An interview with Fr. Dorian Llywelyn, S.J.

by Gordon Nary


Rev. Dorian Llywelyn, S.J. is a theologian and president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC. A native of Wales, he was educated in the United Kingdom, Spain and the U.S., earning degrees in English and theology from Cambridge University, the Pontifical University of Salamanca in Spain, and the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., and the University of Wales.


Prior to entering the priesthood, Fr. Llywelyn served in impoverished communities in Egypt and Indonesia as a member of Voluntary Service Overseas, the UK equivalent of the Peace Corps. As a priest, he’s worked in jails and with the homeless, led retreats, been a spiritual director in a Catholic seminary, taught at universities, been a high-ranking academic administrator, and served as a parish pastor.


Today, he leads the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC, an independent globally-focused research center located at the USC Dornsife College for Letters, Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.


He is the author of two books, has published articles in multiple academic journals, and is a frequent speaker on contemporary Catholicism, the Virgin Mary, and spirituality.


His writing and commentary have been featured in The Conversation, Angelus News, America Magazine, and Religion News Service.


Gordon: Tell us about your early life and what drew you to the priesthood.


Father Dorian: It took a long time and some unlikely paths for God to bring me to consider the priesthood. I was raised in a Baptist family in Wales and had virtually no contact with Catholicism during my childhood. At Cambridge, I majored in medieval literature, which was an immersion in the medieval Catholic worldview. Its hopeful but realistic understanding of the natural world and human nature struck a deep chord within me. I was baptized in Egypt at the age of 22. The call to priesthood had begun to make itself evident even then, but I had other plans for my life and I did my best to resist it. But in my late twenties, the urgings became stronger. I entered the seminary at the age of 29.


Gordon: Why did you decide to be a Jesuit priest instead of another Catholic order?


Father Dorian: Before I became a Jesuit 22 years ago, I was a diocesan priest for 10 years. As a diocesan seminarian, I’d already done the month-long retreat, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. That left a deep imprint on my faith. The Exercises are a wonderful map —not only for growing in prayer but also for orienting the whole of someone’s life.


I gradually came to see that as a Jesuit it was possible to be a priest as a teacher and a teacher as a priest. It was the combination of faith and learning — as well as the Spiritual Exercises — that drew me to the Society of Jesus. But the simple, real answer to that question “why?” is simply because God led me there. St. Ignatius talks about “seeking God’s will in everything we do.” That means that God does indeed have a will for each human person and that in faith, that will can be discerned and acted on. I’m quietly confident that it’s been God’s will that I’ve ended up as a Jesuit in California. It’s the way in which I think I can serve God and the Church best.


Gordon: You served in Voluntary Service Overseas. How have your travels and experiences working in different countries shaped your perspectives?


Father Dorian: I’m a bit of a linguistic sponge. Every language is a window into new world. Traveling to France alone at the age of 14 opened up new perspectives for me, and that was followed by many other similar experiences throughout my teens and twenties. My first encounter with Cairo — a city teeming with many people living in poverty — was a key moment. I’ve now lived in eight countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America – often in poor areas. That means I’m always thinking globally and multi-lingually. Two of the countries I’ve lived in are majority Muslim. That daily encounter with Islam gave me a sense of the gifts and challenges that the living world of many faiths brings. Long story short: my sense of the Church is deeply international and multicultural.


Gordon: What drew you to theology?


Father Dorian: I fell into theology almost accidentally. Initially, it was simply to meet the requirements for ordination. But Salamanca had some wonderful professors – several had studied under Karl Rahner. Through their teaching, I came first to admire and then to feel deeply at home within the beauty and the grand structure of Catholic theology, the way in which every part is related to each other. One of my professors, Father Ricardo Blazquez (now Cardinal Blazquez) told us we should always push forward in our theological thinking using our God-given intelligence, divine revelation, the treasury of Church teaching, and the wisdom of people who came before us. But he also said that even when our human thinking is illuminated by God’s grace, eventually when we think about God, there’ll always come a point we cannot cross. So our intellectual, and academic work as theologians should also always be humble. And Catholic theology is always thinking with and for the Church, the whole People of God on earth, and the Church in heaven. At its best, it’s a way of worshipping God.


Gordon: As a theologian and academic, what are your specific areas of focus?


Father Dorian: My initial research was about the notion of sacred place: what makes a place holy, what that holiness consists of. My first book investigated the widespread sense that Wales, my native country, is somehow a holy place. After that, in my doctoral dissertation, I went on to explore nationality and national identity from a Catholic point of view. There really wasn’t much to go on in terms of papal teaching and theological explanation, so I really proposed several different ways of approaching place and nationality using the classic tools of Catholic theology. But I rarely taught those topics.


Mostly I taught Theology 101 (often at 8 a.m.!). Teaching undergraduates of all different religious convictions and backgrounds was very rewarding. It’s pre-evangelization at the very least. And although I didn’t have specific training in Mariology, it’s the area I’ve enjoyed teaching and researching the most: the figure of the Virgin Mary is like a railroad junction where so many different lines join. I’ve taught courses from freshman to doctoral level — and they have always brought out the best in students.


I’m also interested in — and written about — the intersection of faith and technology and the “theology of the Internet.”


Gordon: Why are those areas important in today’s world and, more specifically, to Catholics?


Father Dorian: When I wrote my dissertation on nationality, national identity, and nationalism almost 20 years ago, it seemed like a strange subject for many of my peer theologians. Since then, nationalism has become increasingly important on the world stage. “Identity” is a common buzzword, and arguments around the connection between religion and other aspects of identity is part of our daily bread. Many of those discussions and arguments need a deeper understanding. It’s not so much that they are wrong, but rather they are incomplete: there’s more to explore. We tend to concentrate on ethical aspects and stay there. But ethics are always based in something deeper – a vision of what being human is really all about. That’s where “the mind that is Catholic” – to borrow a phrase from my fellow Jesuit, the late James Schall – really comes into its own.


Gordon: What are the most important issues facing Catholicism today?


Father Dorian: How you answer that question is going to depend on where you stand. The Church is at a point where the majority of Catholics are in the developing world. Africa is the only continent seeing real growth.


But the mindset of the Church continues to be that of people who live in societies where belief is in significant decline. So first, I’d say a change of cultural perspective — away from being focused just on any one culture — is needed.


Secondly, unity. We are united by our common baptism and faith, but there are some deep fissures, and polarization is as present within the Church as in the whole of society.


Third, is the decline in institutional belonging and religious affiliation globally. There are worrying signs that as countries emerge out of poverty, they also become more secularized.


Fourth: credibility. The clerical abuse scandal has damaged the ability of the Church to speak convincingly on so many topics.


Fifth is the unstoppable impact of technology - something the Church, like the rest of society, is struggling first to understand and then to respond to meaningfully.


Gordon: What is the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC and what are your duties as president?


Father Dorian: The Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies is a globally-focused academic research institute located in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California. We aim to foster and help grow the tradition of Catholic thinking and creativity. We do this because we believe that the ever-evolving Catholic tradition has important gifts to offer the wider public. Practically, IACS instigates research projects, supports emerging Catholic scholars, runs events on relevant and timely topics which are geared to general audiences, and publishes top-level books with major academic presses.


As president, I’m responsible for creating the current vision of the Institute and its programs, doing my best to keep the ship on an even keel and on course in line with our Strategic Plan, and searching out new scholars, topics, and partnerships. That’s a lot of duties and I certainly don’t do it on my own: the Institute is blessed with a dedicated and exceptionally talented staff and a very supportive Board of Trustees.


Gordon: What role does IACS play in our society?


Father Dorian: Good faith needs good thought and vice versa. One without the other is always going to be insufficient. Good Catholic thinking is also good thinking, period. That involves rationality, humility, and an ability to accept whatever is good in other perspectives, understanding that God is the ultimate source of all goodness and truth. Catholic thought and imagination are relevant to far wider audiences than just the Church. But communicating means we have to be ‘multilingual’ – understanding not only fellow Christians or people of other faiths but also people of all convictions, in order to create the conditions for a really deep and mutual understanding. At a time of deep polarization, the Institute strives to model real intellectual inclusivity. We’re at a premier, secular research university, the ideal arena for the mission of the Institute.


Gordon: What is the biggest challenge facing IACS and why is it so challenging?


Father Dorian: Immediately, I’d say finance and fundraising. We left behind many years ago any idea that high-level academic work — what we call the “life of the mind” — automatically deserves funding. These days, academic endeavors, especially high-level research, really need to justify themselves.


Donors today - including good and generous Catholic ones – quite reasonably want to know the answer to “so what?” questions: why this work matters, what difference it will make, who and what will it affect. So when our world likes tangible impact and immediate relevance, communicating the long-term impact of research is a challenge.


Related to that challenge is the fact that the kind of Catholic intellectual work that went on in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century has now largely come to an end. The Church is rightly busy with pastoral concerns, which are very different from those of academics. On the other side, academia on the whole is indifferent to faith — and sometimes hostile — and certainly doesn’t have a deep familiarity with it.


As a European, I’m always struck by the American Catholic academic interest in ethics – as if faith were only or primarily about being a good person or creating a just and equitable society. But there’s more. We concentrate on the question of the good (what being a good person involves, what a good society is). We sometimes go into the question of truth (although we live in a society that is pretty relativist). But the area that rarely gets explored by many Catholic thinkers is beauty.


The Catholic imagination is a rich storeroom of accomplishments. That seems to be an important area for growth — and one that IACS is increasingly focused on. We aim always not only to tell people about Catholic thinking and creativity but also to help grow it.


Gordon: Thank you for a fascinating interview!