Fr. Mark Lewis, SJ: A conversation with the Gregorian University's new Rector
By Deborah Castellano Lubov
Father Mark Lewis, SJ is the second American-born Rector of Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University since Father Vincent Albert McCormick, SJ served as rector from 1933 to 1941.
Yet, in an interview with Vatican News for the occasion of the start of the academic year, he reflects that his being American is not an important aspect of his responsibility, as he is there to serve the incredibly international base of the institution.
During the conversation, Fr. Lewis reflects on his nomination, priorities, and what he foresees as potential challenges.
He also explains the transformation from the former Centre for Child Protection into what is now the Institute of Anthropology, and how this will better assist the Church to combat clerical sexual abuse and safeguard minors and vulnerable adults.
The rector also shares what the "Greg" is launching in terms of new programs, what he hopes the students take away from their experience at the institution, and the significance of leading Rome's Jesuit Pontifical University as the first Jesuit Pope in history, Pope Francis, leads the Church for the past decade.
Q: You were appointed as rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. What was your reaction, and how has your welcome been?
This is my second time in Rome. I was here for ten years in the 1990s until 2004. I know the other side of the river [the Tiber] since I was at the General Curia, and at the Jesuit Archives and the Jesuit Historical Institute. I got to know Rome pretty well in those ten years, plus the six years I've been here this time, but from a different angle. This is from the university angle.
Being named rector of the Gregorian University is a great honor, first of all, but the process is pretty complex. It begins with a sort of polling of the university faculty of who they think could be rector. It begins with that sort of collegiality, that's a little bit symbolic of the synodality that we're looking for. Then it goes up until it gets to the papacy, who makes the nomination. So that's an honour, too. But it's interesting that the process is very consultative.
Q: What are your priorities for the Gregorian?
Well, I would give you three priorities. The first one comes out of my time as vice academic rector, where I was responsible for the academic quality of the university. We've just finished a good part of the process of every six-year visitation of A.V.E.P.R.O., the agency for quality for the Vatican, and we had the external visit in spring of last year with suggestions of ways to improve, and then also inviting us to go deeper into the directions we want to go in, acquiring greater quality and serving the Church. That would be my first priority, of helping the university move forward.
If we're not moving forward, we're dying. So it's a very important thing to continue to update, to continue to find new ways of teaching, to maintain things that are good as well, and to realize that we have some good things going. All of that is our quality priority.
Then there's the priority for probably every rector and every president to help make sure that the faculty, the staff, the students, everybody has the resources they need, both in terms of personnel, finding teachers, and also the material things they need. The buildings are getting to an age where there's maintenance work to be done, there's updating to be done. We just went through a great deal of updating of the electronics during the pandemic when we needed to. We've done a great deal, and we must continue to do that.
The third priority would be the very practical one. We've been working on the integration of the Gregorian University with the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Oriental Institute. That's a very practical process that will take its time and run its course. While doing that, we want to make sure that everybody is faithful to their identity and their mission. I think that's also a key priority for the rector.
Q: You are beginning your new academic year. What do you expect to be some of the highlights? Are there certain programs being launched we should know more about?
Perhaps the most important one is the Licentiate in Theology with an emphasis on ecumenical studies, which is starting this year. I think that will be a nice complement to the licentiate we have in Jewish Studies that's done in conjunction with the Hebrew University out of our Cardinal Bea Centre on Judaism and Jewish-Christian Studies. Also, we're increasing our relationship with the Pontifical Institute for Studies in Arabic and Islamic Studies. And I think that will sort of round out a lot of the interreligious dialogue.
We have a center for interreligious dialogue that also focuses on other religions and looks more closely at the characteristics of interreligious dialogue, and the sort of philosophy and foundations behind it. I think that's going to be an important thing. We've also just signed an agreement for the joint diploma with several other pontifical universities in spirituality, so giving students a chance to sort of compare and contrast the spiritualities of various religious institutes.
Q: What challenges do you expect to confront as rector and how are you prepared to handle them? And how will this be done in collaboration with students with their feedback?
When we do the SWOT analysis, it's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A lot of people wanted to change weaknesses into opportunities. So what are the things that we can do to address weaknesses or threats? I think our strategic planning will be one of the big challenges of saying, discerning, as a university community where we want to go, what directions we want to take with the resources that we have.
We can't do everything. Therefore, we have to be selective and we have to go towards our strengths and towards the needs of the Church.
I think that will be the challenge. We need dialogue with our students, but I would also say dialogue with our faculty. This kind of process requires a lot of listening. That is really the first piece. We all have to listen to each other and discernment comes from that listening, and I think it reflects very much the movements and the synodality that we've been talking about as a Church.
Q: Many were very familiar with the Gregorian's Centre for Child Protection. In 2021, it was transformed into the Institute of Anthropology. Could you tell us more about this and this transformation and how it is important to continue to educate in combating clerical sexual abuse and better safeguarding minors and the vulnerable in general?
The Centre for Child Protection began mainly to prepare people to go back to their homes, to serve in commissions, to serve as people of trust and dioceses and religious communities. Very practical. It was fine to do a diploma and to have a sort of beginning process of what's involved. But very quickly we realized that it needed to be deeper. The center began a licentiate programme so that the people could begin to reflect on it more deeply and begin to prepare others in their own contexts and their own cultures for this, this purpose. And then when we moved into the institute, there was a desire to do something even more on the research level, so the third cycle of the doctorate and begin to say, what are the root causes? What are ways to evaluate the effective effectiveness of programmes? It is really becoming a much more comprehensive kind of academic center. And thus, the Institute was logical.
The change of name was also important because, initially, the beginning of all of this was about abuse of children, but it's expanded to abuse of vulnerable adults. It's expanded to abuses of power, of transparency. It is expanding to all of those issues where sinfulness and immorality has an impact on the reputation of the Church and its ability to do its mission. This is an expansion of its mission and its vision.
Q: You were the second-ever American rector of the Gregorian. What significance does this have and what value does the Gregorian have to the United States?
I think the first question is fairly easy to answer. I think from the beginning, the university, the Gregorian University, has been a university for the nations. From early on, the rectors came from all over the world. That was known at the time. Initially Western Europe and then the larger and larger swaths of the world as Catholicism began to come back here for education. I don't think being the second American is that significant.
I think more significant is the second question, is its importance to North America, is its importance to the world. One of the great blessings of the Gregorian University is to bring people from all over the world to Rome to know Rome, to study theology in this context, but always with an idea of taking what they've learned back to their cultures and nations and applying it to the reality of their world and their culture. It's always been from the heart of the Church, the margins, from the margins to the heart of the Church. And that movement has always been there in the history of the Gregorian. But it has different meanings now.
Q: The Pontifical Gregorian University is the Pontifical University in Rome with a Jesuit identity as rector of this institution, as the Church has been under the leadership for nearly a decade under the first Jesuit Pope in history, Pope Francis. How has that impacted the institution, and what does having a Jesuit Pope mean to you personally?
I think the Jesuit piece of the university is that we have a certain attitude towards the world, the way of understanding theology, of teaching theology. We're very much tied to the Exercises, to a Christology that is focused on Scripture and on understanding the role of the Incarnation and the life of the Church. The Jesuit piece is, I think, imbued and all of the things we teach and maybe even our attitude towards the way we approach education. The Jesuits have always been tied to the papacy, especially in terms of being obedient and being sent on missions, of being sent out.
I would like to say, that having a Jesuit Pope doesn't really change things a whole lot because of our ties to the papacy. Historically, I think since we have the first Jesuit Pope, my feeling had been that this would never happen. It's been a little bit of adjusting, learning, what does that mean for the Society of Jesus? I think there's been two tendencies. One is to sort of rejoice in it a little bit too much and say, oh, we've sort of made it, which I don't think is the right attitude. And then the other is to be very sensitive, to not take too much advantage of it, because that's not the right movement either. I think, to my mind personally, my takeaway is: how can we be faithful to what the papacy has always called us to, and especially by a Pope who knows us well enough to know that that's our mission.
Q: What do you hope the students of the Gregorian will ultimately take away with them from their time at your institution?
I think the most important thing is for them to realize that the Church that they grew up in, that they know that they love, is much broader and has a lot, many different faces than what they knew. In meeting fellow students from other cultures, other countries should be something that affects them for the rest of their lives. Hearing theology and all of the different accents of Italian that you hear here is also very important and realizing. That any theology has to be taken and then applied in the historical context and the cultural context of the time. If our students can go back with that, they'll be in good shape.