A Tribute to A Holy Man, A Timely Mission, A Great Method – Academically Excellent and Passionately Catholic


Has gone home to the Father… after helping rebuild the Church Universal and leaving a legacy of living stoneis!

In tribute to Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R., a Franciscan Friar of the Third Order Regular, a son of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he endeavored to imitate and whom he resembled in his joy-filled love of life and his simple and undivided following of the Lord Jesus Christ to whom he gave his all. WATCH what may likely be the last television interview he granted before retiring: https://vimeo.com/46386503.

Leaving behind, like St. Francis, a bright career – as a Wall Street lawyer and Air Force Officer – Fr. Mike used his deep faith, his intellectual acumen, and his discipline in all areas of his life for the well-being of the Church. Like our holy father St. Francis, the Lord Jesus asked Fr. Michael to “Rebuild my Church”, specifically through “dynamic orthodoxy” and a vibrant spiritual life on one particular college campus. That special little portion of the kingdom still sits and shines as a city on a hill shedding its bright light to thousands across the globe, rebuilding the Church Universal with living stones wherever its parishes and apostolates, universities and youth groups, marriages and families, seminaries and religious communities have fallen into disrepair. Fr. Mike did not bury his talents nor has my alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville!

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

I am blessed to have been influenced by Fr. Michael and received from him a witness to faith, hope and love and Franciscan living as a fellow Franciscan who follows Jesus Christ in the footsteps of St. Francis in the Secular Franciscan Order, a.k.a, Third Order.

I am grateful to have graduated with a Master of Arts in Theology and Christian Ministry with honors from Franciscan University under the leadership and the clear preaching and the daily witness of Fr. Michael and the other Franciscan Friars who made such a fine institution a place of growth in holiness.

I am privileged to have known the Man, been a part of his Mission, and benefitted from has Method.

I am honored to have been his TV guest and to have had him as my TV guest.

Below is the updated blog post I wrote after being interviewed by Fr. Mike, Scott Hahn and Regis Martin on the topic of Hispanics and Catholicism on what I believe may have been among the last “Franciscan University Presents” shows he hosted (Reaching Out to Hispanic Catholics: http://bookstore.franciscan.edu/ePOS?form=shared3/gm/merch.html&item_number=F11156&cat=784&store=421&design=421), and after interviewing him for my weekly television show, “Prepare The Way”, in what I believe may have been the last television interview he granted just months before his retirement in June of 2011 (https://vimeo.com/46386503; https://vimeo.com/marthafernandezsardina). Enjoy!

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 long 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 in the summer of 2011, 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 in May of 2011, 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 on Prepare The Way for Catholic Television of San Antonio, CTSA-Channel 15, and we discussed this amazing journey of faith with the man with a mission and a method:  

  • Why would this Harvard Law School graduate and Air Force Officer leave a future on Wall Street to live as a Franciscan?
  • How did God call on one man’s transformed life to transform a small, struggling, Catholic college into a world-renowned leader in Catholic higher education and a center of spiritual renewal?
  • Why are spiritual disciplines key to freedom, holiness, and achievements of all sorts?
  • How much smaller must we 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 recalled. “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.”

Ivy League leadership for big league holiness?

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 seventeen consecutive years in a row (2015), U.S. News & World Report’s guidebook on “America’s Best Colleges” has ranked Franciscan University of Steubenville in the elite “top tier” 20 best Midwestern universities.

Build an ‘a-list team’ of competent wanna-be saints

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.”

Was the vision well-received and what made it work?

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,” said 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 discipline, 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 knew that and taught that well.

Prayer: don’t leave home without it!

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.”

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 recalled. The “university make-over” consisted of many changes, small and big, born from those hours of prayer, some of which were quite radical.

Fr. Michael Scanlan’s leadership and personal example 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.

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 40+ 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,” said 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.

Humility is knowing it’s not about you!

Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R., a humble, faith-filled Franciscan Friar who did great good and exemplified personal holiness, had the authority to speak about great achievements and lasting fruit. Yet… he recommended that all accolades and any praise we receive be handed daily to the Lord from Him all blessings come, the Almighty an All-loving God to Whom belong all the praise and glory for any and every good He allows us to achieve with His help! Fr. Michael knew that. And he knew 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 knew 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) 

Well done, good and faithful servant

Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. lived well and died well!

Fr. Mike: enjoy the promise made by your Lord and your All:

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ (Matthew 25:21)

Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. 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 these can be purchased online (http://astore.amazon.com/charismaticlibrary-20?_encoding=UTF8&node=77.)

Watch my Prepare the Way television interview to enjoy in full the remarkable story of A Man on A Mission with A Method of renewal, and hear an important message about growing in humility and littleness the greater we become.

As we pray for his eternal repose and ask now for his intercession, let us follow Fr. Mike’s example and advice as we preserve and carry on his legacy:

Let’s be humble!

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

Let’s be saints!


Let’s prepare the way of the Lord!

Fr. Mike, pray for us!

Past episodes of Prepare the Way shows can be viewed online at https://vimeo.com/marthafernandezsardina and www.youtube.com/user/ievangelize1. To book me for a speaking engagement in Spanish or English, a new evangelization training workshop, a TV or radio interview and for past conference talks, articles, radio interviews, CDs and DVDs, new evangelization training resources, 12 Tips for An Effective New Evangelization30 Ways iEvangelize, 12 Steps to Incorporating Hispanics Into Parish Life, and various New Evangelization Love Outreach projects, outreach items, and seminars, contact me at:







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