like the Roman Colleges for the growing number of non-ordained, non-religious students at the Pontifical Universities. In 1986, co-founders Donna Orsuto and Riekie van Velzen opened the doors to the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas.
Tonight we celebrated the dedication and official inauguration of the new site of the Lay Centre, now located within part of the Passionist Retreat of Sts. John and Paul on the Caelian hill. With private gardens overlooking the Coliseum that had once been site to the Temple of Divine Claudius and Nero’s Nymphaeum, the remains of a 1st century aqueduct, and views of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, it is hard to imagine a better setting for prayer, study, and life in common.
Nestled in the Villa Celimontana next door is a small church San Tommaso in Formis (St. Thomas in Chains), served by the Trinitarian Fathers on the site of what was once a monastery and hospital operated by the order. (The original complex dates back 800 years, but the current church is early 20th century). This was the venue for our vespers, presided by the Most Rev. Brian Farrell, LC, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The site was chosen to celebrate the Trinitarian theme. The chapel of Foyer Unitas, dedicated on 7 October 1962, was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, as is the chapel at the new Lay Centre, dedicated on 7 October 2009. The Lay Centre’s Icon of the Holy Trinity, written in imitation of a XVII century icon, was originally blessed by Cardinal Bea along with the Foyer Unitas chapel and was prominent this evening during the celebration of the liturgy.
Bishop Farrell’s presence and preaching was particularly significant given the long history and relationship between the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and both the Lay Centre and Foyer Unitas. Bishop Farrell himself is a generous and patient man, the kind it is always a delight to serve with, liturgically. He lifelong commitment to ecumenism and support for the lay centre were also evident throughout the evening. Bishop Giorgio Corbellini, of the governorate of the Vatican City State also made a typically low-key entrance. Dressed only in a simple clerical suit (sans pectoral cross), he came back to the sacristy while Bishop Farrell and I were waiting for things to get started and I would not have recognized him without the introductions.
U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Dr. Miguel Diaz and his wife, Dr. Marian Diaz, were guests of honor, as the former theology professor made a brief address at the end of vespers on hospitality and dialogue (full text to follow). In addition, nine other ambassadors were present, as well as three deputy chiefs of mission, including:
- US Ambassador to the Holy See His Excellency Miguel Diaz & Dr. Marian Diaz
- Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See Her Excellency Anne Leahy
- British Ambassador to the Holy See His Excellency Francis Campbell
- Irish Ambassador to the Holy See His Excellency Noel Fahey
- Egyptian Ambassador to the Holy See Her Excellency Lamia Mekhekar
- Dutch Ambassador to the Holy See Baroness Henriette van Lynden-Leijten
- Australian Ambassador to the Holy See His Excellency Tim Fischer
Several Lay Centre Board members and honorary board members made the trip from the United States and elsewhere. Board Chair Nancy Lindsay, retired senior counsel of the World Bank, had been here in the fall with her nephew, Andrew, and is probably the most faithful reader of this blog! Ralph and Mary Dwan are a lovely couple from the D.C. area, where he is retired as an attorney and she as an educator. Joseph Lynaugh was in from New Jersey where he has served as CEO of a couple of companies.
The honorary board members included the English-speaking world’s most well-known Vaticanist, John Allen, Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter; Sr. Leideke Galema, 90, of the Ladies of Bethany who moved to Rome in 1960 to spend the next forty years of her life here; Retired U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See and former RNC chairman James Nicholson and his wife Suzanne.
Following vespers, the assembly processed from the Church of St. Thomas through the gardens of the Passionist Retreat to the courtyard at the entrance to the Lay Centre where Bishop Farrell concluded the rites with a blessing of the entry and the people. A reception followed, generously provided by Peggy Brennan Hassett and Jack Kehoe and wine donated by a Roman enoteca owned by Claudio and Silvia DiRollo.
The official dedication celebration continues this week with a special two-part Vincent Palotti Institute presentation by Dr. Aurelie Hagstrom, chair of theology at Providence College in Rhode Island, and Robert White, Assistant director of the Lay Centre, on “The Hidden Treasures of the Caelian Hill”. Fr. Donald Senior, CP, President of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago will preside at a liturgy in the rooms of Passionist founder St. Paul of the Cross on Friday evening. Residents and board members will join the Passionist community for Sunday Eucharist in the chapel of St. Paul of the Cross in the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul, followed by our closing lunch.
Whether Mt. Eyjafjallajokull will let anyone leave Rome is another question, however! We may have to continue celebrations into next week!