How a university's Catholic identity was recovered

How a university's Catholic identity was recovered

AD2000 Report

The Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, announced in April that its chancellor and past president Father Michael Scanlan would be retiring on 30 June 2011. Dr Alan Schreck, a professor of theology at the university, describes how the 79-year-old priest took a leap of faith to renew Steubenville's Catholic identity.

"He saw his appointment as an opportunity to step out in faith, and do something radical - because a radical solution was needed," said Schreck. In 1974, the university was a "typical Catholic college," suffering from cultural and financial upheavals. But the Franciscan priest set out to "make Jesus Christ the Lord of the campus in every aspect."

"Fr Michael said we had to establish a clearer Catholic identity, both in the campus life and in our academic offerings," explained Schreck, who has taught at Steubenville since 1978. In this way, it took a different path from many other Catholic institutions of its day and "began hiring people who were solidly Catholic and believed in faithfulness to the magisterium ... The rest is history."

Radical decision

Fr Scanlan was president for 26 years, and chancellor for 11 years although Steubenville's history began in 1946, when the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular founded the College of Steubenville. But the college might not have survived beyond the 1970s, if not for the radical decision of a young Harvard law school graduate.

Michael Scanlan had been engaged to be married, and held a position in the legal department of the US Air Force. "But one day, at some point, he went out into the woods for a day - just to pray and ask God to reveal his will," Schreck recalled. "He really wanted to dedicate his life to God, but didn't know how ... At the end of the day, he came out convinced that God was calling him to become a priest."

After entering the Franciscans of the Third Order Regular in 1957, and being ordained a priest seven years later, he eventually became rector of St Francis Seminary in Pennsylvania.

Early in 1974, he met Alan Schreck, a recent college graduate, on the campus of Notre Dame. "There was an international conference that I was helping to organise at Notre Dame, and Fr Mike came out to be one of the speakers at the conference. We decided to go out for a little jog around the campus - and as we were going, he requested my prayers.

"He said he had a big decision to make. He was being considered for the presidency of this small, struggling Catholic college called the College of Steubenville."

At that time, Schreck said, the College of Steubenville was a "typical Catholic college," where faith was "part of the campus life," but not emphasised. "It wasn't fervently religious in any sense. There wasn't anything distinctive about its identity that would have set it apart in that area."

Schreck recalled that Fr Scanlan's experiences with the "charismatic renewal" in the late-1960s, along with his own Franciscan identity, provided him with a vision for reviving the College of Steubenville. "Fr Mike is a priest to the core, and a Franciscan to the core. He brought a spirit of joy, and a certain simplicity and poverty of spirit ...

"He really wanted to focus on the clear teaching of the Catholic faith, and a powerful proclamation of the Gospel." Soon, he began making significant changes to the college's academics and culture. Although Steubenville offered a few required theology classes during the early 1970s, it did not offer a degree in the subject. "He said, if we're going to be truly Catholic, we have to recognise theology as central to our identity. Theology became a major, and they began hiring people who were solidly Catholic and believed in faithfulness to the magisterium.

"The second thing was in campus ministry," Schreck explained. At the time Fr Scanlan became president, the most popular Mass for students was held at midnight. "A lot of students would go out and party, then they'd sort of drift into that Mass so they could sleep in all day the next day.

"Fr Michael said he wanted to take over the 10 o'clock Mass on Sunday morning, and it wasn't going to be shortened - it was going to be long, because he would be preaching. He personally said, 'I want this to be the focal point Mass.' It gradually became that, because people were attracted to his preaching of the Gospel."

He also wanted to develop a stronger sense of community, having read studies that showed college freshmen were at risk for depression and suicide. His solution, which remains a distinctive feature of life at Steubenville today, came from the charismatic movement. "In various charismatic communities, they had established what they called 'households,' which were small groups in which people would support each other," said Schreck.

In 1975, Fr Scanlan also began holding summer conferences on the campus. "He had conferences for priests, deacons, religious sisters, and the big one was for high-school-age youth." The annual Franciscan University Youth Conferences now host more than 35,000 young people at 18 locations in the United States and Canada.

Along the way, Schreck said Fr Scanlan never sacrificed the university's academic quality in the service of its dynamic spiritual life. "They were both necessary," he observed. The College of Steubenville gained university status in 1980, and became the Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1986. At that point, Schreck recalled, "it seemed that the corner had been turned," and Fr Scanlan's experiment had clearly exceeded expectations.

Today, as well as its expanded summer conferences, the university also offers distance learning, 42 undergraduate majors, and seven graduate programs. Schreck said that he expects the university to continue building according to Fr Scanlan's blueprint after his retirement to a more private ministry: "Because we put Christ first, at the centre of our campus, I'm very hopeful about the future of the university."

With acknowledgement to Catholic News Agency.

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