Viatorian Father Mark Francis addresses the congregation during his inauguration as president of Catholic Theological Union on Oct. 27 at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park. Catholic Theological Union photo
When Viatorian Father Mark Francis became president of Catholic Theological Union in July, he was arriving for his third tour of duty at the graduate school of theology, having first studied there and then taught liturgy for 12 years before leaving to serve as the general superior of his community.
“I did a lot of discernment and talked to several people about it, and decided to throw my hat in the ring because I really believe in the mission of this place,” Francis said in a Nov. 1 interview.
CTU was founded on the South Side in 1968 by three religious orders to educate and form their seminarians. Its scope and mission has grown over the years, including religious sisters and brothers and laypeople since shortly after its opening, and now it counts 24 sponsoring religious communities and students from 46 countries.
Francis, who was formally installed in a ceremony at Hyde Park’s KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation on Oct. 27, first came to CTU as a seminarian for his Viatorian community. Then, after ministering in Bogota, Colombia, for three years and getting a doctorate in liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, he returned to teach in 1988.
“I had just been made full professor,” he said, when his community named him superior general in 2000 and it was back to Rome for 12 years. During his term, he spent about half his time traveling around the world to visit Viatorians where they live and minister.
That allowed him to pursue his interest in inculturation of the liturgy, or how culture and liturgy interface.
That was the focus of his doctoral studies, and a topic that piqued his interest while ministering in Colombia. While there, he found many ways that the celebration of the liturgy was different from what he saw growing up in Arlington Heights.
“The story I always tell is about my first Holy Thursday Mass, with the washing of the feet,” he said. “We had the 12 men that were selected, and they were dressed like apostles — it was a little bit theatrical — and I washed their feet. I did everything that was in the book.”
Feeling a little relieved at the end of Mass — it was his first time celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in Spanish — he was surprised to be accosted by two women who looked upset.
“They told me I was not a humble priest,” he said. When he asked why, they told him that he must lack humility because he had not kissed the feet he washed, something that’s not “in the book” but was very much expected in their parish.
“The next year, I kissed the feet,” he said.
At the installation, Francis spoke of how, in the past, priests and lay ministers would go back to minister in cul-de-sacs, or selfcontained communities where everyone more or less shared the same culture with everyone else. Now, with the advent of a more global society, CTU graduates must be prepared to minister at “crossroads,” where people of all sorts come and go. That goes whether they are religious order members who will be sent on mission halfway around the world or lay ecclesial ministers who will be serving parishes here in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
The mission of preparing priests and lay ministers was what drew Francis back to CTU after he finished his term as superior general and took a sabbatical at Santa Clara University.
“As superior general, I was very concerned about the formation of our priests,” he said. “After the closing of Washington Theological Union, this is one of the few union models of seminary left. And diocesan priests are wonderful, but religious congregations need to be able to form priests for the kind of ministry we do.”
CTU also has long maintained relationships with both the Jewish and Islamic communities, and has welcomed laypeople who want to study to be lay ecclesial ministers. The Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program and Oscar Romero Scholars program develop lay ministers from within the African-American and Latino Catholic communities in the Archdiocese of Chicago and also add to the cultural mix of the school.
“It’s a crucial part of our mission. It’s our contribution to the archdiocese, and a real gift to both the archdiocese and us,” Francis said.
CTU is also home to the Bernardin Center, which aims to foster understanding in areas such as reconciliation, peacemaking, leadership development for the church, interreligious dialogue, the consistent ethic of life, and Catholic Common Ground.
Francis said he knows he could have found a less demanding ministry after leaving his sabbatical, but he wanted to lead CTU, especially at a time when smaller seminaries are closing.
“I see CTU surviving and thriving because of the vision we offer,” he said.