by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.
Father Mark Lewis: I was born in Miami, Florida and studied with the School Sisters of Notre Dame until my family moved to a more rural area in the center of the state. From fifth grade on I studied in public schools and came to know and appreciate the differences in church structure, ways of worship and theology from my friends. I am proud to say (as was he) that it was a Methodist minister who first suggested that I might have a vocation.
Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.
Father Mark Lewis: The practical ecumenism of friends probably motivated me to learn my Catholic faith during my high school years. I left high school with a great respect for the other Christian communions (and aware of all of our defects and sinfulness), and with a much stronger appreciation of my own Catholic faith, especially the sacraments.
Dr. Knight: You went to college and joined the seminary. How did you make that decision?
Father Mark Lewis: I had not heard of the Jesuits until I went to my parish priest to talk about a possible vocation. He had studied with the Jesuits and esteemed them highly. For that reason I decided to go to the Jesuit College in Mobile, Spring HillCollege. It allowed me to get to know the Society of Jesus and for them to get to know me. There I had the opportunity to participate in many college formation activities (retreats, service work, and especially valuable, the Knights of Columbus). All of this confirmed my vocation and led me to apply to the Society of Jesus. I entered the Jesuit novitiate in Grand Coteau, LA in 1980 after graduation. While I had no single “aha” moment, my experience of the Jesuits at Spring Hill and my continued strong sense of a vocation to the priesthood led me to that decision.
Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be a Jesuit. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Ignatius and Christ?
Father Mark Lewis: I would say that my vocation to the priesthood led me to the Society of Jesus. I had a strong sense from the time of my Confirmation to serve the Church as a priest. So in that respect the call to follow Christ came first and remains fundamental in my mind. The Society of Jesus offered me a unique way to live that priesthood in community and with a specific way of serving the Church. The spirituality of the Spiritual Exercises really had an important role in my priestly formation because it deepened that sense of following Christ. In that sense I think it is the strongest example of following Ignatius to the banner of Christ.
Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?
Father Mark Lewis: Jesuit formation, for me 11 year to ordination, plus tertianship after, helped to take the initial fervor and desire to be a priest, and located them within a stronger sense of all of the abilities and gifts that God has given me (and the obstacles that come in using them). I think there is a stronger sense of orientation as a result of the spiritual formation. In my studies in history I have grown to understand the importance of context and knowing from where we come. Finally the experience of different ministries, especially in the international context, have led me to appreciate the great variety of gifts that grace our universal Church.
Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?
Father Mark Lewis: Some of my studies (theology and history doctorate in Canada) and many years of assignments in Rome (ten years at the Jesuit Historical Institute, now four at the Gregorian) have really changed my life from someone happily located in the southern U.S. to someone who knows and appreciates the universal Church. I would never have imagined to have lived all of these experiences, but it has taught me so many things about the great Church in which we live.
Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a Jesuit? About living in community?
Father Mark Lewis: As a Jesuit my plans were to serve the Church in the South. But we join a universal Society, and so I find myself to have lived close to half of my Jesuit life outside of the U.S. The experience of living in two very international Jesuit communities has been extremely edifying. Despite challenges of language (I admire the patience of the Italians here), the great diversity of cultures and backgrounds we get along quite well.
We have our difficulties and misunderstandings that might be magnified by not understanding everything completely, but we get through those difficulties with an incredible degree of charity. Most people will say that there is no single mold or characteristic of being a Jesuit. But I think that our experience of the Spiritual Exercises, and their call for us to see the good in creation, to take the most charitable position, and to seek the presence of God in our midst, all give us an outlook that makes our own specific personality a bit different.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?
Father Mark Lewis: As a historian I would point out that every generation in the Church has its challenges. The future of the Church is always with our young people. How we treat them, how we raise them with Christian values, and especially how we educate them to think of others, the common good, remains a constant challenge. We will always have crosses to bear, there will always be martyrs in some part of our Church. I think we are called to recognize that, support one another with prayer even if we are far from them. We know what is going on in places far away much more quickly than ever before. We have more means to help, and we can always remain in the solidarity of prayer.
Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a Jesuit follower of Christ?
Father Mark Lewis: In addition to sharing the experience of the Spiritual Exercises as a unique way of understanding and following Christ, I almost always find joy in the celebrations of life: Ordinations, weddings, baptisms, final vows, and even funerals. It is such a grace and a privilege to be with people at those moments and celebrate with them.
Dr. Knight: As a Jesuit what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?
Father Mark Lewis: My primary mission is to teach history and help guide the Gregorian University academically. I enjoy teaching and strongly believe that education has a great impact on the future of the Church. We have been entrusted with the education of many future leaders of the Church around the world, priests, religious and lay men and women. I enjoy taking that responsibility seriously and hope to make the quality of that preparation as strong and profound as we can. My prayer responsibility is for the universal Church, but also to pray for and with the students and community here at Rome, that we might fulfill our mission with integrity and God’s grace.
Dr. Knight: Thank you for being part of the great list of Jesuits in our news journal.