A fruitful partnership
In the mid-1940s, a young Polish priest named Fr. Karol Wojtyła earned a doctorate after studying at the Angelicum in Rome. While this is not terribly remarkable in itself, the great gift of being able to study in the Eternal City was not lost on the future Pope St. John Paul II.
Fast forward to 1998 when John and Carol Saeman, members of Legatus’ Denver Chapter, offered John Paul a gift of $5 million with matching funds from the Papal Foundation. The future saint asked that the funds be used to help seminarians, priests, religious sisters and laity from disadvantaged countries to study in Rome.
“It was his idea,” John Saeman told Legatus magazine. “The logic was that as a young seminarian in communist Poland, he didn’t have the resources to study in Rome. He had benefactors, and he wanted others to have that opportunity made available to them as well.”
Solidarity with the poor
The Papal Foundation, which administers the John Paul II Scholarship Fund, was born out of a tremendous financial need at the Vatican in the late 1980s. A group of lay people, together with Philadelphia’s then-Cardinal John Krol, New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor, and Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, founded the organization to help stabilize the Vatican financially.
The first grants went to Vatican Radio and the Vatican’s publishing house. But the Papal Foundation quickly grew into far more than a fundraising arm for the Holy See.
“Our members — the Stewards of St. Peter — are an incredibly generous and faithful group of Catholics who understand that the needs of the Church go far beyond the walls of the Vatican,” said Jim Coffey, the Papal Foundation’s vice president of advancement. “The Holy Father is incredibly adept at assessing where the need is greatest.”
Since it was established in 1988, the Foundation has distributed over $121 million at the request of the Holy See — including $15 million in grants in 2015. Each of the 160 Stewards of St. Peter have pledge $1 million to the fund, which now stands in excess of $216 million. Grants support housing, hospitals, educational institutions, and pro-life programs around the world.
Most of the requests for grants come from developing countries where Catholics have little access to loans or wealthy donors. Grantees apply via their country’s papal nuncio — the Vatican’s ambassador to the country. The nuncio forwards requests to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. The Papal Foundation board — chaired by Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl — evaluates the requests and allocate the funds accordingly.
“Our primary outreach is to developing nations,” Coffey explained. “It’s an opportunity to be in solidarity with brothers and sisters in need and walk hand in hand with them.”
Making a difference
One of the best examples of the Foundation’s impact is found at Villa de los Niñas, a school nicknamed “Girlstown” in Chalco, just outside of Mexico City. The school houses 3,000 girls from poor areas of Mexico. They are educated by the Sisters of Mary and return to their towns and villages upon graduation ready to work, create jobs and evangelize.
“It’s a great success story,” Coffey said. “The school has received two grants from the Foundation — including one for their computer lab.”
For the past four years, Legatus has teamed up with the Papal Foundation to offer an annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The final portion of the pilgrimage includes a day at Girlstown. This year’s pilgrimage takes place Oct. 21-24. (see Pilgrimage Event information here)
“We’re looking forward to our pilgrimage there this fall,” said Jim Longon, a Steward of St. Peter and a member of Legatus’ Philadelphia Chapter.
Longon said that he and his wife, Ann, knew that their retirement years would be spent serving the Church. They became stewards 10 years ago.
“When we sold our business, we knew all along that we were only using God’s money,” he explained. “If our business succeeded, it was only because God had things to do with our money. We had many opportunities to give money away, but deciding where it can do the most good can be as much effort as making it in the first place. Becoming a Steward of St. Peter was an easy choice.”
During the Papal Foundation’s annual pilgrimage to Rome in April, about 100 stewards and their guests enjoyed a private audience with the Holy Father where Cardinal Wuerl announced that the Foundation would grant $10 million this year to pope-approved causes.
“Through your generous support of diocesan, parish and community projects — as well as through providing scholarships — you assist many people to further respond to the local needs of their communities and to undertake ever more fruitfully their own works of mercy,” Pope Francis told the April 8 gathering.
“Your charity reverberates throughout the world, offering new initiatives that help to extend the merciful embrace of the Father,” he added.
The Foundation is a fruitful partnership of the laity and the Holy Father, Coffey said.
“It connects the Stewards of St. Peter with the missionary outreach of our Holy Father,” he said. “This is incredibly necessary, especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.”
For John and Carol Saeman, the opportunity to build the Church around the world is a joy beyond words. Their scholarship program brings about 100 future priests and leaders to study in Rome every year.
“One of our first scholars finished his doctorate in Rome and is now the spokesman for the Polish bishops’ conference,” Carol Saeman said. “Who knows, we may have a future pope or saint among them one day.”
PATRICK NOVECOSKY is Legatus magazine’s editor-in-chief.