A Man, A Mission, A Method – Academically Excellent and Passionately Catholic

We all know that over the last several decades, Catholic higher education has undergone a series of significant changes. Some universities that bear the name Catholic many times appear to hold values contrary to the Catholic Faith. Some institutions allow and even support positions and activities that are contrary to the Church’s teachings. Non-Catholic and even anti-Catholic ideas are taught as equally acceptable and as if they were as valid as Catholic thought and teachings, while self-destructive and sinful behavior among the student body is overlooked and even sanctioned by faculty and administrators alike. Very often this is done in the name of freedom of speech and intellectual openness, and acceptance of all human beings and ways of life. This is not new: it started decades ago.

Universities faced the challenges brought about by the increasingly secularized and relativistic world we now live in. Many universities began to make changes as their students gravitated towards this secularism and relativism, and embraced overdrinking and sexual “freedom”, neglecting and damaging their spiritual life, which became evident in so many ways, not the least of which was the sharp decline in Confession and Mass attendance.

Many Catholic universities made radical changes – the effects of which are still felt today. One such place was the College of Steubenville, now known as Franciscan University of Steubenville, a radically changed place that is changing lives from coast to coast and beyond the US borders. Not only did it not become less Catholic, it actually became more intentionally Catholic, espousing a truly “dynamic orthodoxy” in all it did and said, becoming a well-recognized center of academic and spiritual formation that is truly “Academically Excellent and Passionately Catholic”, as their motto now states, making this institution a leader in its own right.

How did this happen?

The university was turned around by a man… with a mission… and a method.

That man is Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R., a Franciscan Friar Third Order Regular who retired this summer after 37 years with Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio. Fr. Michael served as its president for 26 years and another 11 years as the chancellor. At the graduation ceremony this past May, a month before he was set to begin his retirement, Fr. Michael was publicly honored for his long years of tireless and fruitful service, and the title of “President Emeritus” was bestowed upon him, an honorary title never given before, which indicates the deep gratitude the university and Franciscan community have for his outstanding leadership and historical achievements in reshaping and renewing a once-declining Catholic institution of higher education.

I interviewed Fr. Michael Scanlan at Franciscan University. Don’t miss Prepare The Way this coming week on Catholic Television of San Antonio, CTSA-Channel 15, as I discuss this amazing journey of faith with the man with a mission and a method. Learn…  

  • Why this Harvard Law School graduate and Air Force Officer would leave a future on Wall Street to live as a Franciscan
  • How God’s call on one man’s life transformed a small, struggling, Catholic college into a world-renowned leader in Catholic higher education
  • Why spiritual disciplines are key to freedom, holiness, and achievements of all sorts
  • How much smaller we must be, the greater we become – exercising humility before God and men.

Father Michael Scanlan’s history with Franciscan University of Steubenville goes back to 1974. He arrived at the then-college at a time when Catholic schools and universities were folding under pressure from polls and boards. “The wave across Catholic education had been toward a more secular education… (A poll) said that Catholic colleges and universities didn’t rank up with the secular ones, and they gave all these reasons. There was a meeting of Catholic educators and they started to incorporate the things that were highly rated: the Ivy League principles of Harvard, Yale, Princeton… They started to go that direction, to get that higher rating academically, and in the process the Catholic identity and the spiritual environment very much got diluted as they went for the academic,” Father Michael recalls. “I understood that, I had lived through it. I didn’t say ‘This was terrible’; I was just saying ‘That’s not who we are. We have to truly be Franciscan, Catholic, Christian in what we do throughout.”

A graduate of an Ivy League university himself, Fr. Michael Scanlan searched to find a balance. “I graduated from Harvard Law School and was in the Honors Program there, and I did start, when I was Dean here, the Honors Program to challenge the critical thinking…(but) my main thrust was to create a really spiritual environment, a place that was truly Catholic in both its daily life as well as in its teaching.”

So, in a completely opposite move to what was being done at other Catholic schools, this faith-filled friar countered the popular belief than Catholic institutions should follow in the footsteps of their secular counterparts to address the challenges of declining enrollment, the pursuit of academic excellence, and “catching up with the times.” Instead, he began planting the university into the soil of a passionately and vibrantly Catholic environment. There, commitment to its spiritual heritage and to orthodox versus heterodox theology, would accompany commitment to prayer and a sacramental life among the faculty, staff, and students, and the life of the students would further be supported by a “household system” where healthy Christian support and challenge would facilitate and promote a climate of academic and spiritual excellence that would bring out the best from its students.

After close to four decades of loving service and great leadership, Fr. Michael retired as “President Emeritus” from a university that lives up to its motto –  “Academically Excellent and Passionately Catholic” – and has the statistics to prove it. For nine years in a row, U.S. News & World Report’s guidebook on “America’s Best Colleges” has ranked Franciscan University of Steubenville in the elite “top tier” of Midwestern universities.

The journey of success from the challenges of the 70s to this 21st century success story, clearly, was not an overnight victory. It was a deliberate method of planting and sowing that took preparation, planning, and prayer – lots of prayer!

“When I worked as President what I did was pray and pray hard. People who monitored my life at that time would say, ‘Frequently you would spend the first 3 hours of the workday praying somewhere.’ I just wanted what God wanted. I wanted to make sure what we were doing had a solid, spiritual foundation,” Father Michael recalls.

The “university make-over” consisted of many changes small and big changes born from those hours of prayer, some of which were quite radical. Father Michael played a key role in the development of both the academic excellence and the spiritually-vibrant Catholic identity of the university. One thing he did was establish Franciscan University as the university with the largest theology program in the country. “We started a theology major and I personally recruited people who were not only good teachers and orthodox Catholics, but who were fervent, alive in the Spirit…and made theology the most exciting discipline on campus, until it became the biggest major at the university, both undergraduate and graduate, and we have the largest theology program in the country now. That was key academically. But we needed also to create a real Christian environment for student life. We did that by creating households.” Clearly, part of his method of renewal was to surround himself with good and trusted partners, fully aware that no true and lasting fruit is produced single-handedly by one person: we need others, and that includes the wisdom and teachings of our good and trusted partners of centuries past who have developed the rich theological principles on which we base our lives.

Establishing a “household system” was perhaps one of the most innovative methodological steps taken. Though it caused some protest from the students, it was soon adopted by most – including the parents! – and is now regarded as one of the most distinctive characteristics and essential elements of the university’s way of life and its reputation for harnessing community challenge and support. “I made it obligatory for everybody to be part of a household… The household had to have a spiritual component to it: it had to gather to pray, had to share life, had to have some outreach like Mass, and Rosary and things of this nature. So, we created this system of small groups of mutual support, but faith-based, and we provided Advisors for them… who were fervent and they became the evangelizers and the moderators of all these groups and households.”

The obvious question is: Did the students appreciate this new mandate? Did they like it? “When I first announced that it would be obligatory by the following September or they would not be welcomed back, there were all sorts of protests and a thing in The Troubadour (the college newspaper) that nobody would come back. But they all came back and they found a new level of bonding with their fellow students through these households,” says Father Michael. The parents may have had something to do with the students coming back, he said, relieved to know their children were in a supportive and somewhat protective environment. But the students themselves began to enjoy this: “While the households needed to have a faith dimension, they could sponsor athletic teams, they could have social events, they could do different things, because we wanted their whole lives enriched, but we wanted a spiritual anchor. I had lived the Fraternity life in college and grad school and I knew what needs were fulfilled in that, and I knew we could fulfill them in another way.”

Another step in the method of renewal that this man on a mission implemented at Franciscan University of Steubenville was that of developing a strong sacramental life among student, faculty, and staff, such that the frequent reception of the Sacraments would be normative, a part of regular Christian living. A life of discipline was not foreign to this athletic Air Force officer and Harvard Law School graduate, including the spiritual disciplines of daily prayer and examination of conscience, Confession and Communion. “We taught many times that if you want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ then you need a discipline…acting like a disciple, and that requires commitment. You need the prayer commitment every day, the spiritual reading, the Sacraments: these have to be a part of your disciplines. And in your household you’re accountable to one another, but you also get support, to go to one another. I saw discipline as creating freedom to grow… The more you put in a balanced disciple, but a steady one, for prayer and for spiritual reading and for the Sacraments and for some spiritual fellowship with others… the stronger you get and you find, surprisingly, that you are more productive in other areas.”

Fr. Michael Scanlan’s leadership and personal example has helped thousands of young Catholics who attend the university to truly incorporate their Catholic faith into everyday life through daily Mass and participation in 24-hour adoration on campus. When he arrived, the only daily Mass was held in a small Eucharistic chapel; now Mass is held in the main chapel three times a day and some 300 students attend daily Mass and many more visit the adoration chapel around the clock. As with many other areas of Catholic faith,“Mass has just become a way of life…The adoration chapel always has students there.”  What God is calling each of us to be and to do can only be fully discovered in prayer.

Fr. Michael knows that and has taught that well. Prayer played a significant role in the life of this man with a mission and a method. In fact, it was in prayer that the Lord revealed to Fr. Michael his mission and allowed him to discover this proven method of evangelization and faith formation known as “dynamic orthodoxy” that has led this university to be “academically excellent and passionately Catholic.” Prayer has also been key in the lives of thousands of people who have attended this institution either as a student or as a participant in one of the dozens of conferences sponsored by the university every summer for the past 35 years.

One tremendously important way in which prayer has made a lasting difference for both students and conference participants is in the area of vocational and ministerial discernment: finding the mission and the method the Lord has in mind for them, be it marriage and family life, or the priesthood or the consecrated life, any strong vocational choices are made on campus regularly. “We’ve been told by many bishops that we’re producing more vocations to the sisterhood or priesthood than any other college that they know of,” says Father Michael, who has written on prayer and discernment: “If you pray you can know where you’re called. Ask ‘What does God want?’ That’s the passage to freedom.”  Father Scanlan shared with a smile that many young men choose to propose marriage to their girlfriends after a Holy Hour at that “Little Portion” perpetual adoration chapel or “Portiuncula” as it is called in Assisi and wherever replicas of it exist. The students have learned that prayer is crucial for discernment and grace-filled action.

Watch the entire Prepare the Way TV show interview to enjoy in full the remarkable story of a man on a mission with a method of renewal, and to hear an important message about growing in humility and littleness the greater we become.

Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R., a humble, faith-filled Franciscan Friar who has done great good and exemplifies personal holiness, has the authority to speak about great achievements and lasting fruit. He recommends that all accolades and any praise we receive be handed daily to the Lord for from Him all blessings come and to Him belong all the praise and the glory for any and every good He allows us to achieve with His help! Fr. Michael knows that. And he knows that this man with a mission and a method did not do this alone: like his spiritual father and mentor, St. Francis of Assisi, Fr. Michael single-heartedly served his God and his All, but not single-handedly did he renew His house which was falling apart. He was indeed the leader, but he had from start to finish great companions who also played their part and will continue to do so. A humble man, he knows that at the end of the day -and at the end of a well-lived life – we must all say as Jesus taught us: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”  (Luke 17:10)

Let’s be humble! Let’s be saints! Let’s do only and always what the Lord asks of us – for the greater glory of God and the good of His People!

Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. has published some 16 books and booklets, including his personal journey in Let the Fire Fall (Servant Books, 1986), Appointment with God (Franciscan University Press, 1987), The Truth About Trouble (Servant Books, 1989), Rosary Companion (Franciscan University Press, 1993), and his best-selling book on discernment and decision-making, What Does God Want? (Our Sunday Visitor, 1996.) Many of Fr. Michael’s books can be purchased online at http://astore.amazon.com/charismaticlibrary-20?_encoding=UTF8&node=77.

Prepare the Way airs three times a week on Catholic Television of San Antonio on Mondays (11:30 am), Wednesdays (10:30 am), and Fridays (9:30 pm).

Some Prepare the Way shows can also be viewed online at www.archsa.org/Evangelization on the Media, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent, Christmas, and Pastoral Letter pages.

Some of my TV shows, talks, and various videos can be found at www.youtube.com/user/ievangelize1.

Visit our website and YouTube channel regularly, as they are both being updated and redesigned.

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