Pope John Paul II meets Swiss Guard Andreas Widmer in this undated photo taken during the guard's service at the Vatican, 1986-88. Widmer's book, "The Pope and the CEO," explores the leadership lessons he learned from the pope. CNS/courtesy of Andreas Widmer

Business acumen: How one Swiss Guard found inspiration in late pope

By  Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
  • May 27, 2012

VATICAN CITY - Some might find the Vatican an unlikely teacher of business management, especially these days, given the ouster of the Vatican Bank's president for negligence and a leaked document scandal alleging corruption and incompetence in the Holy See.

But according to one former Swiss Guard, the years he spent protecting Blessed John Paul II yielded life-changing lessons for a career in business.

Andreas Widmer, a 6-foot-9-inch Swiss-born financier and entrepreneur based in Boston, said watching how the late pope lived his life showed him that business and faith can go together.

Blessed John Paul emphasized "an integrated approach to life" in which earthly activities need not be divorced from spiritual enrichment, Widmer told Catholic News Service during a recent visit to the Vatican.

"There is a latent dualism that says, 'Over here in the spiritual realm, I can do a little bit of tithing, maybe a little bit of corporate social responsibility and then over here it's dirty business," he said.

Any dichotomy depicting the material world, especially business or work, as bad or below the divine "is not true; that's not an integrated Catholic approach to life," he said.

In fact, superficial trends supporting "social entrepreneurship" and "corporate social responsibility" actually reinforce the harmful dualism by perpetuating the assumption that only the fruits of labor and profits -- not the business practice itself -- can improve people's lives, he said.

Widmer served in the Swiss Guards from 1986 to 1988 and credits the way Blessed John Paul prayed, worked and interacted with the young guard for bringing him back to his Catholic faith.

Even after he left the guard to earn numerous business degrees and build a successful career, Widmer kept his eye and ear on the pope's teachings.

Key to his business ethos is Blessed John Paul's theology of the body, which integrated the physical and the spiritual, he said. Just like a marriage, a business has to be life-giving, respect human dignity and cooperate with natural law, Widmer said.

A manager or employer has to feel real love for his or her workers and clients, and needs to create an environment that prompts people to grow in holiness.

When people feel responsible for the moral and spiritual well-being of co-workers, clients and customers, not only does it help fulfill God's plan of salvation, "it's also a very profitable way to do business" and a clear way to avoid unethical practices.

"A good business cooperates with natural law," he said.

Despite the church's call for business and economic policies that protect human dignity, more needs to be done, Widmer said.

Perhaps the most startling evidence for this came when Widmer noticed that of the thousands of entrepreneurs he found who practiced good stewardship, "they were all Christian, and not one was a Catholic."

"Maybe the church isn't ministering to entrepreneurs. How many dioceses have a business ministry?" he pondered.

The teachings are there in the church's abundant magisterium, he said, but the church and many lay Catholics haven't quite figured out how to translate it into a language and format that's easily understandable to today's economists, entrepreneurs, bankers and the like.

The most general litmus test is to simply ask, "Do your services truly serve and are your products and goods truly good?" he said. That's the best way to describe the fundamentals to a room full of CEOs without needing to give a whole catechesis, he said.

But a wider, more intensive application of church teaching will require new ways of speaking to the world.

Widmer helped spearhead the Catholic Mental Models Project, which will study what business professionals around the world think specific Christian concepts, such as "social justice" or "preferential option for the poor," mean and how they apply to the real world.

He said he's applying to social doctrine the same kind of social science rigor he's had to use as a consultant to a company looking for what words to use to sell its detergent.

"Some people will be offended by this, but this is no different from what Paul did in Athens," when he sought to couch Jesus' message in ways the local people would understand, Widmer said.

He added that he hopes the online survey results will "supply the church with the language that will explain her ancient truths to people living in a market-based economy."

Another way Widmer is working to fill the gap is by spreading his corporate and spiritual experiences through blogging at www.thepopeandtheceo.com and via Facebook and Twitter.

They are companion lessons to his recent book, "The Pope & The CEO: John Paul II's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard." The 150-page book uses amusing anecdotes, serious business experience and questions for reflection to bring church teaching to life.

"John Paul motivated me to Christianity and I want to motivate others the same way," he said.

The book is not just for CEOs, he said, but is meant to help people understand and live out "servant leadership" in all their relationships as family members, friends, workers and members of society.

"Part of what I'm trying to do is be a coach, I want to motivate, inspire and teach to help people get to the next level."

He said it took him more than a decade to find a way to integrate his faith with his professional life and risked many relationships and profits along the way.

But his experience as a guard and dedication to learning what the church had to say showed him what true leadership is with all the benefits of a happier, more rewarding life, he said.

"Business is a force for good," Widmer said. "We don't just make more, we become more."

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