The Cardinal Newman Society thanks Andreas Widmer, director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America, president of The Carpenter’s Fund, and previous co-founder of the philanthropic SEVEN Fund organization, for taking the time to discuss his life and the intersection of Catholic education and business. Widmer served as a Swiss Guard protecting Pope John Paul II from 1986-1988 and wrote The Pope and the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard.
“I can’t wait to see the wonderful things you’re going to do with your life,” Blessed Pope John Paul II told 20-year-old Andreas Widmer. The Holy Father’s energy and love emanated from within as he spoke.
Dressed in a distinctly Renaissance appearance, Widmer protected the Pope as a Swiss Guard. He watched intently as the Pope lived his life in front of him. He eventually decided that “whatever he [Pope John Paul II] has, that’s what I want.”
In a January 6th interview with The Cardinal Newman Society, Widmer said that many college students might be in the “same boat” as he was in the late 1980s—perhaps not with VIP Vatican privileges, but searching for meaning and the important things in life.
“John Paul II found the balance between competing roles and priorities,” Widmer writes in his book, The Pope and the CEO. “He knew what mattered and why. He lived every day according to that knowledge.”
College students also have to balance activities like school, clubs, sports and social time. It’s important for them to learn how to prioritize, Widmer told the Newman Society.
“Either you determine what’s important to you, or somebody else will,” he explained. “You will either dance to your own drummer, or you will end up dancing to someone else’s, because dance you will.”
Business is in Widmer’s blood. His father and siblings were involved in business, and he was trained in a business apprenticeship and earned two business degrees in his home country of Switzerland. He was required to join the military for one year, and then afterward chose to join the Swiss Guards.
During this time, he met his American wife, Michelle—and so he moved to the United States. Widmer studied business in a university in the United States and then, “by the grace of God,” landed an unpaid internship.
Widmer says he “lived the American dream," starting from an unpaid internship to becoming the vice president of international operations at a company that was instrumental in bringing the internet to the PC.
But in the early 2000s, a company that Widmer was helping run was sold to a publicly traded company, and that company turned out to be fraudulent—in a matter of hours, $600 million dollars turned to zero dollars.
This business fraud caused Widmer to pause and question how faith and virtues can and should influence business. He asked, “Does the free market system have to lead to terrible situations like this?”
It also led to self-reflection. He observed a disconnect between his life on Sunday and his life during the week. He wondered, “What does being a Catholic have to do with business?
Widmer’s questioning and searching led him to a rediscovery of Pope John Paul II, years after his first experience with him. He delved into John Paul II’s writings, but this time he was looking at John Paul II with new eyes—those of a CEO studying the work of a leader.
At the same time, he decided to study theology at a seminary. He wanted tostudy theology based on the ministry that he was a part of—business. That way, the theological studies could actually play a role in the way that he conducted business.
Widmer discovered many “parallels” between theology and business. For example, he pointed out how “we are saved as a Church,” but there is also the “importance of personal virtue.”
In a similar fashion, he continued, “The [economic] system that we are a part of is a good system, and it works. But if we don’t have business that can be sustained by personal virtue and morality, then the whole system cannot function.”
In John Paul II’s “three leg stool” for a prosperous society, there is a participatory form of government, a free market based on the rule of law, and a public moral culture, Widmer explained.
“The fallacy of the day is that work is only measured in terms of productivity,” Widmer continued. “The most intrinsic good of work is the fact that when we work, we imitate God. The first thing that we know about God is that God worked—He created the world.”
“When we work, we don’t just make more—we become more,” Widmer reflected on John Paul II’s insights on business.
This vision of work has influenced Widmer’s expansive dealings with those in emerging countries.
“Poverty and unemployment are terrible things ,because it violates the dignity of the human person, but fighting it in terms of not allowing those people to work further violates their dignity… We need to enable them to live up to their potential. That’s how to fight poverty.”
Now students at The Catholic University of America (CUA) benefit from Widmer’s knowledge on the interplay between entrepreneurship, economic development and spirituality.
Widmer says that the program at CUA is unique, because it’s “pursuing a virtues-driven approach to business.”
The liberal arts foundation required at CUA is valuable, because it teaches students “how to think” and how to show “empathy.”
“Business people are those who create products and services…. Business is inherently ‘other-centered’… In order to be successful in business, you need empathy. And empathy is often taught very well in the liberal arts.”
In fact, a new master’s degree was recently created at CUA with liberal arts majors in mind. The Master’s Degree in Business Analysis can be completed in less than one year by non-business major students.
Widmer’s legacy continues in his family. Two of Widmer’s nephews have been “changed and moved” by the holiness of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, he said.
They’ve been impacted up close and personal—serving as Swiss guards to protect the Pope.
Widmer’s nephews are a reminder to him of his 20-year-old self, dressed in Renaissance apparel, when he “lacked confidence” but experienced the “attraction of the Christian faith” by watching Blessed Pope John Paul II live his life.
On April 27, 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope John Paul II will be declared a Saint. It will be another opportunity for Widmer to rediscover his Holy Father for a third time—and be encouraged to continue to strive for a life of service in business, education or wherever else the Spirit may lead him.
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