By Jerry Duggan
As a theology teacher and assistant principal for formation at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory of Houston, Mark McNeil has made a career out of drawing students and colleagues closer to God. What many do not know, however, is that McNeil’s own faith journey has had many twists and turns.
McNeil grew up in south Texas. Faith was not a priority in his household until his middle school years, when his parents sent him and his sister on a bus to a nearby Baptist church on Sundays. It is here that McNeil grew curious about religion and became fascinated with Scripture.
By the time he finished high school, McNeil had been a part of several Protestant churches, finally settling into a deeply anti-Catholic congregation. Intent on becoming a minister, he enrolled in Texas Bible College where he studied Scripture for several years.
“When I was in college, I began to read more theological works, and was increasingly drawn to a more orthodox form of the Christian faith,” he said. “I felt a desire to be connected to a more historical form of Christianity.”
McNeil so loved his studies that he continued his education at Luther Rice Seminary, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biblical studies. Next came a Master of Arts in Theological Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
The more McNeil read, the more he fell in love with the Catholic faith.
“The Catholic tradition had a richness and depth to it that was, and still is, very attractive to me,” he explained. “Things like the sacraments and the Trinity were vast domains that I had no prior experience with.”
A key influence leading to his conversion to Catholicism was the guiding hand of a wise priest and teacher at the seminary. That priest, it turns out, is also a graduate of Strake Jesuit.
“His sincere, authentic presentation of the Catholic faith showed me what it was all about and made me want more,” he said.
McNeil entered the Catholic Church in 1999. At the time, his career was at something of a crossroads.
“I had been in school a long time, and was finishing up a degree in philosophy, but since I was now part of the Catholic Church, a lot of my opportunities for Protestant ministry were no longer options,” he said. “I needed to figure out how I could use my background to serve in the Church.”
He knew that his lifelong ambition was to transmit the Word of God to others. He thought working in Catholic education was a great way to do this, so he submitted his materials to the Catholic Schools Office in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
An unexpected opening came up in Strake Jesuit’s theology department halfway through the 1999-2000 school year. McNeil jumped at the chance. He is still there 21 years later.
“I did not anticipate staying for a long time at first – it was more of a chance for me to explore the option and take a break from finishing my studies – but I fell in love with teaching and haven’t looked back,” he said.
McNeil always assumed his talents would be best utilized working with adults, but he grew to enjoy teaching the young men at Strake.
“My students were full of energy, and that energized me,” he said. “They were also very bright and getting to watch them grow into young men was fulfilling,” he said.
Several years into his tenure at Strake, McNeil went on a pilgrimage to Spain with a group of colleagues. Upon his return, he read more on the Spiritual Exercises, went on several retreats and read Jesuit Sources, becoming a student of Ignatius.
A few years later, Strake’s new principal tapped McNeil for an administrative role: assistant principal for formation. At first, he was reluctant to shift gears, but, in time, has thrived in this assignment.
“I loved working with students so much that I was a little apprehensive to work with faculty instead,” he acknowledged.
In this role, McNeil works closely with the school’s principal and the academic assistant principal in ensuring that the school recruits faculty who are committed to its mission. After they are hired, they work together to make sure that they remain committed to living out that mission once they arrive on campus.
To accomplish this, McNeil regularly meets with all faculty and staff to discuss the basic tenets of the school’s Catholic, Jesuit identity. He also steadily works at evaluating and developing new programming for the faculty and staff to facilitate individual and collective spiritual growth.
Each day is different, and McNeil is grateful to be in this position – and continuing to grow in his own faith along the way.
“My time at Strake has taught me so much,” he said. “The more I learn about the Catholic faith and Ignatian Spirituality, the more I find that my life continues to be enriched and transformed by them.”