An Interview with Father Mark Francis

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your call to priesthood? How did your academic work inform your priesthood?


Father Mark: Since I was a child I felt called to be priest. This calling became even stronger when I entered high school and I was able to witness the way the Viatorian brothers and priests ministered to the students in the school through teaching and other services. I identified with them and also felt called to teach. Since they offered a life that combined teaching and priesthood with living in community with brothers and priests, this seemed to be the perfect vocational combination for me.

Dr. Knight: As a scholar you seem to really enjoy your ministry. What sustains and supports you in this challenging task?


Father Mark: I especially enjoy when students are able to put together what they already know in new and exciting connections that have a practical bearing on their lives and ministry. Pope Francis among others has emphasized that Christianity is not just a set of ideas or dogmas, but a way to lead one’s life as a disciple of Christ. We don’t do this alone. There have been many people who have sustained and supported me on this journey, sharing this life, this discipleship. My underlying relationship with Christ—nourished by the scriptures and prayer—has allowed me to keep things in perspective and remember that “it’s not about me”—but about serving and witnessing the love of Christ to others.


Dr. Knight: The Pope has asked us to pray for the end of the pandemic and also to be faithful to prayer that help us all in our relationship with Jesus and His Church. Is it reading other people’s work, study and prayer that gives you the insight into your administration?


Father Mark: My area of theology is liturgy, so prayer is something I think about often. How do we pray? What do we pray for? How do we gather in the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit to both sustain our hope and challenge the deficient way we often live the Gospel? All of this is nourished by scholars whose research gives us deeper insight into our faith and by practitioners—ministers “in the trenches”—whose witness keeps our reflections about God grounded in real, human experience. It is in the dialogue between scholarship and experience that informs helps keep my approach to issues balanced and accessible to the people we are sent to serve.


Dr. Knight: Have you worked in other dioceses? Tell us what was significant about other assignments.


Father Mark: Over the course of my ministry as a priest I have worked either in the Archdiocese of Chicago or internationally—in Bogotá, Colombia and in Rome, as Superior General of the Viatorians. The great blessing in having international experience is to learn that you cannot take for granted that your particular point of view or vision is universal. It has taught me that you must always be in dialogue with the people with whom you are living and working in order to be effective. I was blessed by my time in Latin America and Italy to enter into a very different way of being Church than in the United States. In Colombia, the Church was an integral part of the culture and in some ways taken for granted. The same is true in Italy where it is important for people to see the faith that at times needs to challenge the existing order.


Dr. Knight: As an Administrator at Catholic Theological Union what is the mission of the school?


Father Mark: Inspired by the Second Vatican Council, CTU was founded by three religious communities—Franciscans, Servites, and Passionists—to train their men for priesthood. Today, with twenty-four communities part of the CTU “Corporation” the basic mission has not changed, but it has expanded. We are blessed now to welcome women—lay and religious—as well as lay men to study ministry alongside seminarians who will be ordained. It is important to note that we always describe CTU as a school for “theology and ministry” since the approach taken in our courses is always in view of pastoral application. We strive to help our graduates speak meaningfully to the contemporary society. Classroom interchange is all the richer because of the international student body. CTU has long valued inter-religious dialogue. From the beginning we had a Rabbi on faculty. Today members of the faculty include both a wonderful Jewish scholar and a Muslim expert in Islamic law. By last count we have around 40 different countries represented in the student body and helps both faculty and students think about and prepare for the globalized world in which they minister.


Dr. Knight: I am part of the RCIA program and I often reflect on how we can assist the next generation in being good Catholics. How does your work engage the young adults of your university?

Father Mark: As you know, almost 10% of the US population are former Catholics and labeled the “nones” – those without any religious affiliation. In a study done about four years ago one the principal reason that young people disassociate from the Church was that they never found anyone who could convincingly articulate a reason for being a Catholic. Equipping people to help make sense of the faith to this generation is one of the principal reason why schools like CTU exist. This goes beyond just catechesis and enables people to honestly question and engage in their search for God.


Dr. Knight: The Catholic Theological Union brings others the word of God. What have students shared with you on the benefit of your work at the school?


Father Mark: At CTU we have a renowned faculty that does a superb job in offering the best possible instruction in the different fields of theology as well as its practical application. My job is to help and sustain this work through administrating the school and helping the institution evaluate where it needs to go in order to meet the changing needs of the Church. Students have shared with me how their experiences and study at CTU have transformed their ability to minister more effectively and enriched their love for Christ and the Gospel.


Dr. Knight: The social media of this day especially during this pandemic has provided some wonderful aspects of communication as well as drawbacks. How can we use social media to assist others in knowing/loving/serving God?


Father Mark: Social media offers us the ability to connect and point to the ways in which the loving presence of God is manifest in the world. Unfortunately, it can also promote narrow, bigoted views of the world that really impede God’s grace. By assuring what we do with social media always strives to represent the best of the Catholic tradition and ultimately invites others into a joyful contemplation of our faith in Christ we can avoid appeals to a narrow and rigid sectarianism that does little to bring people together. Our use of social media also needs to encourage people to go out into the world that is suffering and need of consolation. It is there—in working with those “on the periphery” the poor, immigrant, and marginalized—that the presence of God is most keenly felt.


Dr. Knight: You have very impressive academic degrees do you have time to read what appeals to you? Could you suggest some books in this time of the virus that would help us to realize that God is not abandoning us?


Father Mark: In addition to more technical works on liturgy, I am presently reading David Brook’s The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life an exploration on what it means to live a meaningful life. Brooks is a New York Times editorial writer who I read regularly. I find this a great book to tackle while sheltering from home since it asks the basic questions that we all must pose, ultimately emphasizing the role of community as essential for a life with purpose. This naturally includes his reflection on God from two religious tradition with which he is familiar, Judaism and Christianity.


Dr. Knight: What part of your past ministry is most meaningful to you at this point in your life?


Father Mark: When I was Superior General of the Viatorians, visiting our brothers in the 15 countries where the community is at work, was a stimulating and challenging part of my ministry. Since I speak both Spanish and French I was able to speak directly to many of my confreres who have led extraordinary lives of service for many, many years. This experience has equipped me to more open and accessible to others who live out their faith in ways I never before imagined. This experience was truly a grace from God.


Dr. Knight: What are your hopes for the future of the Church in light of the abuse scandal? The virus?


Father Mark: We can never return to the world or the Church as it was before this crisis. The experience of the last several month has exposed real fault lines of inequality within our society. Those in the service industries deemed “essential” and unable to work from home have put their lives on the line for the rest of us—mainly because they cannot afford not to work. The pandemic has also challenged our ability as Catholics who are part of a profound sacramental tradition of worship to proclaim the presence of God. It remains to be seen when we will be able to celebrate the Mass in the physical presence of one another—something necessary for entering into a true celebration of the Eucharist which is essentially a sacrificial meal. Just as no one can eat a “virtual” Thanksgiving meal, so it is with the Eucharist. At the same time, being forced to worship virtually many have discovered new ways for us to share and proclaim our faith—through the preaching of men and women in liturgies of the word and by means of the basic prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours.


Dr. Knight: What recent movie such as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was one you enjoyed?


Father Mark: I just saw Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” about the Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jäggerstätter who refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler during World War II because of his Catholic principles and was tortured and killed. It was a cinematic tour de force that constantly juxtaposed the sublime beauty of the Austrian Alps where Franz and his wife had their farm with the indifference and even cruelty of neighbors, civic authorities and even church leaders who were all too ready to abandon their principles to “get along” with the Nazis. It constantly asked the viewer the burning question, “what would you have done under these circumstances?”


Dr. Knight: What kind of changes did you make as changes occurred in the last ten years in your order or the Church?


Father Mark: One of the great changes and blessings that I promoted and experienced as a Viatorian priest is the strengthening of the lay associate part of our community. Viatorian lay associates are people who are inspired by our charism, wish to share our prayer and community, and who work to further the mission of the Viatorians and who dedicate themselves to “raise up communities where the faith is lived, deepened as celebrated.” This parallels the growing need in the Church at large to allow gifted and trained lay people to contribute to the mission of the Church.


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