Former Irish president reflects on The Lay Centre mission

Mary McAleese is the former Irish president and an alumna of The Lay Centre.

Mary McAleese is the former president of Ireland; she resided at The Lay Centre in 2012.

By Mary McAleese

I remember the Second Vatican Council, God help me, and the surging spiritual and intellectual energy it evoked, particularly in its rediscovery of the laity and their right to be deeply involved in the Church’s mission of teaching, serving and sanctifying. To make real that new vision for the future of the laity in the Church was and remains the work of generations. It has been, to quote Ladislas Orsy, “a slow burn”, and to a great extent a journey into disappointment, especially for laywomen.

To have at the heart of Rome a place that encourages lay people to engage with the sacred sciences and supports them through their studies is hugely important. That it exists is down to the determination of its remarkable lay founders and its wonderful staff, who have kept The Lay Centre and its hopes alive. It gives a prayerful home to lay students, underpins a belief in the lay vocation and purposefully insists on the necessity of that other great, now becalmed adventure, of the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism.

During the first half of 2012, I shared a communal life at The Lay Centre with Muslims, Orthodox, Eastern-rite Christians and Catholics from other cultures. We ate together, debated, prayed together, walked to university together, helped one another through the Roman and institutional bureaucracies, befriended each other although strangers and made each other feel at home.

The Lay Centre has become synonymous with ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. It is a place where people of different faith traditions live out that dialogue respectfully, animatedly and daily. It works because human beings are so curious about one another and have so much to offer each other, but opportunities to live in such close quarters in a safe but challenging environment are very rare.

The Lay Centre helped us grow in understanding and in friendship—not neutral territory but a tested and tried welcoming space. It became first my physical centre of gravity and then my spiritual centre of gravity in Rome. It still is. I left The Lay Centre, but I have returned many times and it has never left me.

Two years after having lived there, I am pleased to say I am now The Lay Centre’s alumna, friend, supporter, offspring and more! 

Mary McAleese was a law professor at Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University of Belfast, before serving as president of Ireland, from 1997 to 2011. Upon retirement from office, she enrolled at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where she obtained a licentiate in canon law and is now studying for a doctorate on children’s rights in canon law. She has authored three books and numerous articles.

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