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Gerard O’ConnellApril 22, 2024
The exterior of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome is seen in a file photo from July 28, 2020. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

The Gregorian University, the largest and historically the first pontifical university in Rome, will take on a new structure on Pentecost Sunday, May 19. It is the result of the incorporation of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Oriental Institute into what is presently the Pontifical Gregorian University, all three of which have been entrusted to the Society of Jesus by various popes.

To understand the significance of this change and what it means for the Catholic Church worldwide, I sat down with Mark Lewis, S.J., the American-born rector of the present Gregorian University, for this exclusive interview on April 12. Father Lewis, 64, will become the first rector of the newly structured Gregorian University.

The interview is divided into two parts. In Part I, Father Lewis speaks about the integration of the three Jesuit academic institutes. He says Pope Francis is pushing for collaboration and synergy among all the pontifical universities and institutes in Rome and explains key aspects of the strategic plan that the current Gregorian University has produced.

In Part II, Father Lewis explains that this integration is meant to ensure academic excellence and to educate students to be “open to change.”


When I first interviewed the Miami-born Father Lewis on Sept. 1, 2022, soon after he took up his mission as rector of the Gregorian University, he told me that on Dec. 17, 2019, Pope Francis had decreed that the three Jesuit-run pontifical institutions in Rome were to be brought together into one academic body. He said one of his challenges as rector was to work toward implementing this integration.

When we met for this second interview in his office at the Gregorian, he told me that on March 15, he received a decree from Arturo Sosa, S.J., the superior general of the Jesuits, informing him that the new general statutes that permanently incorporated the Biblical and Oriental institutes into the Gregorian were approved by the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education on Feb. 11, 2024, and “will come into effect on May 19.” The two institutes will become part of the university but will retain their own names and missions.

The Gregorian University was founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1551 as part of the Roman College; it counts among its alumni 28 saints and 16 popes. The Biblical Institute (commonly known as “the Biblicum”) was founded in 1909 by Pope Pius X. The Oriental Institute (called “the Orientale”) was founded in 1917 by Pope Benedict XV.

Commenting on the fact that they now have the approved statutes, Father Lewis said: “It’s one thing to have the sort of theoretical way it’s going to be; it’s another to live it. I think we’re just at the beginning of that process of making this an integrated university with the Orientale and the Biblicum.” He reckons it will take the remainder of his term as rector “to get it in good form.”

As rector of the Gregorian, Father Lewis will be assisted by a six-member council that includes the new presidents of the Biblicum (Peter Dubovsky, S.J.), the Orientale (Sunny Thomas Kokkaravalayil, S.J.) and the Collegio Maximum, the name he chose for what was originally the Gregorian (Giuseppe Di Luccio, S.J.), “who share the responsibility for managing the entire university.” The university’s administrative director will be David Nazar, S.J., a former rector of the Orientale, while the council’s sixth member will be Mr. Luigi Allena, a layman who is the secretary general of the Gregorian.

Father Lewis called the three units of the newly integrated Gregorian “missions” because “they capture a direction that the papacy has given each of them in the course of history.” The Biblical Institute “was founded to do more scientific, exegetical studies on sacred Scripture.” The Oriental Institute, he said, is a “one of a kind; a place where you can study all of the Eastern churches, from India to the Middle East. Its library has a collection of documents that you don’t find anywhere else in the world; it helps prepare members of the Oriental churches to know their traditions and their identity.”

While the missions of the Biblicum and Orientale are “very specific and unique,” he said, “the mission of the Collegio Maximum (the original Gregorian) is much more traditional: preparing people for ministry in the church and doing up-to-date theology. Unlike the scientific courses of the Biblicum, its biblical theology department is more pastoral, more for seminary professors, for preachers.”

A strategic plan

Since Father Lewis became the rector, a broad consultation process has taken place at the Gregorian to produce a strategic plan for the next five years. “It sought to involve as many members of the university community as possible,” Father Lewis said, “including representatives of the students, because a strategic plan for a university must belong to the university community, not to the rector, a consultant or a committee.”

Father Lewis said they were assisted in this process by an external consultant, Professor Francesco Cesareo, the former president of the University of the Assumption in Massachusetts. They also benefited from the report of the external evaluation commission of AVEPRO, the Holy See’s agency for the evaluation and promotion of quality in ecclesiastical universities and faculties.

The strategic plan has four “priority areas,” Father Lewis said:

1. Enhancing and promoting excellence in the academic and student experience;
2. Identifying potential collaborations for the benefit of the university;
3. Ensuring the growth and diversity of resources for the university;
4. Strengthening the articulation and commitment of the shared educational mission in each area of the university, through the ongoing process of integrating the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Pontifical Oriental Institute into the Gregorian University.

During the Christmas break, Father Lewis had an audience with Pope Francis and gave him a copy of the plan. “The pope was very interested in the strategic plan and the plan for improving the university,” he said.

‘Sing as a choir’

Pope Francis had already expressed his interest in such developments, Father Lewis said. He recalled that on Feb. 25, 2023, the pope had an audience with the rectors, staff and students of the pontifical universities and institutions in Rome and emphasized “the need to really evaluate themselves and find new ways of collaborating together.”

On that occasion, Francis recalled that “over the centuries, the generosity and foresight of many religious orders, inspired by their charisms, has enriched Rome with a remarkable number of faculties and universities.”

“Nowadays, however, faced with a smaller number of students and teachers, we risk dissipating our valuable energies due to the very multiplicity of centers of study,” the pope told them. “In this way, instead of fostering the evangelical joy of study, teaching and research, we face the threat of being hampered by fatigue.”

“Especially after the Covid-19 pandemic,” Francis said, “we urgently need to initiate a process that leads to effective, stable and organic synergy among academic institutions, in order to better honor the specific purposes of each and to further the universal mission of the church.”

Pope Francis was referring to the fact that as of the 2021-22 academic year, there were 22 pontifical academic institutions in Rome, attended by 15,634 students from 125 countries and taught by 2,056 professors.

The Gregorian is the oldest and largest pontifical university in Rome. It has 2,844 students from 125 countries, taught by 344 professors. The next largest university is the Lateran (founded in 1773), followed by the Salesian (founded by the Salesians in 1940), the Urbaniana (founded in 1627), Santa Croce (founded by Opus Dei in 1984), the Angelicum (founded by the Dominicans in 1577) and the Antonianum (founded by the Franciscan Friars Minor in 1887).

Pope Francis called on the 22 institutions to “sing as a choir” and pleaded, “Please, never be soloists without the choir.” Father Lewis agrees. “We can’t have 22 soloists.” He noted that “the tendency of universities is to become soloists…because each has their own charism.” But, he said, “there’s also a sense that we’re doing some of the same things and so we can collaborate; we don’t have to repeat courses and professors.”

Francis’ message is “to see where we can find common purpose,” Father Lewis said. “It is also what we have heard from the generals of the religious orders: to find ways to collaborate, to find ways to conserve resources, to make better use of religious personnel. It is an issue that is being looked at by CRUIPRO, the conference of the rectors of the 22 pontifical Roman universities and institutions.”

This type of collaboration is exactly what the second priority of the Gregorian’s strategic plan is concerned with, Father Lewis said.

“We haven’t even really started scratching the surface of that yet, but when we start to find the synergies, I think we will create places that are better in each of the individual institutes…. Then we would be ready for whatever the demographics bring,” he said.

Demographic challenges

Looking ahead 10 or 15 years, Father Lewis said he is now considering two demographic challenges. First, he said, “the number of Jesuit vocations has been in decline for a while.” Today, there are around 17,000 men in the Society of Jesus, compared to some 30,000 when Father Lewis entered. And, he noted, there are fewer Jesuits with doctorates, “so it becomes harder to find faculty.”

Challenge number two, he said, comes from the fact that “while now more than 20 percent of our student population is not seminarians or priests but lay people and religious.” Because of the cost of living in Rome, Father Lewis does not expect the number of lay students to grow much more, and “the number of seminarians is not necessarily going to stay stable. So we have to start thinking about what’s the correct size.” He said that “the question of collaboration comes in here: If nine institutes in Rome have a first cycle in theology, will all of them be able to have sufficient students to make that a worthwhile project? And will it be possible to have the full faculty for a first cycle in all of those places?”

He reported that “Cruipro has started creating a system whereby somebody in the first cycle could take courses at another institution. And we would like to expand that more because then it becomes more of a consortium. You can get a taste of the other places, which would be a real advantage to studying here. That would be a first step in collaboration. Maybe 10 years down the road, the demographic changes would call for unifying first cycles, but we’re not ready for that yet,” he said.

Jesuit charism

In an interview for the Winter 2023 edition of la Gregoriana magazine, Professor Cesareo, the external consultant, said: “This is a time of great opportunity for the university. It’s also time to imagine the Gregorian in a new way, always rooted in the Ignatian tradition, with its distinctive vision and mission.”

When I asked Father Lewis to unpack this, he said:

The Gregorian charism is very much a Jesuit charism. There’s an emphasis on quality of teaching. It is the top priority because if we’re going to do something, we want to do it to the best of our ability. Jesuit theology has always been very open to the world. So, it’s very much a lived theology, and I think that’s a very important aspect of what we do here, which is engaging in dialogue with culture, dialogue with other religions, as a way of deepening our own faith in our own experience of theology. That’s a very strong Jesuit piece; it comes out of our mission experiences, the fact that we’re worldwide, and the fact that we enculturate, we try and move into the cultures of the places where we arrive.

“The pedagogy that was developed in the 20th century, and in Jesuit high schools more than anywhere, was a reflection on the Ignatian exercises, and the sort of pedagogical elements that you can take from there,” he said. “So the idea of understanding who you’re teaching, where are they coming from, what’s their context, taking them from the experiences that they have, having them reflect on those experiences…. All of that leads to an active use of what they’ve learned.”

In our first interview in 2022, Father Lewis emphasized that “the goal of quality here is so important because most people teach the way they were taught. So if we can improve the pedagogy here, we also have an impact on university and seminary pedagogy around the world.”

In this second interview, he added:

We’re at a very important moment. The pandemic made it very clear that we have to be more aware of distance education, even though that’s not going to be a major feature of just doing online courses in theology. For formation reasons, it doesn’t make sense. But to start using the internet more as a resource is going to gradually replace the lecture system. And it’s going to be more important to have people who have the lectures online maybe, and use the class time to discuss it, to reflect on that experience and to learn how to do their own theology. So that’s a major pedagogical shift.

But, he remarked, “academic institutions tend to be fairly conservative in changing the way they teach, so this will take some real innovation. It’ll take some creativity, and it’ll take some time to give people new options.”

Father Lewis recalled that when he was teaching in the United States, one of the things he was interested in was “the idea of flipping the classroom.” He explained that whereas “in the traditional world you got the lecture, and then you went home and wrote about it,” flipping means “you hear the lecture online, you do the reading outside of the classroom, and then when you’re in the classroom, you write, you discuss and you have the laboratory, if you will, with the professor, so it changes the dynamic. The result could be that then you have a better interaction with the student. It’s more dialogical and you find out what they need to know or what they want to know.”

“The tendency,” he said, “has always been to come ‘from above’ with a curriculum, and especially in something like preparation for priestly ministry, it still is pretty top-down—you need to have Christology, you need to have ecclesiology. There’s a whole series of things that you really need to be competent in to be a minister professionally. At the same time, every culture is going to understand that differently, and the experiences of their world are going to be different ways of understanding those top-down subjects.”

A university to the nations

When I asked if as rector he sees “a great diversity in the [academic] level of students” that come to the Gregorian from different parts of the world, Father Lewis said, “My experience here has been that, for the most part, the bishops, the religious superiors, tend to send some of their best and brightest to Rome to study.” But, he said, there’s still a big diversity, for example, in their knowledge of history. “So it goes back to that first element of Ignatian pedagogy: You’ve got to know the context of your students. So I think that’s the challenge that we’ve always had here at the Gregorian. It’s been a university to the nations from the beginning, but it’s moved even in my time here, it’s moved a great deal from more Western students to more [students from] developing countries.”

When I remarked that this is hardly surprising, “since the axis of the Catholic Church is changing,” Father Lewis said:

Yes. It’s changing and it would be foolish for us to insist on being Eurocentric at this point, it makes no sense at all. As a result, we have to figure out how we identify and affirm the intelligence and the experience that students are bringing from those other parts of the world. And their ways of looking at theology, their ways of looking at history and philosophy.

I noted that the Gregorian is also bringing in professors from different areas of the world. Father Lewis acknowledged this but pointed out that “for us this is another challenge, because we can bring in religious fairly easily to teach because we have our network, we have our contacts. The general can call Jesuits to Rome fairly easily. But to the extent that we started having lay teachers, and we have quite a few, they are going to tend to be European because they have to get visas, they have to be familiar with the culture, they have to be able to find places to live. So it’s another challenge, not insurmountable, but it’s another piece of the puzzle.”

[Part II: How the pontifical university founded by St. Ignatius is changing to meet the needs of modern students]

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