Legatus Arrives

Author: Tom Wyatt


Tom Wyatt

It may be more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but some of America's most wealthy, powerful and influential Catholics are doing what they can to further God's kingdom on earth. These business leaders are part of an alliance called Legatus—Latin for ambassador—and their aim is to be light-bearers for Christ in the rather dim quarters of the marketplace.

Legatus is not another charitable foundation, has no projects, and does not engage in fundraising. It is, rather, a sort of spiritual home-base for those Catholics who stand at the helm of America's entrepreneurial ship. "Legatus exists for you," Domino's Pizza Chairman and Legatus founder Thomas Monaghan wrote in a letter to members. The idea is that by coming together for spiritual nourishment—a monthly Mass, dinner and discussion, as well as conferences and weekend retreats—business leaders and their spouses will gain a stronger faith and an understanding of how better to serve their families, companies, and the community-at-large in Christ's spirit. Put another way, says Mel Martinez, president of the Orlando Utilities Commission, "Legatus is bringing the Catholic message to me, so that I can be a better messenger."

Phil Ramos, the founder, president, and CEO of Philatron, a California electronics manufacturer, took the microphone at this year's Legatus conference—called "The Splendor of Truth"—in Palm Beach and explained the organization's mission this way: "A lot of people segregate God from everything else. They just go to church on Sunday and then don't practice [their faith] during the week. There is a lot to being a Christian; these things need to be applied to everyday life. Legatus stands for this."

Once a man who suffered from a kind of vocational ennui, Ramos understands the importance of a vibrant, integrated, all-pervasive faith. "After being in business for eighteen years, I got burned out," he told his peers in Palm Beach. "I couldn't get ahead and considered selling out. I played tennis to get away from the office and started delegating everything. Then the business began to falter without my leadership. I would come in as a crisis manager, get rid of the crisis, and go back to the old pattern."

Ramos—who had hit some rough terrain on his Christian walk—came back to the Church when a consultant, noting Ramos's good physical condition, asked him whether he did any daily "spiritual exercises." Not long afterward, Ramos got himself back on course. He began to pray again and to read the Bible. He practiced what he calls his "humble-pie" discipline—a daily cleaning of his cat's litter box. His faith increased and his priorities settled into their proper places: "The most important thing in my life is God, then my wife, my children, and my business—in that order." Shortly after, Ramos joined Legatus.

Through the clean lenses of his renewed Christian life, Ramos began to see his business, which he started with $168, as much more than a business. He began to see it as a spiritual opportunity. "God wants us to use all of the gifts He has given us to serve one another. I realized my business was not just to make money for myself, but to create jobs for others. Realizing this energized me." Currently, with 100 employees, Ramos is anticipating 1996 revenues of $14 million.

It was 1987 when Thomas Monaghan—a long-time and widely-recognized advocate of Catholic causes in the business world—received communion from the Holy Father in his papal chapel at the Vatican. Prompted by that meeting, within the year, Monaghan founded Legatus, which is headquartered, like Domino's Pizza, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since then, the pope himself has commended the organization and issued a special calling to its members: "The world needs genuine witnesses to Christian ethics in the field of business, and the Church asks you to fulfill this role publicly and with perseverance."

The pope's request has not gone unheeded. Over the last nine years, Legatus chapters have proliferated. Now there are fourteen chapters located in places like Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando, Philadelphia, Houston, and Orange County, California. Several more chapters—in Dallas, Pasadena, and St. Louis—are scheduled to open in the coming year. Legatus Executive Director Jim Berlucchi says the organization is looking to have 2000 companies represented by the year 2000. Right now the count is at 430.

Joining Legatus is no cake walk. Members have to be presidents or CEOs of companies with thirty or more employees, or officers and directors of multimillion dollar businesses. There have been a few critics of the organization's membership requirements, but, according to Monaghan, Legatus was founded specifically to draw from the upper echelons of business leadership. The point is to provide a gathering place for the best and the brightest so that they can focus their efforts and talents on edifying the Church. In an interview with the Michigan Catholic, Monaghan described his vision for the organization along these lines: "When people get turned on to their faith, especially people with assets, talent and control, extraordinary things can happen. It can snowball."

Among the ranks of Legatus members are New York Giants president and CEO Wellington Mara, Hallmark's former CFO Hank Frigon and Adeline Laforet, the President of Health Care Professionals, Ltd. What is remarkable about these and the other powerful leaders numbered among them, says Berlucchi, is that they join Legatus "because they see their personal faith as being the most important aspect of their lives, and they want to be, along with their spouses, with like-minded people. They are motivated by the Legatus mission statement ‘to study, live, and spread their faith.'" Berlucchi himself confessed that there was a time when he bought into "the typical stereotypes of CEOs as tough bottom-line decision makers. But I found a consistency among Legatus members of natural and supernatural virtue and strong appreciation for the dignity and value of the human person."

At a time when capitalism is considered by many to be synonymous with materialism and greed, Legatus members, says Berlucchi, are looking to create wealth so that it can be shared. "One of the keys here is their generosity," he explains. "The role of the entrepreneur is to increase wealth and to increase a broader participation in it."

When Mel Martinez was fifteen years old, his parents sent him away from Castro's Cuba along with 14,000 other children. The exodus, called Peter Pan, amounted to the largest movement of unaccompanied children in the Western hemisphere. After landing in Florida, Martinez found himself in a refugee camp, under the care of the Catholic Church, and several foster families before meeting his own parents again four years later.

Perhaps, then, it is only natural that Legatus appeals to Martinez, who ran for Lieutenant Governor of Florida in 1994, because the organization acts as a sort of family, drawing business leaders out of the isolation that so often goes hand-in-hand with their rank. What is in large part responsible for this close-knit atmosphere, Martinez and many others claim, is the fact that their spouses are welcomed into Legatus as full-fledged members. All the Legatus members interviewed by Crisis emphasized the full participation of their spouses as a primary motivation for their involvement. Adeline Laforet, whose family business, Health Care Professionals, Ltd., was founded in 1975, explains that one of the great virtues of Legatus is its emphasis on family life. Busy people are able to give time to Legatus that they wouldn't consider giving to other organizations because Legatus activities do not take away from family time—they are family time. In this respect, she says, "Legatus has really met a previously unmet need."

While members span the political spectrum so far as their views are concerned, the right-leaning camp, some say, may have a slight edge. This makes sense to Martinez, himself a critic of the welfare machine and of the complicity of some Catholic institutions with the state's welfare mentality. His immigrant experience, Martinez explains, has given him an interesting angle on welfare reform and the kind of dependency it spawns. "There has been a real misinterpretation of Catholic social teaching as supporting the welfare state," he opines. "But among Legatus members are many self-made people who know the importance of removing the interference of government in business."

Legatus has given Hank Frigon, formerly of Hallmark, an opportunity to study the Church's position on economy and the just distribution of wealth. Like Martinez, Frigon is concerned about the interpretation of Catholic social teaching. Legatus has given Frigon the occasion to read Centesimus Annus and the other papal encyclicals that openly affirm free enterprise and endorse a social policy complimentary to the strengths of a market economy.

In many ways it is precisely this new vision of the Holy Father that has established Legatus on its firmest foundation and provided it with its clearest direction for the future. As Mike Winn, chief executive and chief operating officer of Hollister in Chicago has remarked: "As Legatus grows and matures it will undoubtedly have an impact. Members are in positions of influence—they are lay leaders in the Catholic Church. John Paul II has emphasized the role of laymen in the Church today, and Legatus is part of this movement." This is the hope Legatus delivers. The Church calls ambassadors for the Gospel in every time and location and at last they have come to the marketplace.

Tom Wyatt reports from Washington, D.C.
© 1995-1996 Crisis Magazine

This article was taken from the June 1996 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: 75061.1144@compuserve.com.