Entrepreneurship and Vocation: An Interview with Professor Andreas Widmer

When a person takes his first job, he may not know exactly where it will lead him one day.  At least such was the case with Andreas Widmer, whose experience as a Swiss Guard for Pope Saint John Paul II (and witness to this pope’s tremendous leadership qualities) guided him to be a successful entrepreneur, published author, engaged Catholic businessperson, and committed husband and father.  With a heart full of enthusiasm and wit, this unique leader addressed those gathered at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary for its 181st Concursus Exercises as the recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.  Drawing on his own vocational story, he inspired this year’s seminary graduates “to draw with broad strokes…to paint and to let God and his saints guide you when you are lost!”

As the seminary’s honorary degree recipient this year, Professor Widmer graciously agreed to participate in an e-mail interview with Seminarian Casual.

Photo Credit: The Catholic University of America

Seminarian Casual: Your experience as a Swiss Guard for Pope John Paul II shaped your life, both as a Catholic and a businessman.  What initially drew you to this specific service to the Church?

Professor Andreas Widmer: I’m embarrassed to say that it was not the faith at all. What attracted me to join the Swiss Guard is that I was very much into the military and wanted to become a bodyguard. I thought that was the coolest thing to do… and I still do. 😉

SC:  Your book The Pope & the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard chronicles the principles of leadership to be learned from the example of this remarkable Saint. In your estimation, what are Saint John Paul II’s greatest attributes that set him apart as a model for Catholic leaders and businesspeople in the world today?

AW:  John Paul prayed daily to ask the Holy Spirit to allow him to see the people he meets the way God sees them. I think that this accounts for the experience most people had when they met him or saw him: that he focused 100% on them, that he was fully present to the person in front of him.

SC:  Many in our parishes serve the local and global communities as businesspeople.  You articulate an intimate connection between the vocation of business life and our baptismal call to holiness, the way in which work fulfills us as human beings.  How does one begin to integrate the faith with his business life, connecting career and mission?

AW:  In terms of business as a vocation, what I’d like businesspeople to realize is that when we work, we don’t just make more, we become more – more fully human. When we work, we turn thoughts into physical realities. That is something spiritual; it’s a participation in God’s creative power. This creative participation, together with discipline, patience, exercise of skill, and learning to cooperate with others: all these things make us grow. This growth in virtue and perfection makes us more like God.  It’s a path to holiness.  That is why we can say business is a vocation.

SC:  You have compared the entrepreneur to “a person who sees an additional color,” one who has the “talent of seeing patterns where other people see chaos.”  In what ways can parishes cultivate this kind of skill and creativity in the work of evangelization?

AW:  Entrepreneurship in the setting of evangelization is, of course, different than it is in business. In evangelization we are not focused on producing a product or service. We are trying to help create an environment for people to fall in love with God. In order to do that, we aim to have the people we meet experience our love for them first. I think that’s the core of evangelization. It is to a large extent the work of the Holy Spirit, not ours. But just as in other work, we can become collaborators with God. That is where the entrepreneurial spirit comes into play: we can think of ever new ways to reach out to people, to create opportunities for them to experience being loved, experience their dignity. Entrepreneurs are dreamers at a certain level; they imagine how things could be better, they don’t settle into the status quo. So to the extent that a parish forms its members to have zeal, to be constantly looking for ways to reach people, attentive to notice what they need, then that’s where entrepreneurship and innovation can play a role.

But in my experience, it is critical to remember that our effort is more than matched by the Holy Spirit, so it’s key to not try to “outdo” God and get—in a sense—too innovative. The key to evangelization is for us to hear the Word of God and to experience His love.

Catechesis is maybe a place where entrepreneurship can play a larger role because it contains the key part of conveying to someone the teachings of the Church. That can and must, of course, be done in very innovative ways. The attention span of our generation does not seem to lend itself to sitting and listening or reading for an hour. So innovative ways of teaching in all kinds of media are critical here.

SC:  You are described as an avid reader.  Do you have any book recommendations for seminarians?

AW:  More than you have space to print! 😉 but let me recommend three I just recently read:

  •  Benedict XVI: Last Testament with Peter Seewald
  • Unrepeatable by Luke Burgis and Joshua Miller (full disclosure: Burgis is a colleague. But it’s still a terrific read about vocation in the broadest sense).
  • Leon Harmel: Entrepreneur as Catholic Social Reformer by Joan Coffey

… And three of my all time favorites:

  • Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla
  • Introduction to Christianity by Josef Ratzinger
  • The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin

SC:  This past presidential election showed that millennials have strong opinions on economic issues.  However, this largely includes a rejection for capitalism and a call to address the issues of wealth inequality in the United States.  How should we respond to this phenomenon from a Catholic perspective?

AW:  Just as Saint John Paul did: and it depends on what you mean by “Capitalism.” I don’t like the term myself. It’s misleading. The Church does not prescribe in matters of Social Doctrine. She only provides a mental model, so to speak. She tells us how to think about issues but does not conclude that we ought to have this or that economic system. That said, my own opinion is that the rule of law-based free market economy would best incorporate the social teaching of the Church in the post-industrialization knowledge economy. But we have to be very clear: we do not have that system currently. What we have now is a kind of crony capitalism run by big conglomerates and big government working together. That is what people currently think of as “capitalism” and to be suspicious of that cronyism is a good instinct, even if the proposed solutions aren’t very persuasive.  

Our economy is not really “free” and most people feel that. The winners and losers are too often pre-determined. I think this is in essence what Pope Francis is talking about when he criticizes the system and calls us to conversion.

  At the same time, it is important to not call the glass half-empty but realize that it’s half full: Our standard of living in any respect greatly exceeds any previous generations. According to World Bank numbers, 37% of the world’s population lived on less than $2 per day in 1990, compared with 9.6% in 2015. That is a 75% reduction in extreme poverty in less than 25 years. You would never guess that based on the news you hear, and no one who wants to see every human being lifted into a life more commensurate with human dignity should want to destroy the system that allowed that to happen. Whatever the flaws we have in the world economy today, it’s important to recognize that we are indeed moving in the right direction where poverty is concerned, even if we could do it better or faster, and even if there are other problems to address.

SC:  Assisting the poor is part of our mission as the Catholic Church.  Many grapple with serious questions about the difference between acts of charity and lasting efforts to reduce poverty.  How should the Catholic community (both at the parish and diocesan levels) work to address poverty relief efforts so to meaningfully make a difference?

AW:  I think it’s useful to make a distinction between how you help in a crisis and how you help in “ordinary time,” so to speak. Aid to people in humanitarian crises is a Christian, even a human, non-negotiable. But a crisis is by definition time-limited, and what is charitable in a given situation is different as a person or community transitions from crisis mode to a stable situation. Then we must make the shift from acting out of sympathy to empathy.   

  When I say ‘sympathy,’ I mean an emotional identification with someone else that leads me to step in and take actions on behalf of another person. “Empathy,” by contrast in my scheme, describes a mutual relationship between people that springs from the ability to see a problem from the other person’s perspective without actually making the issue one’s own.

  It’s similar to counseling, where sympathy is seen as a reaction to be allowed only in the utmost emergency and only for a very brief period of time. Taking action on someone else’s behalf crosses a line. It infantilizes them, making me into a parent. In life and death situations, it can be the only right thing to do. But as the crisis passes, the goal is to enable the person quickly to become self-determined again. Once someone is on his or her feet, the addressing of long-term issues can start. This is where sympathy becomes destructive and demeaning. What is needed in the stable phase is empathy: To feel with the other person, to listen and encourage self-reflection, maybe offer guidance to address long-term issues, and encouragement to change negative patterns of behavior. This only works if the person works out of his own free will and determination.  I am convinced that this same concept holds for societies and nations.

  Humanitarian crises are usually compounded by the fact that they tend to happen in the poorest countries. The initial crisis is usually severe and pressing, but temporary. The economic issues, however, are more profound and linger. 

  I think that the counseling analogy should work very well here too: Emergency humanitarian issues should be addressed in sympathy: the international community should step in and save lives and help rebuild critical infrastructure in the short term. Economic issues on the other hand should be addressed like long-term counseling – with empathy, not sympathy; with self-initiative, not command from the outside.

  But if the last 50 years of transition from disaster relief to economic relief are any guide, that is exactly where we tend to fail in helping people get on their feet. Usually, the same organizations and teams that focused on the humanitarian crisis stay behind to tackle the economic issues. Maybe not the search and rescue teams, but the infrastructure and rebuilding teams.  With a lot of good will and intentions, we will to a large extent continue to act out of sympathy and tackle the issues at hand and make the key decisions. Except that when we cross that threshold, we start to do more damage than good. We become part of the problem, not the solution. What we do in our economic aid efforts becomes parental. It turns into a de-facto neo-colonialism. 

  Local entrepreneurs and business people have to be encouraged, empowered, included in our networks of productivity and exchange. Outsiders can help in pressing the government for the security of property rights, rule of law and open competition, but no one from the outside is going to build another country’s economy. Economic prosperity is always home-grown.

SC:  Through this book, as well as previous writings and addresses, you speak of the leadership examples of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  What can we learn from Pope Francis’s pontificate these last five years about leadership and business?

AW:  I wrote an article on this very question: “Pope Francis on the Health of your Company” (https://catholicbusinessjournal.biz/content/pope-francis-health-your-company), if I may refer you to that as my answer. A key aspect of his style is seen also in his approach. Francis is not linear in his words or actions. He takes a multi-pronged approach and is in that sense unpredictable. He keeps people on their toes. He can be tough in his evaluation of things, but he has a coach’s heart, as in this quote of his I like: “But always think this: do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid of falling. In the art of walking, what is important is not avoiding the fall but not remaining fallen.”

SC:  To meet the demands of diocesan parish ministry, newly ordained men are becoming pastors sooner and sooner.  What is your advice to young pastors as they assume the spiritual and managerial demands of parish leadership?

AW:  Good thing you asked! My friend, and also ex-Swiss Guard, Mario Enzler offers a Pastor-MBA at CUA. (https://www.catholic.edu/academics/online/meam-in-ecclesial-administration-management/index.html) It’s a one-year, mixed in-person/online class for priests that prepares them for effective and efficient parish and diocesan leadership.

SC:  What brings you the greatest joy in life?

AW:  Being with family and friends.

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