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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 14, 2022
Mark Lewis, S.J. (Daniel Ibáñez/EWTN Vatican, courtesy of Pontifical Gregorian University)

Mark Lewis, S.J., 62, is a historian and only the second Jesuit from the United States to be rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Pope Francis appointed him on June 14. Soon after taking up his new mission on Sept. 1, he granted a long, exclusive interview, his first as rector, to Gerard O’Connell, America’s Vatican correspondent.

In the interview, Father Lewis talked about his background in Florida, and why he joined the Jesuits. He discussed his passion for history and suggested that being a historian with a deep knowledge of the Council of Trent could be an important asset to him as rector of a university that is committed to implementing the Second Vatican Council.

Significantly, too, he spoke about the decision of Pope Francis to bring together in one body the three Jesuit-run pontifical institutions in Rome: the Gregorian University (founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1551 as the Roman College), the Biblical Institute (commonly known as the Biblicum, founded in 1909) and the Oriental Institute (the Orientale, founded in 1917). He said one of his challenges as rector is to work toward implementing this integration at a practical level.

Like Father Vincent A. McCormick, the first American Jesuit to serve as rector of the Gregorian (from 1933 through the early years of World War II), Father Lewis takes over as rector at a time of war in Europe, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though we did not speak about that coincidence in the interview.

The interview will be published in two parts.


Background education

“I’m a southerner,” Father Lewis said with a broad smile as we began the interview in his office at the Gregorian. Like his father, an airline pilot, he was born in Miami, Fla., in 1959, the youngest of three children. His brother is a pilot too and lives in Reno, Nev.; his sister lives in Charlotte, N.C., and works in computer technology. “I’m sort of the black sheep in the family, not going into aviation.”

“I don’t have a tremendous vocation story,” he confessed. He said he first heard about the Jesuits from his parish priest, who had attended John Carroll University as a seminarian. He went to talk to him about the priesthood when he was in junior high school in 1976 and told him about his “intuition to teach.” The priest advised him against joining the diocese and suggested, “I think you should be a Jesuit.”

Since it was “almost impossible in those years” to join the Society of Jesus from high school, Father Lewis said, “I went to Spring Hill College, in Mobile, which is a Jesuit college, and pretty much fell in love with the Jesuits and the idea of teaching. I studied history and philosophy there, and really enjoyed my university experience.”

"History really wants to explore the context of decisions and actions. And that gives us an insight into why we do what we do in the present."

He joined the Jesuits in 1980 and was ordained a priest on June 8, 1991. He studied at Regis College, Toronto, and the University of Toronto, where in 1995 he obtained a doctorate in history. From 1996 to 2004, he was the director of the Historical Institute of the Society of Jesus in Rome, and began teaching at the Gregorian. He went back to the United States from 2005 to 2014 and served as provincial superior of the New Orleans Province, and in 2017 returned to the Gregorian University.

At the same time, he said that his tenure as vice-rector at the Gregorian (2019-22) was his “real education for this mission,” offering him a chance to learn how the European and pontifical university systems differ from the North American system. “I think the advantage of history is, you begin to see the overarching goals are the same, but the way of getting there is more unique to the culture.”

How a passion for history prepared him for his role at the Gregorian

Father Lewis has studied and taught history most of his life, so I asked him to explain the reason for this. His answer: “From high school I have had a passion for history because I find two things there. It allows you to look at values. It’s an ethics kind of course, but more dispassionately, because it’s so far away, and usually you don’t have to pick sides.” Whereas, “In the midst of the church today, there are all these controversies and you’re either for this or for that.”

Looking from a scholarly perspective, “If you look at the 16th century, where there were also the same kind of controversies, you don’t have a dog in the race, so it’s a lot easier to say, ‘Okay, they made these decisions—for what reasons?’ And that’s the third thing: the context. History really wants to explore the context of decisions and actions. And that gives us an insight into why we do what we do in the present.”

"Once you’ve studied enough history, you’re very free...You don’t say, ‘Oh, well we’ve always done it this way, or we have to do it this way.’"

He explained: “So, I think history is a very useful study. It’s also part of the liberal arts. Once you’ve studied enough history, you’re very free, because you realize that in any period in time there have been things that have been worse and things that have been better. And that frees you. You don’t say, ‘Oh, well we’ve always done it this way, or we have to do it this way.’ There’s much more freedom.”

When I asked how his history studies may have prepared him to be rector of the Gregorian, he replied:

My attitude towards church history, especially, is that in the worst of times there have been saints, and in the best of times there have been people doing very bad things. And so it’s useless to say—as I’ve heard people say so many times today—”this has to be the worst time in the history of the church’. As a historian I say, ‘No, I don’t think so. Persecutions in the early Church may top this.”

Father Lewis said, “I think the historical context frees us and gives us a chance to say, ‘Well, this is our time, and we will make our mistakes, and we will have our saints, so we can be patient with that.’ We don’t have to get it right completely. And we won’t. But we have to do our best.” He added, “I think that the people who are generally heroes in history are the people who have done their best, not always succeeded, at times wonderful failures, as the history of the Jesuits shows.”

He cited the example of the Jesuit mission among the Hurons in New France, part of modern-day Canada, and how, “in the end, they had to burn down their mission station because it was going to be taken by the Iroquois.” He said:

The mission superior wrote back to Rome, saying this had been an utter failure. But in fact, the people were evangelized, and to this day many remain Catholic, and have maintained that faith in the midst of a lot of problems [like] the [residential] schools where Francis visited [in July]. So a lot of the native peoples remain Catholic, despite an awful lot of sinfulness…and you begin to understand that there was something transmitted that was incredibly important for them. So was it a failure? I don’t think so. Maybe from a civil point of view you could say it was, but God works in a lot of different ways, in the midst of a lot of failures and sinfulness.

When asked if he agrees with some who say the abuse scandal is probably the most serious challenge to the church’s effort at evangelization since the Protestant Reformation, Father Lewis responded: “As a historian, I’m really hesitant to say anything like that because every age has its challenges, and every age has its advantages. I think there are other challenges to evangelization today, and part of it is just a global society that’s ever more secular.” He continued:

The abuse scandal is very serious. It undermines the credibility of the church, but I think even without it, there would have been a lot of challenges to evangelization. I think, again culturally, the influence of the Enlightenment has continued, and so there’s this strong sense that we really don’t need religion, and that [sense] has been growing in the last two or three generations.

He added, “I think the abuse scandal, which is indicative of some really major issues with transparency and an inability to confront a major problem, is a sign of the weakness of the church. But, again, there have always been weaknesses in the church, and there’s always been a call to reform. I see this as a real call to reform.”

He concluded with this reflection: “I think the fundamental lesson from church history is that we’ve always had saints, and we’ve always had sinners. And to pretend that there’s only one group is a misunderstanding of history. I think there’s a real tendency to say, ‘Oh, well, it’s always been a very sinful church.’ That’s true. But it’s also always been a holy church.”

An international school inspired by the saints

Father Lewis recalled that among the Gregorian’s alumni, 28 have been declared saints and 55 blessed (including Pope John Paul I). He considers them “an inspiration” to the 2,844 students from 125 countries who are currently enrolled at the Gregorian. Though he did not say so, the university also counts among its alumni 16 popes, 33 percent of the College of Cardinals, and 23 percent of Catholic bishops as of the end of 2020, per the university’s statistical yearbook from 2021.

Speaking about holiness, Father Lewis said,

We probably tend to oversell the popes who are saints, but we also have a lot of martyrs too, people who went back to their local church and gave their lives for the faith, in very simple ways, for example our alumni from England, Scotland, and Wales during the [English] Reformation, and in many other contexts as well, people [who were] willing to put everything on the line. I think you can only do [that] if you’ve got a strong habit of faithfulness in the little things.

Today, while 45 percent of the Gregorian’s students are from Europe, with 22 percent from the American continent and less than 1 percent from Oceania, there has been a significant increase in the number of students from Africa (now 16 percent of the student body) and Asia (17 percent) in recent years.

While in the past, the Gregorian was largely attended by seminarians from around the world, today only 19 percent of the students are seminarians, while more than 28 percent are ordained diocesan priests. Another 17 percent of the students come from religious orders, and 15 percent are consecrated persons. The percentage of lay people and women studying at the university has also increased: Today, 22 percent of the students are lay people, and 21 percent are women, both religious and lay.

"We probably tend to oversell the popes who are saints, but we also have a lot of martyrs too, people who went back to their local church and gave their lives for the faith, in very simple ways."

Father Lewis notes that most are studying for higher degrees like the licentiate or doctorate; more than a third are in theology, but many also in philosophy, canon law, social sciences, missiology, spirituality, history and the cultural heritage of the church, psychology and anthropology. Almost all these students will return to their home dioceses or religious orders to teach or take other posts of responsibility.

In this context, Father Lewis noted that students are also coming to study at the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care (originally the Center for Child Protection) led by Hans Zollner, S.J. Through this institute the Gregorian is making an essential contribution to the church’s response to the abuse crisis by providing professional preparation to clerics, religious and lay people. He said: “It has been one of the best responses we’ve made to the crisis. Instead of wringing our hands, here’s an institute that is moving forward in preparing people, and so we’re in a unique position to prepare people around the world.”

While dioceses in North America and Western Europe have been able to provide a response to the abuse crisis more or less with their own resources, Father Lewis said, “it is more difficult for developing countries where cultures mitigate against talking about sexuality, and that’s where the institute has a role. It is doing a very good job that I think could be a real game changer for a lot of these countries. Instead of having to go through the prolonged agony other nations and cultures have suffered, they can be more proactive as a result of the [institute’s] training.”

The students at the Gregorian are taught by some 334 professors from many countries, including 188 from Italy and 18 from the United States. Father Lewis said this means the university has a professor-student ratio of 1 to 10, which is exceptionally high by American standards. Furthermore, over 80 of the professors are Jesuits, which makes this “the largest investment of the Society [of Jesus] anywhere in the world”; it also helps to contain costs and strongly influences the identity of the university.

Read Part II of this interview here.

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