By Michael Novak and Elizabeth Shaw
Andreas Widmer doesn’t know what God has in store for the future, but he sees the marks of God’s providence all over his past. “God is constantly giving us a surprise party,” he muses, “and He’s saying, ‘Just wait and see what wonders I have in store for you next!’”
Andreas is a cradle Catholic, but he really did not make the faith his own until early adulthood. The post-Vatican II religious instruction he received growing up in the 1970s was not very rigorous. By the time he finished school, Andreas jokes, “I probably knew more about Buddhism than Catholicism.” But he does recall his First Communion as a significant event in his early life—the moment when he first sensed the palpable impact of the sacraments.
Through adolescence into early adulthood, Andreas was never hostile toward the faith. It just wasn’t a big deal to him one way or the other. At 18 he applied to be a member of the Swiss Guard, the elite group charged since the sixteenth century with the duty of protecting the pope. Anyone who has been to the Vatican knows their colorful striped uniforms and distinctive headgear. Andreas was accepted by the Guard and moved to Rome at age 20.
He describes the decision to join the Swiss Guard as “providential in hindsight.” At home in Switzerland he had been having trouble finding his niche. He was restless. Trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life, he just couldn’t find the right “fit” anywhere. With all the enthusiasm and bravado of a strapping, six-foot-nine young man, Andreas thought being a bodyguard was “the coolest thing in the world.” A glamorous, exciting job. Andreas was searching for his identity when he decided to apply to the Guard. “But,” he recalls, “what I found there, when I was looking for myself, was God.”
While in Rome Andreas had what he calls a conversion. One of the duties he had to carry out as a guard may have helped prepare him for that experience. Every guard has to learn to stand still, silently on watch at his post, for two to three hours a stretch, up to three times a day. Each guard on duty in this manner is accompanied by an older guard companion, who is permitted to move about and talk. Sometimes the older guard will pose thoughtful, probing questions: Have you ever thought about your life? What is your earliest memory? Think of each year… How have you experienced God? Andreas found that he really benefited from this opportunity to pause, both physically and mentally, for introspection. It may be a difficult discipline to master, but an invaluable one for spiritual growth.
As one of Pope John Paul II’s bodyguards, Andreas was in the privileged position to observe on a daily basis the private life of the real man, not the iconic public figure who routinely drew crowds of hundreds of thousands. And what he saw in the pope was so shockingly genuine—the depth and sincerity of his prayer, his words, his feelings, his peace. It did not take long for Andreas to conclude: “Whatever he has, I want it.”
Andreas was amazed by the pope’s very earthly connection to God, his ability to “read” God in the people and circumstances all around him. John Paul II was acutely sensitive to the situations of those in his presence, and he even reached out to Andreas personally. The pope, whom Andreas considers his “spiritual father,” encouraged him to pray the rosary and develop other “Godly habits,” including receiving the sacraments frequently.
Thinking back on his time with John Paul II, Andreas notices that this was his first experience of God’s providence at work in his life. “God really does take care of things; we just need to relax a bit,” Andreas reflects. We try to script our lives carefully, to plan, deliberate, and decide what we will do and when we will do it. But then we see things take a different turn. God intervenes. He calls us to be holy as he made us, not as we wish to be. So we need to be a little more naïve, a little more childlike. We need to stop trying to coax God to give us what we want. We need to start trusting in his benevolence, and cooperating with his will. Andreas uses a metaphor: “God and I are two people in a boat. I row, and he steers. he’s not going to row; I have to do that. But when I row, I have to trust him to steer.”
The pope’s spirituality was refreshing and uplifting, and it awakened Andreas to his first understanding of his vocation. In contrast to the downward-looking, authoritarian sense of God Andreas knew from his Germanic heritage, the God John Paul II showed him was more like a good coach—someone who wants you to be the very best you can be, someone who believes in your potential, has great goals for you and wants to help you achieve them.
From the pope Andreas discerned that God creates each of us the way he does for a reason: to be happy. We need to trust that, and to pursue our happiness by using our God-given gifts and talents. For each of us our vocation is something very real, very here and now, not something faraway or exotic. It’s not doing the most difficult thing you can think of. “God made me a hammer,” says Andreas, “so I have to look for nails!” Each of us is on a daily mission from God, and recognizing this fact underlines the dignity of our ordinary lives. Vocation is all about using what we have and acting in the circumstances right in front of us. That’s all God is asking of us, and that’s how we find our fulfillment and happiness.
With the encouragement of John Paul II, Andreas grew more serious in his prayer life, which led to a deepening, profound sense of the presence of God. Andreas began considering the priesthood. Perhaps he would try to become an Augustinian. His constant prayer was: “Lord, what would you have me do?” Then one day he met a young American student, Michelle, who was studying in Rome. Within moments, Andreas recalls, he knew he had met his wife-to-be. But he didn’t speak English, and she lived in America. No matter. Andreas had learned from John Paul II to be more open to God’s will. “God has speaks to me through the events in my life right now. He put this person in front of me and I have sincere feelings and peace about it,” he reasoned. “This is what he is calling me to do now.”
So he left Swiss Guard in order to pursue Michelle. He moved to Boston, and he matriculated at Merrimack College. There he learned English and got a degree in business. Michelle finished college. The two married shortly thereafter.
Andreas was cooperating with God’s plan for his vocation. Along the way he discerned a new “Godly desire”—a good desire, implanted in him by God—to provide for his wife and the family they might have together. He also heard God’s providential voice speaking to him through Michelle. In the months before they married, she counseled Andreas to take an unpaid internship. “Don’t worry about money,” she said. “If you do good work you’ll get paid in due time.”
Andreas followed her advice and took an unpaid internship at a high-tech firm in the Boston area. He didn’t have much expertise on the tech side of things, but his language skills made him invaluable to the firm. (Andreas speaks German, English, Italian, French, and some Spanish.) Here he was applying the lesson on vocation he had learned from John Paul II: “All I need to do is to pursue excellence at work—at what I know and can do well.” Just trust in God, who made me this way for a reason, and who made me to be happy. This gave him confidence and a sense of peace.
Over the next several years Andreas found enormous success at a handful of other tech companies. His vocation in business was wonderfully fulfilling. He loved the creative process of building and growing a company. But he found out the hard way that business can be very powerful and very dangerous. It’s an environment all too hospitable to the deadly sin of pride. “When you’re successful, it’s so easy to start thinking it’s all you—you’re the man,” says Andreas. He didn’t stop going to church, but his spirituality waned. Other things became more important to him.
In business there is always the risk of being subsumed by profit. Short-term goals and the bottom line take precedence over the company’s original vision. “When that happens, you cut the soul out of the thing,” Andreas reflects. It turns out that’s not good for business, either.
One of Andreas’s firms achieved great success—75 percent of the market share worldwide—developing and marketing a new speech recognition interface for computers. When Andreas and his colleagues decided to sell the company, they went with the highest bidder, a competitor they had always thought of as unethical. “For money, you get blinded,” he explained. The deal was executed, and Andreas and his colleagues were paid not in cash but in the purchaser’s stock. With that deal, Andreas had made more money than he could ever have imagined.
As is common in such transactions, Andreas and his colleagues were subject to “golden handcuff” rules—certain time restrictions on how soon they can cash out the stock that’s been paid. When a short window opened up, and Andreas had a day or two to cash out, Michelle encouraged him not to hold on to the stock in hopes that its value might rise even higher, but to sell it right away. “How much money do you need? Sell it!” was her reasoning. Andreas brushed off her advice. The value of this stock could skyrocket, and they’d be even better off! When Michelle persisted, Andreas sold “just enough to have a nest egg.”
Not long afterward, odd reports began appearing in the news. Something fishy was up. Criminal violations—the purchasing company was pulled from NASDAQ! Andreas’ company had been sold, the stock he got in exchange was worthless, and the money they could have had—all gone.
A dark, depressive period followed for Andreas. How could he ever recover? It was hard on Michelle, and on their marriage, too. But Andreas now sees the episode as a “tap on the shoulder” from God. It was a crash course in humility. “It’s not all you; you’re not the man”—that message came through loud and clear. “You cannot hear God unless you are humble,” Andreas reflects. Maybe God humbles us to make us ready to listen.
Later Andreas and Michelle went to confession, as they try to do every three months. Andreas entered the confessional first, told his sins and in the process spoke about the awful preceding months, the unkindness toward his wife, and all the rest. The priest gave him absolution and a run-of-the-mill penance. Then it was Michelle’s turn. Not surprisingly, the details of her confession overlapped quite a bit with the one Father had just heard. It didn’t take long for him to figure out the situation. He gave Michelle absolution, and then considered her penance. “Did you come here by car today?” he asked. They had. “As part of your penance, you must talk to your husband about all this – before you get out of the car on your way home today.” The graces of the sacraments, both penance and marriage, were poured out to Andreas and Michelle that day.
Since they married Andreas and Michelle had always been open to having children. For years their attitude was, “if it happens, it happens”—but it hadn’t happened. Doctors were recommending various infertility treatments, but Andreas and Michelle weren’t game. They left the matter in God’s hands.
Then they had what Andreas calls a “Road to Emmaus epiphany.” They had driven out to Albany to attend the wake of a woman who had died far too young. They were deeply moved by the young woman’s mother, so upset and grieving by the casket. Afterward, on the long and somber drive back to Boston, Andreas and Michelle had been silent for a while. Then one of them broke the silence. Should they adopt? In the past, they discussed the idea but decided against it—they had too many concerns about it. But now, as if by direct revelation, they both realized this was what they were meant to do. It was one of those situations where suddenly you “just know,” according to Andreas. Shortly thereafter, the couple began the process and about a year later they welcomed a six-month-old son into their home.
Following a series of professional ups and downs, Andreas took a six-month sabbatical at age 40. Drawing on the economic thought of John Paul II, he spent some time writing about creativity and entrepreneurship as vital solutions to poverty. But after six months he was itching to get back into the high-tech world.
While he was busy trying to get a new firm off the ground, the Templeton Foundation approached him. They were interested in his ideas on entrepreneurship and poverty. They asked him to write a business plan for them, which he did. His mind and efforts then focused on his own start-up, until it became clear that his new firm wasn’t going anywhere. Looking back, Andreas sees the disappointment in a positive light—it was another needed dose of humility, helping him to hear God’s voice and cooperate with his will.
As it turns out, Templeton was keen on Andreas’s plan, but unwilling to move forward on their own. Today he and Michael Fairbanks are the co-founders of the SEVEN (Social Equity Venture) Fund, a non-profit promoting research and models of enterprise-based approaches to wealth creation and poverty reduction.
“When we work, we don’t just make more—we become more,” Andreas reflects, echoing a key element of the economic thought of John Paul II. In this regard, he sees his work in business as intimately bound up with his vocation, his calling from God. Enabling people to be creative and to work, Andreas points out, both underscores their dignity as persons and opens up seemingly limitless possibilities for human development.
In addition to his work at SEVEN, Andreas writes on the intersection of faith and entrepreneurship at his blog, Faith & Prosperity Nexus. He also lectures, and has contributed to a volume titled In the River They Swim: Essays from Around the World on Enterprise Solutions to Poverty . His book on what he learned from John Paul II during his two years as a Swiss Guard and how it applies to business life is due out in the fall of 2011 from Emmaus Road Publishing.
Looking back on his first 45 years of life, Andreas sees his vocation as a lay person as “a process with many stages.” Swiss Guard, entrepreneur, husband, father, writer, lecturer. Vocation is all about meeting God in the twists and turns of our lives. And trusting in his will along the way. As Andreas puts it: “The older I get the more I realize how little I know. But one thing I am more and more certain of is that God exists and that he cares. God is accompanying each one of us on the marvelous journey that leads to him.”
Published in First Things Online December 6, 2010