Father Michael Scanlan TOR
God is incredibly humorous and very creative. He loves to transform the most unlikely things into things of incredible grace. Salvation History is filled with this stuff, and Church history reveals it over and over again, that God is still going into the most unlikely places and drawing people and even places to Himself. Christ chose 12 awkward, B-Team men, from fisherman to tax collectors, and turned them into Pillars for the Faith. He made the man who denied him into the first Pope. St. Paul, murderer of Christians, became an Apostle. Criminals throughout the centuries were transformed into Saints. Augustine of Hippo, who was a ladies-man, became a great Doctor of the Church.
God transforms places too. Rome, the place of the greatest persecution of Christians and home to some of the greatest evil, became the capital of Christendom. This is what God does through the Church. He transforms. In honor of Brandon Vogt’s Support a Catholic Speaker month, I would like to speak about someone who I feel signifies this reality, and has aided in transforming the Catholic Church in North America. That person is Fr. Michael Scanlan TOR.
Fr. Michael Scanlan, after graduating from Harvard Law School, began his working career in the 1950’s as a Staff Judge Advocate in the US Air Force. He knew, however, that he was meant for something very different. In 1957, he joined the Third Order Regular Franciscans in Loretto, PA, and was ordained to the Priesthood in 1964. He served as the rector-president of St. Francis Major Seminary in Loretto, PA from 1969 to 1974.
In 1974, Fr. Scanlan was named president of the College of Steubenville, Ohio. This would be the move of his career, yet at the time, I am sure he had no clue what would be in store for him. To be honest, the College was really nothing more than a Catholic community college. In the 1970’s it was considered a party school. You might have asked about Steubenville in the 70’s, what people said during the time of Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”. You would not think so. In the fall of 1973, six students and eight members of the faculty attended the first Mass of the term. The school was in a spiritual free fall.
When Fr. Scanlan arrived at the school in 1974, after the previous president’s poor health caused him to step down, he found that his heart was burdened with a desire to see the school transformed. Fr. Scanlan knew that the Holy Spirit wanted to do something with the college, and that He did. The Holy Spirit began using Fr. Scanlan to lead the school in a whole new direction. According to his autobiography, Fr.Scanlan stated that “what was needed was a series of changes over time that would eventually alter the system and transform the whole atmosphere of the College. This would be a step-by-step process, but it would be guided by a clear understanding of the eventual goal – a spiritual transformation.”
Fr. Scanlan understood that outreach would be necessary in order to transform the school. He started playing intramural sports with the students and attended their plays and concerts. He even showed up to parties, even the ones that he was not invited to. To battle the students’ petitions for no curfews and co-ed dorms, he established “households” in the dorms, similar to fraternities or sororities, which provided mutual support in the context of Christian brotherhood or sisterhood.
Fr. Scanlan reached out to recruit young, faithful Catholics to attend the school and began offering summer conferences for them. He understood that these young people needed to receive a high quality education while at the same time offering them an authentically Catholic atmosphere and so he ensured the school would be the place to receive that. In 1985, they changed the name of the school to reflect the Franciscan character of the school, and it became Franciscan University of Steubenville.
As a real pioneer in authentic Catholic higher education, Fr. Scanlan ensured that the school would be faithful to Christ and the Church. In 1989, the friars as well as the members of the theology faculty at the Franciscan made the Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity called for in the New Code of Canon Law. They were the first Catholic University in the United States to make the Oath. Other schools followed suit, including such schools as Christendom College and Ave Maria University.
Since then, Franciscan University has grown to house over 2,400 students. It has hosted hundreds of conferences which have led to countless conversions and reversions in young people. It has helped form some of the world’s foremost Catholic theologians, catechists, and business people. Now, the little college of Steubenville has been put on the map as the home of Catholic revival in the United States, and has set the bar high for other universities to follow. Other Catholic schools have followed suit, and have worked to form incredibly good Catholic leaders just like Franciscan did. The school has had an incredible impact on Catholic culture in the United States and even the world. What did it take to make this change? It took one priest, willing to be faithful to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to transform a party school into one of the greatest Catholic colleges of all time.
Since the year 2000, Fr. Michael Scanlan retired as President and has served as chancellor for the school, and now lives in the Franciscan monastery in Loretto, PA. Thank God for Fr. Michael Scanlan. Thank God for his yes to the Holy Spirit and his fidelity to the Catholic Church. Let us look to him as a great example of how to see great potential in things that appear to be hopeless. Please pray for Fr. Michael Scanlan, that his work will continue to bear fruit for years to come.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
V. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created.
R. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
Let us pray.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.