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June 26, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

Laity, Leadership, Justice and Joy

rome pic for nalm

Sunset over St Peter’s Basilica

To the hard working members of the board of the National Association for Lay Ministry (NALM) and particularly to board chair Mark Erdosy, thank you for the invitation to be with you. I have a particular love for this important association supporting lay ministry. I hold the role of the laity in the life and vitality of the church in a preeminent place. Your mission is crucial. There is also a nostalgic reason I care deeply about NALM. Forty years ago when NALM was created, our family’s foundation, the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, had the great privilege of being one of your earliest donor partners. NALM was founded within a year of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities). I have literally grown up post-Vatican II with both of these important networks informing my life, vocation, ministry and service to the church. I thank you deeply for your important influence.

Full disclosure: For as long as I have been aware, I have passionately loved the church and held its potential in the highest esteem. Its explicitly religious mission has formed the person I am today. That it is the largest humanitarian network in the world renders me forever committed to its health and vitality.

This is neither blind love nor infatuation, but love borne of time and gratitude and possibility. The more I am engaged in the life of the church, the more I become aware of its history, its mission, its ministries and its capacity. The church has ennobled me, and at times broken my heart.

Seventy-two years ago, our great grandparents, John and Helena Raskob, established a private family foundation with two intentions. They wanted all of the foundation’s resources to be used exclusively to support the Catholic Church throughout the world and they wanted their children and descendants to be stewards of the foundation’s resources. All participation is voluntary, non-remunerative and understood to be a serious commitment of time, focus and engagement in the life of the church.

Today there are nearly 100 members, all descendants of John and Helena, actively engaged in the work of the Raskob Foundation. It has been an uncommon privilege to serve the church in this way, with the unanticipated, beneficial consequence of evangelization for our family.

Our faith lives are stronger because we have had the opportunity to meet, learn from and support some of the most inspiring, generous, effective people the global church has to offer. We have seen the very best of the church through the lens of your ministries.

Parenthetically, as a child I was drawn to women and men like you – lay, religious and ordained – who had dedicated their lives to ministry and pastoral care and social justice. I observed that while these childhood heroines and heroes often bore witness to the worst of what humankind does to one another and to our planet, there was a palpable sense of joy about them. They knew who they were, and whose they were. Their lives were imbued with purpose and meaning. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be like you.

At the Raskob Foundation we have also seen tremendous challenges facing the church and have been brought up to believe that we have an obligation to help solve those challenges, regardless of how difficult or seemingly insurmountable they may be.

A beloved professor, spiritual director and Sister of Mercy, once advised, “Remember what it is you most love about the church and membership in it. Name what you love. Claim what you love. It will provide ballast to allow you to navigate with fidelity and focus when you are disappointed and discouraged.”

I have taken this advice to heart and highly recommend the discipline.

My list is long and wide. I love our church’s rich intellectual tradition, social justice teaching, the community of saints, sacramental life and imagination, mercy, the Eucharist, the primacy of conscience, prayer and transcendence, forgiveness, the preferential option for the poor, the injunction to be Christ-like. I love that where there is human suffering, the church is at the vanguard of providing relief, promoting justice and advocating for peace. I love our Pope Francis – the world’s pope. I love that he has given us Laudato Si and despite obstacles and challenges, some inexplicably heartbreaking and gratuitous, it provides people of good will a seminal roadmap to care for our common home.

Good catechesis allows for the appropriation and cultivation of a mature adult faith to live out one’s faith in the world, the better to transform it through service and mercy, generosity and grace. This responsibility also extends to the church itself. Lay participation, leadership, generosity and active engagement in the life of the church are vital for its own transformation and mission efficacy. Exercising baptismal responsibility means actively contributing one’s gifts and expertise to strengthen the church.

Taking responsibility for the church, calling it to greater levels of holiness, accountability, transparency and trust is a responsibility of baptism. This understanding inspired Geoff Boisi to create Leadership Roundtable, a network of Catholic leaders whose sole mission is to help solve temporal challenges facing the church by harnessing intellectual, problem-solving capability, entrepreneurial acumen, contemporary best practices and a profound commitment to excellence and ethics.

Baptism is our gift. Exercising responsibility to ensure the church is welcoming, accountable, effective and the very best it can be is our right and our duty.

I have many examples of lay leaders who exercise their baptismal responsibility with breathtaking and compelling efficacy. I am going to name just eight to demonstrate the breadth and depth and diversity of lay contribution to the life and vitality of our beloved church.

Carolyn Woo, past president of Catholic Relief Services

Jack DiGioia, president of Georgetown University

Donna Orsuto, founder, Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas in Rome

Frank Butler, past president of FADICA

Arturo Chavez, president, Mexican American Catholic College

Ralph McCloud, director, Catholic Campaign for Human Development

Marie Dennis, co-president, Pax Christi International

Betty Anne Donnelly, co-founder, Catholic Women Preach

Think of these important apostolates and ministries and the exemplary leadership and faith that is manifest. Our church is blessed and blessed in particular by laity.

Although quite literally these were the first eight lay leaders that sprung to mind as I prepared my remarks for you, not surprisingly they all have certain qualities in common. They serve. They collaborate. They dream. And they evince joy.

Joy is a hallmark of the Christian life and faith.

How do we in our ministry and vocation cultivate joy?

We would do well to be aware. Pay attention. Be present. Don’t rush by any part of our wild and precious lives. Remember that we cannot protect ourselves from sorrow without also protecting ourselves from joy. Cultivate a merciful heart. Encounter people who are different than you. Accompany people who are in far greater need than you. Let you heart break by this beautiful world and our common humanity. In vulnerability we find joy.

People of faith, people of good will, are instructed to bear joy and to bear witness to joy even in the midst of oppression, suffering, poverty and broken-heartedness. This is not facile joy, but joy that comes from faith, faith in God and faith in something larger than oneself. This is the joy Msgr. Bill Stumpf elucidated in our opening liturgy, joy rooted in hope.

It is a spiritual discipline to cultivate. Faith that it is possible to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Faith that it is possible to correct unjust structures. Faith that it is possible to eliminate extreme poverty and inequality. Faith that it is possible to ensure potable water and food for all people. Faith that we can protect and care for and be good stewards of our planet, our common home. Faith that peace can be achieved, that reconciliation can be effected, that forgiveness can be extended.

How in the midst of communal and personal suffering can one access joy, let alone radiate it? It seems incongruous, if not impossible.

Life does not have to be perfect for us to find reasons to be grateful. In the midst of tremendous human suffering there can be found compassion, mercy, altruism and love. Be aware of such grace and human kindness. It is everywhere, even and especially when there is concomitant human anguish and loss. Rejoice in this. Gratitude begets gratitude. Blessings multiply. And the fruit of the habit of gratitude is that soon one experiences blessing where before one experienced only lament.

When we bear witness to joy we offer hope to a broken world. And the world needs hope. This is what you – the members and constituents and beneficiaries of NALM are about. This is what you do every day in your ministry. And our Church and world are better for your witness and example.

And you don’t need to be alone in this. This is one of the great insights the founders of NALM had in creating this association and supportive community.

Hopefully you saw Pope Francis’s surprise appearance by video at the recent TED talks in Vancouver. He said, “The future [has] a name, and its name is hope. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’”

We are a paschal people for whom suffering and death is never the end of the story. In our Catholic DNA, in our marrow, in our imagination is the conviction and experience that out of suffering and death can come new life.

Fifteen years ago our church was engulfed in the sexual abuse crisis. At the time I served as director of development for Yale’s Catholic Center. It was the most profound experience of lay – clergy collaboration that I have ever had. I worked in partnership for ten years with Fr. Bob Beloin, Catholic Chaplain at Yale and a priest from the Archdiocese of Hartford.

A major point of emphasis in our effort to raise money for Catholic campus ministry at Yale was the elevation of Catholic intellectual life on campus. Proudly we revealed to alumni and prospective donors that we were elevating and celebrating Catholic intellectual discourse, taking the topics of the day, illuminating them from the perspective of faith and inviting students into a dynamic discussion about the relevance and role of faith. Halfway through the Saint Thomas More at Yale capital campaign, quite dramatically and suddenly, and most certainly devastatingly, the topic of the day was the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

Nothing in our lifetime was more damaging, discrediting, heartbreaking or shocking about the church than these revelations.

It would have been tempting to admit our lack of culpability in the crisis and do nothing. Tempting, but not faithful. We knew that to do nothing is to be complicit. Instead we hosted a three-day conference entitled Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church to examine the underlining conditions that may have contributed to the crisis with a view to making a meaningful and positive contribution to our church. The conference was held in March of 2003. We hosted 500 people over three days, featuring 30 nationally recognized speakers including then Bishop (now Cardinal) Wuerl from Pittsburgh who opened the conference with an important keynote, followed by Peter Steinfels, religion editor at the New York Times. The subject matter was wrenching and yet everyone left hopeful. We all belonged to the church. This was our church, understanding the problems at hand was the first step, committing to being part of the solution was the second step, acting on that commitment was the third step. Participants left with the sense that it was possible, even if very difficult, to help call the church to greater levels of accountability and holiness. We could all play a role in making a positive contribution. And clearly the laity had much to offer, particularly in the areas of management of human and financial resources, contemporary best practices and solutions to complex temporal challenges facing church leaders.

Three months later in Memphis, Tennessee on June 7, 2003, I met Geoff Boisi who delivered an impeccable keynote to a prominent group of Catholic philanthropists convened by FADICA on the same theme, with remarkably consistent conclusions and with the same heartfelt motivation. Geoff wanted to help our church overcome what was properly understood as a managerial crisis. I was spell bound by his presentation, the content, the delivery and the respect he commanded by his presence, leadership and obvious dedication.

The best of Vatican II is personified in Geoff Boisi. He could have done anything with his time during this period of so much challenge for the church. An extraordinary leader and visionary, world renown for his financial and investment acumen, past chair of Boston College, member of the Papal Foundation, co-founder of Mentor, wonderful husband, father and grandfather, Geoff deserved some time off. But when his church was in crisis he did everything possible to effect healing and reconciliation. Exercising baptismal responsibility—not only taking his faith to make the world better but taking his faith to make our church better, Geoff founded the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.

It was a grand experiment that had never been tried anywhere in the world before this moment. And it is a comprehensive example of stewardship on the part of all of the baptized to care well for what has been entrusted to the church and to recognize the enormous potential before us.

Leadership Roundtable is an exceptional network of senior level leaders from all walks of life, all of whom are Catholic and committed to making a meaningful contribution to the church. It is comprised of ordained, religious and lay leaders from a diverse composite of sectors, industries, geographical regions and experiences. Senior level executive members come from the corporate, nonprofit, philanthropic, financial, communications, executive recruiting, marketing, academic, and other sectors including the church itself. When Leadership Roundtable was first created, 24 national Catholic networks- including NALM- whose own missions had a bearing on ours were identified and the chair or executive director was invited to be a member. It was extremely important that we not duplicate efforts, that we collaborate whenever possible, and that we not reinvent what has already been created but rather analyze whether we can build on such solutions, practices and protocols.

These women and men bring with them decades of successful leadership, problem solving ability, managerial expertise, financial acumen, sophisticated command of technology, and capabilities in marketing and communications. They value the church and want it to be strengthened. They yearn to contribute to the restoration of trust that had been so painfully shattered by the sexual abuse crisis. They want to help usher in a new day of ethics, transparency, accountability, best practices and excellence. They highlight the particular skill and expertise lay people have at their disposal and the importance of recognizing and inviting such expertise to strengthen the church.

Catholics are no longer solely an immigrant population in the United States. Thanks in part to the G.I. bill and access to quality education, Catholics have risen to levels of affluence and influence and now count among the highest echelons of leadership in every sector and industry. Given such vast leadership expertise, laity have been a wholly underutilized resource in the church. If there is any grace that came from the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. it is that it roused laity out of our lethargy and enkindled a desire to act on our convictions that a better managed church, a more transparent church and more accountable church, would be more effective at its mission, more faithful to its purpose.

Ordained and religious church leaders had rarely looked to laity for more than financial contributions. To ignore their considerable command of managerial expertise and problem-solving capability, their vocations of pastoral service, ministry and leadership, when it is clear this is what the church needs and can significantly benefit from is to be a poor steward of one of the most valuable assets of all.

Geoff knew this and set about harnessing it for the good of the church.

One of our founding trustees, Fr. Don Monan, SJ who died in March of this year summed up the urgency of our mission this way:

“Poor management of school systems issues in poor education. Poor management of courts of law leads to inferior justice. Poor management of corporations results in low returns for investors. Poor management of the church leads to compromised mission.”

We have particular charisms at Leadership Roundtable. We exclusively focus on the temporal affairs of the church and do not wade into doctrinal matters. We are intentionally positive and laudatory. We emphasize our convening capability. We insist on candor and charity. We prize collaboration. We eschew competition. We imagine how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit. We believe baptism confers rights and responsibilities. We think big and we never give up.

Thanks to Geoff and women and men like Geoff, today the church in the U.S. has at its disposal a remarkable network of committed Catholic leaders from diverse sectors and industries where Catholic philanthropic capital and Catholic intellectual capital is brought together to address complex contemporary temporal challenges. Social entrepreneurial rigor is encouraged for high impact solutions. Practical, canonically compliant solutions are the result; evangelization of the participating leaders is a byproduct. All assets are utilized, not only financial. Imagination and intellect, expertise and perspective play dominant roles in deliberations. Problems are addressed. Solutions are proposed. Action is taken. Effect is measured. Everyone benefits.

Of course we have much work still to attend to and one of our particular passions is equipping young adults for active leadership in the church.

Many young adult Catholics enjoy a positive experience of the church while they are in college, either because they attend a Catholic university or because they attend a secular university that has a vibrant Catholic campus ministry. Catholic students note the exceptional liturgies, relevant homilies, student participation, opportunities for service, and attention to helping them develop a mature adult faith that is both cognitive and affective. Why does the church lose such active participants when they graduate?

The prognosis has always been the same. “College graduates drift away from the church for a period of time. They move to new cities, start new jobs, and encounter neighborhood parishes with very few single young adults. We know that the church risks losing them for a time, but they will come back when they get married, have a child or experience a personal crisis.”

I have heard this all of my life. But surely this is not a good strategic plan.

Leadership Roundtable in partnership with Saint Tomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale created a curriculum and framework for preparing college students for meaningful leadership in the church immediately upon graduation. Leaders from across the country whose expertise was in young adult ministry, campus ministry, human resource development, leadership development, theology, canon law, ecclesiology and sociology were convened. A young adult leadership formation program was created called ESTEEM, Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission. Piloted on twelve campuses from Stanford to Yale and now in its seventh year, campus ministers invite “the best and brightest” young adult Catholics to participate in the yearlong program. Through retreats, seminars and guest lectures, students are immersed in ecclesiology, canon law, Catholic social teaching, intellectual, sacramental and liturgical life and leadership formation. Each student is paired with a mentor, a local leader whose field of expertise most closely aligns with the professional aspirations of the student. Mentors are on hand throughout the year for informal discussion on the role of faith in professional life, in vocational discernment, and in leadership. The most significant aim of ESTEEM, however, is to equip the student participants for meaningful leadership after graduation: by being appointed to a parish pastoral council, a diocesan finance council or the board of trustees of a Catholic nonprofit. ESTEEM’s vision is two young adults in leadership in every parish, diocesan office, and Catholic charity. If young adults see other young adults in meaningful positions of leadership they know that their voice and perspective matter. Young adults serving on boards will learn from older more experienced trustees, offer their own perspective on ways to strengthen mission and attract a new generation.

I am also passionate about elevating and celebrating the role of women in the Church.

This year to mark International Women’s Day, a remarkable celebration of inspiring leaders from across the globe took place in an unlikely setting: the heart of the Vatican.

The fourth annual Voices of Faith event was standing-room only but was live-streamed and therefore available to women and men all over the world. The theme was peace, the format was storytelling and discussion, and the purpose was to demonstrate the crucial and beneficial role women play in leadership and at the tables of decision-making when it comes to peace, or any other meaningful pursuit.

A panel discussion revealed the beneficial impact of including women along with men at the highest levels of leadership across all sectors. Corporations with women on their boards have a better return for shareholders; woman doctors are less likely to be sued for malpractice; universities, the military, the judiciary — all are strengthened by the presence of women in leadership and decision-making positions. And so it is with the crucial, urgent effort of peace-building.

The organizers of Voices of Faith love and respect the church and its mission. Appreciating the church as the largest global humanitarian network in the world, they recognize the enormous potential it has to address human suffering and complex global challenges. Their concern is one of urgency: to strengthen the church’s capacity to excel at its mission. The question at the heart of the matter is: how compromised is the church by failing to include women at the highest levels of leadership and at the tables of decision-making in the Roman Curia and throughout the institutional church? Mission matters. Best practices matter. Every institution in the world has accommodated and incorporated women in leadership — often reluctantly at first — only to admit the practical, tangible value of having done so. As many noted, the church risks being left behind if this isn’t addressed.

As the newly elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, SJ, remarked during the Voices of Faith event: “The opposite of clericalism is collaboration, working together as baptized daughters and sons of God … but if we are honest, we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived. That inclusion, which would bring the gifts of resilience and collaboration even more deeply into the church, remains stymied on many fronts.”

Those who care deeply for the church’s vitality and mission must ask: Given that young women know they can achieve the highest levels of leadership in any sector and industry, do they find role models at the highest levels of leadership in the church? Are there examples in the Sunday lectionary where women are the protagonists? Are there visible signs that women are included in decision-making within the church? How welcoming are we as a church to young women and their considerable talents and abilities? And what do we lose if we lose their participation?

Let me end the way I began, with a heart full of gratitude for members of NALM, for lay leaders, for lay pastoral ministers and for religious and ordained leaders who value, support, help form and encourage the vital role of laity in our Church. Thank you for who you are and for all that you do. Thank you for calling us to be more loving, merciful, faith-filled people. As we take leave of one another, a quick checklist of useful maxims that contribute to a life of meaning, purpose and joy:

  • Be grateful.
  • Be aware and pay attention.
  • Serve others by being a beneficial presence in their lives.
  • Never add to another’s burden or take away their joy.
  • Notice and acknowledge even small details that bring you joy.
  • Laugh often and well.
  • Don’t waste one minute of your time being anything other than fully alive.
  • Think big.
  • Be generous.
  • Extend the benefit of the doubt to others.
  • Surround yourself with people who ennoble your spirit.
  • Mentor and encourage young adults.
  • Make sure the Church avails itself of the considerable talents of women, in leadership and in decision-making.
  • Celebrate collaboration and diversity everywhere, all the time. Seek it out with intention.
  • Know your priorities.
  • Remember that people of faith are confident in the future.
  • Begin each day with a little awe and enthusiasm.
  • Resist cynicism.
  • Celebrate what is right in order to find the energy to fix what is wrong.
  • Be the reason for someone’s hope each day.
  • Imagine abundance.
  • And every day, every single day, choose joy.


Kerry Alys Robinson, Global Ambassador, Leadership Roundtable

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