By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 17, 2023
KENNESAW–Standing proudly but unsteadily on her feet, former professional tennis player Paula Umana wanted the roomful of young, career-minded Catholics to understand the plans they set for themselves can detour—sometimes with painful results—but with faith, a new path can be created.
Umana, who cracked jokes and threatened to bat squishy balls at anyone falling asleep—shared how she began to notice weakness in limbs while pregnant with her fifth child. In February 2015, she couldn’t walk. Within months, the symptoms had progressed forcing her to be hospitalized with paralysis.
“You suffer and your challenges can become something beautiful. You have to believe it,” Umana told some 50 people attending the executive talk, one of the regular programs of the Atlanta chapter of the Young Catholic Professionals organization. It was hosted at St. Catherine of Siena Church Feb. 8.
How to strategize upcoming layoffs as a human resource professional, but hold fast to Catholic social teaching to treat employees with dignity? Is it right to skip work to pray on Good Friday? How does one respond to corporate positions that do not line up with Catholic doctrine? Women and men starting in the workplace can draw on their faith to navigate the business world with the help of this two-year-old organization in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Ivona Kolak, 31, a management consultant, came to her first meeting in the middle of the pandemic in 2020. She arrived late and planned to leave early, but the crowd and energy at the Atlanta brewery convinced her to stay. Now she’s the organization’s chapter president.
Kolak, a lifelong Catholic, grew up in Croatia. She came to the United States on a scholarship to play volleyball for Georgia Tech University. While on the Midtown campus, the Catholic Center became an anchor, she said.
“It was the familiar part, my faith,” Kolak said of navigating campus and cultural hurdles as a freshman athlete.
She graduated in 2014 with a degree in business administration. She worships at the Cathedral of Christ the King and Holy Spirit Church.
As her career was taking off, Kolak said she began to notice an uncomfortable disconnect between her personal life with her faith and her professional life. She had compartmentalized faith, believing it had little relevance.
Young Catholic Professionals helped her bridge the gap.
“I am called to be a witness (of Jesus) and I am called to be his witness at work,” she said.
In her industry, job demands can require people to turn their personal lives upside down and take business calls before dawn. Kolak said Catholic teaching reminds her that employees have a dignity that transcends what they do on the job, so she tries to set boundaries to be respectful of her colleagues’ time. She said Jesus’ Golden Rule—to do unto others—helps her prioritize these working situations.
Survey: faith responsibilities at work
Young adults in the Gen Z and Millennials generations are increasingly filling jobs. Members of those groups make up nearly half of the full-time work force, according to Gallup, and bring their values to the job.
The Barna Group, a research firm, studied the integration of faith and work.
The organization asked 1,459 U.S. Christians about their responsibilities in the workplace. The top three “very important” values were: acting ethically, always telling the truth, and demonstrating morality. “Sharing the Gospel” came in last out of 12 options.
Marianna Kuppili, 30, a consultant, says being faithful on the job involves taking care of her co-workers. “You’re the person who stays back to help someone who is struggling with something,” she said.
Office culture is another area that calls on her faith, Kuppili said. She’s helped spur her company to promote a recycling program among employees.
Kuppili, who worships at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Atlanta, has been part of the group since it launched.
“The word networking gets thrown around, but it’s more of a community,” she says.
The Barna survey also found less than half of the young adults reported their church gives them a vision for living out their faith at work.
Hoping to bridge that gap is the nonprofit Young Catholic Professionals. The national organization draws together workers for professional development and networking, under the umbrella of faith. In Atlanta, there are more than 50 active members, from ages of 21 to 39.
The program started in Dallas in 2010 when Jennifer Baugh, who worked in the financial consultant industry, desired to help young workers live and share faith through their work. Its website said its purpose is to “equip young workers to take true ownership of their faith and work lives.”
Today, there are more than 30 chapters nationwide, drawing in young people to learn from executive mentors, panel discussions and retreats. The patron saint of the organization is St. Joseph.
Elaine Szeto works in technology at a local Fortune 100 company and attends the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta. She’s participated in the group’s annual retreat too.
“It makes living out your faith easier if you have other young professionals trying, too,” she said.
After attending for the past year and half, Szeto said workshops remind her to lean on her faith. “If it’s a difficult conversation and I don’t have the words for it, I definitely will pray beforehand silently.”
Accept changes with gratitude
The group heard Umana share anecdotes about her illness which caused her to become quadriplegic. During her presentation, she shared her experience of being diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and how she has recovered.
Whether it’s life or work, she told the group it’s important to accept unexpected events. In the midst of suffering, she found a way to accept the challenges brought by her disease. In her wheelchair, Umana founded a tennis academy and coached from there.
“It’s very important because it helps you be more free,” she said.