VATICAN CITY -- When I was asked by the Young Presidents Association to help organize a six-day retreat here for 80 Canadian business leaders, it all seemed to be wishful thinking. How would senior Vatican officials ever welcome such a mixed group (two-thirds are Catholics; the rest are Protestants from several churches and a Buddhist/Muslim couple)?
They specifically asked to learn about how the church maintains the "purity and quality control of its brand," how the organization keeps alive the founder's vision, and even how it uses modern methods of communications and public relations to get its message out. And of course they wanted to see some "signature products" of the Church and its history.
After nearly two years of planning, the Canadian YPO Vatican adventure began May 6. Thanks to a team of art historians and senior Church officials from Pope Benedict XVI on down, 80 Canadian businessmen and women now know something about what goes on behind the scenes here.
They did not encounter angels and demons, or unearth secret codes on art objects in the Vatican museums. Instead, they discovered the human face of a very old institution that continues to impact the world and influence the lives of millions.
We formally began the retreat in the Vatican Museums last Saturday evening, and slowly made our way to the Sistine Chapel where, left alone for a good hour, I addressed the group on how the church deals with succession of leadership.
Last Sunday morning, "Good Shepherd Sunday" in many Christian traditions, Archbishop J. Michael Miller gave a masterful homily that ended by showing how business leaders are most effective when they shepherd their flocks. Archbishop John Foley enchanted the audience with stories of how the Church strives to keep up to date with advances in communications technology. Pope Benedict personally welcomed the group by name at his weekly Sunday window greeting. And the group was treated to a lesson in Canadian diplomacy at the residence of Ambassador Donald Smith.
The retreat continued throughout the past week, allowing me to address the group in St. Peter's Basilica on the lasting significance of the Second Vatican Council. It was a moving experience to lead everyone to the final resting place of Blessed John XXIII, the author of Vatican II, and to the Vatican crypt for a moment of prayer at the tomb of Pope John Paul II.
Monday evening, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Primate of the Church in Canada, extended a warm invitation to the upcoming eucharistic congress in Quebec City in June 2008. (The pope is expected to attend.)
On Tuesday, in response to questions about maintaining the church's "brand," American Cardinal William Levada, the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the position held by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope), spoke to us about the work of the department that was once known as the "Department of the Inquisition."
More than anything else, this time in Rome taught me how much the church and the business sector must work together to exchange ideas, pursue learning and share strategies to achieve personal and professional growth as we transform the world into a more human place.
For 80 Canadian business leaders, the Vatican is no longer a small city-state shrouded in mystery or a prisoner of history. Together we went to the centre of Catholic tradition, met the people behind the names we see in the press, and hopefully returned to Canada with a greater understanding of why the church has lasted this long -- because it is built on a sure foundation.