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Gerard O’ConnellApril 23, 2024
Mark Lewis, S.J. (Daniel Ibáñez/EWTN Vatican, courtesy of Pontifical Gregorian University)

The American Jesuit Mark Lewis, S.J., is currently the rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, will become the first rector of the newly restructured Gregorian University, incorporating the Biblical Institute and the Oriental Institute.

In this second part of the interview with America’s Vatican correspondent, Father Lewis discusses the practical changes that will follow the unification of the three Jesuit-run academic institutions, each of which will remain in their present buildings in Rome. He also speaks about how the university will seek to adjust to today’s changing educational landscape and his desire to educate students who are “open to growth.”

[Read Part I of the interview here.]

Changes at the Gregorian

When I asked Father Lewis what concrete changes he envisaged at the restructured Gregorian, he first pointed to the cost of educating students.

He noted that the academic world “has become a little bit more attuned to the business models and economics” of education, and “so there’s always a sense of, how much does it cost to educate a student?”

Since the Gregorian has almost 3,000 students, “the cost per student is relatively low,” he said. On the other hand, the Orientale and the Biblicum each educate around 300 students at a much higher per-student cost.

“In coming together [in the restructured Gregorian university], nothing changes a great deal, except that everything goes into a single pile. So now we have maybe 3,600 students. The costs will be pretty close to the same, but the cost per student changes a little bit.”

“It’s not a major change,” he admits. “But we start finding economies of scale: We have a single treasury, we have a single registrar, we have a lot of things that we can put together, and it becomes ways of making a budget that’s more realistic.”

In other words, Father Lewis said, “It’s finding ways to make this profitable or productive for all three of the missions. I don’t want to do anything that would take away from the ability to do the three missions.”

He pointed to language instruction as one practical example of how the new structure can lower the per-student cost. “Since all three institutes have to teach a lot of [ancient] languages like Greek, we can start to organize the language instruction…. Instead of having five people taking Greek at the Biblicum and five people taking it at the Gregorian, we can form a single course of 10.”

The modern languages that students need have mainly been “outsourced” to language centers, he said, because “everybody has to learn Italian when they come here as it is the lingua franca of all three institutes. It’s not going to be Dante’s Italian, but it’s a working Italian.”

Father Lewis also highlighted another great enrichment from studying in Rome: Students build relationships with people from other parts of the world. “It’s one thing to read about the church in India or in Indonesia or the church in Africa; it’s another thing if you know somebody who’s working there because you studied together.” In this way, he said, “you absorb the spirit of universality of the church.”

‘Skate to where the puck is going to be’

With the strategic plan for the integrated Gregorian University now in place, Father Lewis’s challenge is to make this plan a reality during his term as rector. He recalled that when he was engaged in strategic planning for Jesuit provinces in the United States, he often used a quote from Wayne Gretzky, the famous Canadian former hockey player, who used to say that the way to success is to “skate to where the puck is going to be.”

Father Lewis remarked, “That’s the challenge today: to see where the church and the academic world [are] going to be in 10 or 15 years because we have to skate toward it.” But, he added, “Since institutions don’t move quickly, you have to have a five-year plan that leads to the 10-year plan, and then further on.”

As a church historian, Father Lewis can draw on his knowledge of the Council of Trent as he seeks to navigate the way ahead for the university in a rapidly changing world. He noted that many regard Trent as “a very conservative council” whereas, in reality, it was incredibly reform-minded. But, he said, “it took at least 100 years for institutions to really get into place to follow the directions that were indicated by Trent.” He said: “The same is true with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It’s not implemented yet. It takes a good century. And we’re still not there.”

A significant difference between the post-Tridentine world and the post-Vatican II world is the pace of technological change. “We have the internet, computers, artificial intelligence and all of this is in the space of 20 years,” Father Lewis said. “So the change is happening more quickly. We have to be able to start thinking about how we adjust to the changes in our world and still remain faithful to the reform council that was Vatican II.”

‘Students open to growth’

In our first interview in 2022, Father Lewis said that enhancing and promoting excellence in the academic and student experience would be his top priority. When I asked how he measures excellence, he responded:

It’s one thing to just memorize things and be able to recount in a homily what the nature is of Christ. But if you can go and then put it into your own culture, into your own experience, and use it to adapt to the needs of the moment in your world, wherever that is, that is how I would say it’s excellence. And those kinds of outcomes are usually evaluated by what our students are doing five or 10 years out.

In the first interview, Father Lewis also said he was looking for students who are open to growth. He said that while students may come in with very strong positions and even fixed ideas on certain questions, if they’re open to growth, you can work with them and move forward.

“If you have somebody who’s not open to growth, who’s not interested in anything more than what they already have, that person is very hard to teach,” he said. “The converse is true as well: If you have someone who is bright and is open to growth, happily, you don’t have to do a lot to obtain an excellent alumnus. They’re already predisposed. I think, to some extent, we get students who want that kind of education. We just have to make sure that we provide that education at the highest quality, which means at the level that they’re able to take it, absorb it and grow from it.”

At the synod in October, Pope Francis expressed his concern that many young priests who come out of seminaries or academic institutes today often seem to be closed off to the world or rigid. I asked Father Lewis if he sees this phenomenon at the Gregorian, and if so, how professors deal with it.

“What we have to try to do here is get people to realize…that we still have to live in a world where people are dying, where people are dealing with very big issues in the confessional,” he said. “You have to be open enough to help them where they are and bring them to where God wants them. And that’s a process that requires creativity and intelligence. That to my mind, is what we’re trying to do.”

As for students who really are rigid or closed off, he said: “I think that would be more of a minority. You get people who are conservative, have more traditional views, but again that’s fine. But you should be able to articulate it and you should be able to apply it to the world that you live in. If you can do that then, ultimately, you’re going to grow with the people you serve.”

Finding consensus

When I asked Father Lewis if he had gained unanimous support for the strategic plan, he smiled broadly and said, “I think anyone who’s lived or worked in the academic world will tell you if you had unanimous support for something, you should really look at it again because it’s probably wrong.” In the case of the Gregorian’s strategic plan, he said, “There’s consensus, but there’s not going to ever be unanimity because we’re able to think.” Complete unanimity, he added, “would show a lack of freedom.”

I concluded the interview by asking Father Lewis what he dreams of achieving by the end of his six years as the rector.

He said that when he learned he was going to be made the rector, his prayer was that he would “leave the place better than I found it.” A major part of that goal, he said, is creating a center to prepare young faculty “to learn new ways of teaching because I think that’s going to be a key element in the longer term. How do we teach in a way that’s effective for this generation?”

Second, he hopes that the 22 papal institutes in Rome “become more cooperative and find synergies. I think those are two things that in the next few years we can get to, and I would like to be in a position where the next rector in the following five to 10 years will be able to start preparing for whatever that future down the road is going to be, though we’ll be skating toward the puck.”

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