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ROME — Karen Cortes Foong is a woman who believes she was chosen for the jobs she has – director of ongoing priestly formation for the diocese of Nottingham in the UK and a consultant for the Vatican’s office for clergy – because she was the right person for the task, and not because she’s female.
“I find that there are many women in good leadership roles within the Church,” Foong said. “I don’t know if the right word is ‘reticence’, but we don’t feel like we need to put ourselves out there, shout it from the rooftops, because well, one would like think we’re in the job because we were the right person in the job, not because we’re a woman.”
The daughter of a former ambassador to the United Nations, Foong is a Silicon Valley alumnus, and had originally planned on going back and resume her career once her children grew older, but “that never happened.” Instead, she began working for the Church after her parish priest recommended their bishop talk to her. This change of professional paths, she said, is not something she regrets.
“I think the work has not all been rosy,” she said. “But it has been very abundant in grace. It was different and very challenging, but good. My degree was in human development, and in Silicon Valley, I was a headhunter and worked in organizational and professional development. Being catapulted into the ‘world of Church’ was an eye opener for me. I knew where my expertise could help.”
She also said that even though there’s a “certain degree of truth” in call for the Catholic Church to apply good business practices, there’s also a need to “understand a tremendous amount of culture” that has to be considered.
“For instance, I have a friend who did her paper on applying business presentation skills to homiletics, and she didn’t understand why priests were almost insulted that she was even suggesting such a program,” Foong said. “Yet perhaps not every average Catholic understands that preaching is at the heart of priesthood, it’s a very personal thing. And going around telling priests who are pouring themselves out there that their style sucks won’t necessarily open doors for you.”
When it comes to how the Church handles its finances and its properties, however, she’s fully onboard with adopting proper business practices, but she doesn’t believe this should be a priest’s primary role: “We need to be able to form priests with an understanding of how to interface with professionals, without priests having to be one of them.”
“A lot of the time you see boys, who are great theologians and great pastoral ministers, but they’re really bad at business,” Foong said. “And there’s no ill intent. They just, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The Church’s central government, known as the Curia, is currently under reform, and according to the Foong, what they’re trying to do is similar to what the diocese of Nottingham is doing: “Take away all those business, administrative tasks, away from the priests, so that they focus on doing what they were ordained to do.”
A fundamental part of her job, she insisted, is making sure that the priests trust her, and this goes both for those at the bottom and at the top of the pyramid that is the Church’s hierarchy. Foong is convinced that not enough attention is paid to the ongoing formation for priests.
“I think we confuse ongoing formation for priests with continuing professional development and in service training and all that stuff, which is important that not saying it’s not important, but that’s only half of it,” she said. “The other half is helping them grow it and helping them find their way back to the Father. As an ongoing formator, my role is to provide priests with what they need to pass on the faith, because if we’re not in the business of handing on the faith, then we better close up show.”
She was first approached to help with priestly formation in 1998, in a part-time capacity. Soon, it became a full-time job, and since 2005, she’s been the director of the office.
Ongoing formation, Foong said, has “four pillars: The human side, the pastoral side, the intellectual side and the spiritual one.”
However important the courses are, she acknowledges that a big chunk of her time is spent having “supportive conversations” that provide priests with a “secure attachment,” because many of them are not only “alone, but also lonely. And though being alone – not married – is part of the deal, being lonely is not.”
“In order to be a good ongoing formation director, you have to put aside your own history and a lot of yourself, and be in humble servitude to the person who you want to help for,” Foong said. “And this takes a tremendous amount of humility. The temptation to ask them ‘what are you thinking? is great and needs to be avoided. We need to understand those we’re helping. And the other challenge, particularly for women, is the hurtful comments you’ll get from fellow lay people who reduce your job with priests to a tawdriness that is very bitter sometimes.”
When the conversation veers back to the topic of women in the Church, she says that it can often be a very “emotive one,” and considers that “all the banging we’re doing around this topic is energy that we could be using in a more productive and positive way.”
Foong’s argues that the term coined by the Second Vatican Council to refer to the priesthood – In persona Christi capitis, “in the person of Christ the head” – does not mean that Catholics are reflecting back to when Christ “walked the earth over 2000 years ago,” but that “he is with us now through all the sufferings and all the joys all the challenges. He’s here with us. And we forget that part. We’re not making the priest a revered person, on the contrary, we’re calling them to service, something often neglected.”
Asked about what advice they would give a lay person who’s considering a full-time job within the Church, she said she’d urge them to go in with their eyes “wide open, because we have to acknowledge the fact that there are some rotten apples in the barrel,” and to have a “soft approach, which doesn’t mean to be a pushover!”