Interview: The Gregorian’s new Jesuit leader on the university’s mission to implement Vatican II reforms
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part interview with Mark Lewis, S.J., the second Jesuit from the United States to be rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Read Part I here.
In the second part of his interview with America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, Mark Lewis, S.J., emphasized the importance of quality in education at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he is now rector, and said, “If we can improve the pedagogy here, we can also have an impact on university and seminary pedagogy around the world.”
He also spoke about how the Gregorian University is called to implement the Second Vatican Council and noted that it is well versed in synodality. He concluded the interview by explaining that one of his most important tasks is to help bring about the integration of Rome’s Pontifical Biblical and Oriental Institutes with the Gregorian University.
Ensuring a quality education
One of Father Lewis’s main goals as rector is to insist on quality. “I think the goal of quality here is so important because most people teach the way they were taught,” he said. “So if we can improve the pedagogy here, we also have an impact on university and seminary pedagogy around the world.”
Prior to becoming rector, he served as academic vice rector, where his principal responsibility was “safeguarding the quality of the academic side of things”; and to this end he headed a commission on quality. He sees the question of quality in education as “primarily about pedagogy, making sure that we’re delivering material in a way that students can absorb.” He explained,
It’s not so much about the high quality of the student [that we receive] because, in a sense, you want students who will learn something, and if we find students who already know everything, then we’re not doing much teaching. I think that sometimes is the challenge. When you have really bright students who’ve come having read things, they already have very formed opinions. So getting them to be open to other views of their ideas is a challenge, and that is the responsibility also of the university, to create an atmosphere where they can examine what they’ve already learned and continue to grow.
Many bishops, especially in the Western world, report that students entering seminaries and colleges today tend to be more conservative in their attitudes. When I asked if the same is true at the Gregorian, Father Lewis said he couldn’t say, since his experience with students has only been from 2017 onward. But, he remarked, “The student body is a lot like the church, where there’s a division between those who really want to stay in a traditional track, and those who are really moving very much forward.” He recalled an experience that he considers “useful” in this context: “We had a vocations director in my province who didn’t worry about whether someone was ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ looking toward the past or progressive. His main criterion was: Is this person open to growth?”
He added, “If you’ve decided that [there is] only way to go, then there’s not much room for teaching or learning because you’ve already decided your frame of reference. But if someone has a frame of reference and is strong about it but is open to hearing something different, then there’s the real possibility for moving forward, of dialogue and growth.”
"That is the responsibility also of the university, to create an atmosphere where they can examine what they’ve already learned and continue to grow."
Father Lewis said, “My idea of university is a place where those kinds of exchanges can happen, with respect, with solid, intellectual underpinning, not just sort of emotional opinion.” He said one important part of ensuring quality is to ask: “Can a professor elicit that kind of growth which is not easy? Can the student body examine things in a new way?” He recognized that this also means the professors themselves must be open to growth.
He acknowledged that one of his tasks is to ensure this happens while “knowing full well, as I think Pope Francis does, that every one of us is a free human being and makes his or her own choices. So, I’ve always seen this as an invitation to quality, an invitation to reflect and to grow. I like using the phrase ‘You can lead a horse to water, even drown them in it, but you can’t make them drink.’”
Implementing Vatican II at the Gregorian
The Gregorian University, like other pontifical institutions, has been called by Pope Francis to contribute in a significant way to the implementation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Commenting on this, Father Lewis said, “In fact, the whole Society [of Jesus] has been called to do this.” He added that John Paul II also made it “very clear” that “he wanted us to implement the Second Vatican Council.”
Speaking as a historian of the Council of Trent, Father Lewis added, “We [at the Roman College, the precursor to the Gregorian] were also called to implement that council, which was a reform council.” He said people sometimes say Trent (1545-63) “was a very conservative council, whereas it was an incredibly progressive council for its day” in the sense “that it was addressing the Protestant Reformation by creating its own reform.” As a result,“the Jesuits became instruments of creating a church that would be more stable, that would be a good response to the Reformation. And I think now, in terms of the Second Vatican Council, it’s really important that we create a church that understands the council and implements it.”
Moreover, he said, “the other good thing you learn about from history is that it takes 100 years to get a council really embedded within the church. So we’re not quite there yet with the Second Vatican Council; it’s still fairly new. It doesn’t seem like it for us because we have a certain length of life, but there are still generations that have to grow into it.”
"There’s also a freedom of knowing that it’s not always going to stay this way. The church is going to continue to grow and change and adapt, and it’s certainly going to do that with the Second Vatican Council."
When I noted that the difference between Trent and Vatican II is that today we have a Jesuit pope who is very insistent on its implementation but is encountering resistance, Father Lewis remarked, “The same was true with Trent. The kingdom of France, which was a major part of the church at the time, didn’t promulgate the decrees of the Council of Trent for over a century. They just didn’t like it, so it wasn’t done.” History shows that “there’s always going to be a certain amount of resistance to councils,” he said, “because people like ‘the way things have always been’; and anthropologists tell us that there’s a tendency for people to change almost every other aspect of their lives but prayer. Prayer is the last thing to change because it’s so intimate with God. And I think that’s part of the challenge.” He recognizes that for this reason liturgy can become a flashpoint in resistance to the council, though he himself has “no memory of the old rite, the pre-Vatican II liturgy. I had my first communion in 1967, and I was prepared for it by a lay teacher.”
He recognizes that knowledge of the Council of Trent places him in a good position to monitor the implementation of Vatican II at the university, to see parallels with the past and to identify avenues for moving ahead. Moreover, he said, “I think there’s also a freedom of knowing that it’s not always going to stay this way. The church is going to continue to grow and change and adapt, and it’s certainly going to do that with the Second Vatican Council. It’s certainly going to continue to grow into the council.”
The University and Synodality
Father Lewis is taking over as rector at a time when the global church is engaged in a process of synodality. Commenting on this, he said, “Synodality is not a new concept for the Gregorian” because the “university governance has been doing this for a while through the process of consultation, which we call collegiality, and that’s an important model and example.”
He said it’s “important to understand” that synodality “is not a republic, it’s not a democracy, it’s not a civil government, but it’s a consultation that then helps the leader to make the final decision.” He emphasized that synodality “doesn’t take away from the importance of the papacy, one of whose roles is to be a unifier, to make a concrete decision that would then be the point of unification, but it has to be done with consultation, with hearing the voice of the people.”
Integrating the Biblicum and the Orientale with the Gregorian
Father Lewis was the last provincial superior of the New Orleans Province of the Jesuits before it merged with the Missouri Province to become part of what is now called the Central and Southern Province. The Jesuits of Puerto Rico joined the new province a few months later. I asked whether that role had prepared him in some way for his new mission. He responded affirmatively:
There are two things that come to mind. First, any superior in the Jesuits, but especially the provincial, has a unique care for the people under him. And so I think I bring to the Gregorian a desire to have that same kind of care for the faculty, the staff and the students. Not that I’m going to spend an hour with each of them every year—that would be impossible—but [in the] sense of making sure that they’re getting what they need to do what they’re called to do. So I think that’s an important part of being provincial that comes over.
The second thing is, when I was provincial in New Orleans, it had already been decided that we would combine with another province, with the Missouri Province, so my task was to implement something that had already been decided. As you probably know, the Biblicum and the Orientale [which are both also Jesuit institutions] will be integrated into the Gregorian, and the hope is that it will come about in the next six years.
Interestingly, he revealed that the three rectors of the Gregorian, the Biblicum and the Orientale are all alumni of Regis College in Toronto. “We all did our theology there,” Father Lewis recalled. “Both of them [Father Michael Francis Kolarcik, rector of the Biblicum, and Father David Nazar, rector of the Orientale] are Canadian. I’m not a Canadian, but I studied there.”
He recalled that in December 2019, “Pope Francis wrote a chirograph saying that he would like for the three institutions to come under one unit. It is good for a lot of reasons, but maybe the most practical one is to begin to save infrastructure, to have a single administration, a single rector. Impetus also came from Father General [Arturo Sosa] who was already pushing in that direction” before his election in 2016, “and when he was elected father general, he decided this would be a good move. I think it’s safe to say it will happen, but the how is still being worked out.”
Regarding the difficulty of the “how,” Father Lewis said:
It’s always difficult with integrations, because there are always different cultures. There’s a very strong culture at the Biblicum, a very strong culture at the Orientale, a very strong culture here. Each institute has its own mission, its own identity, its own history. They’re not radically different, they’re all educational institutes, but they have very different clientele and even pedagogy. So we have to figure out how we’re going to integrate all of that, where we keep the identity and mission of each of those two institutes protected while they come under the much larger institute of the university.
In other words, the Gregorian University will be the umbrella institution into which the others are integrated.
Today the Gregorian has almost 3,000 students, the Biblicum has around 300, and the Orientale also around 300; consequently, the new body will have under 4,000 students. Father Lewis remarked: “That’s another part of the problem, because I think both institutes are afraid of being swallowed up and losing a sense of family. So from my point of view, I think the challenge is to reassure them that they’re not going to lose what’s essential to them.”
He believes the integration will bring advantages. There will be a need for only one rector compared with three at present, “So you don’t have to spend as much time looking for eligible Jesuits.” Secondly, he foresees financial advantages from having a single administration, a single computer system, coordinated purchasing and other things that will create an economy of scale.
On the path to integration, Father Lewis said, “There are statutes to be done and financial aspects to be worked out. It takes time to do the detail work.” But, he said, the process has begun and is moving forward. “It’s a work in progress. It is important to get it right and do it well.”