Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R.

Father Scanlan Was America’s Pastor to Catholic Higher Education

Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R., who died Saturday, reformed Franciscan University of Steubenville and built it into one of America’s most faithful and vibrant centers of Catholic learning. He is rightly acknowledged as a foremost leader in the renewal of Catholic higher education.

More than that, I think it is fitting that he be remembered as America’s devoted pastor of Catholic higher education in the 20th century.

Why do I call him pastor, and not first president or leader or reformer? Because what I hear most from nearly everyone who knew him, is that he touched them personally and cared deeply for the souls he encountered, bringing them closer to Christ. That seems to be the heart of his success and his motivation.

Thousands of his students, faculty, staff, trustees and others who knew him would doubtless agree.

Also, by his priestly witness Father Scanlan was in effect a shepherd to all Catholic colleges and universities, helping launch the renewal of faithful higher education and setting an important example for other college leaders to follow.

He was, of course, not the only major figure in Catholic higher education in the last century or president of the largest Catholic university. But Father Scanlan deserves the accolade nonetheless—surely more than his early contemporary Father Theodore Hesburgh, who accumulated popularity, prestige and influence but led the University of Notre Dame (and probably many individual Catholics) down a path that ends tragically in relativism and secularism.

When Father Scanlan became Franciscan University’s president in 1974, most American colleges founded by Catholic religious orders were rapidly shedding their distinctive identity. Faithful laymen responded by founding Thomas Aquinas College, Magdalen College, Christendom College and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. But there was something unique happening at Franciscan University: a saintly Franciscan friar was again answering God’s call to “rebuild my Church.”

By the influence of Franciscan’s graduates, Father Scanlan continues to do just that. And the Church should be very grateful.

University reformer

I have long admired Father Scanlan and met him on several occasions. But after his death, dwelling upon his life and impact, I was eager to know more about those first exciting years when he began to transform what was then called the College of Steubenville.

So I spoke by phone with Dr. Alan Schreck, chairman of Franciscan University’s theology department for about 14 years under Father Scanlan. He gave a moving account of the incredible work and vision of this giant of Catholic education.

While still a student in college, Dr. Schreck first met Father Scanlan shortly after he was asked by the college’s trustees to consider putting his name in for the presidency. Father asked the young theology student for prayers that he make the right decision. That greatly impressed Schreck, as did Father’s vision.

“I will be president only if they allow me to make Jesus Christ lord of every aspect of the college,” Dr. Schreck remembers him saying.

At the time, Father Scanlan was rector of the Franciscan seminary in Loretto, Penn., and a well-known figure in the Catholic charismatic renewal. He had a worldwide following. My father-in-law, who lived in the Philippines until the 1980s and was very active in charismatic prayer groups and conferences, impressed me with his memories and great fondness for Father Scanlan.

I have often wondered how difficult it must have been for Father Scanlan to pull back from his charismatic ministry to take up a college presidency. But Dr. Schreck says that’s not what happened: Father had an “incredible capacity for work” and served on the Catholic renewal’s national committee and as pastor for a local parish established for charismatic Catholics, even while serving as college president.

Today the charismatic influence of Father Scanlan is still apparent at Franciscan University, although it has never been an official characteristic of the institution. It certainly contributed to the college’s reform and growth, attracting Catholics who are on fire with love for Christ. For Father Scanlan, it was “just a dimension of being Catholic,” Dr. Schreck explains. Father’s primary concern for the college and its faculty members was that they be faithful to the Magisterium, which is why he required the oath of fidelity for professors.

While the changes drove away some administrators and teachers, they also attracted a variety of notable scholars. They were attracted to Father Scanlan’s “integrated vision,” says Dr. Schreck. This called for 1) “dynamic orthodoxy,” ensuring that faculty are “loyally Catholic” while “teaching in such a way that theology is alive and life-giving;” 2) student life “where students could grow humanly as well as academically;” and 3) stronger academic quality.

I think that Father Scanlan’s academic priorities are largely overlooked today, given his reputation as a spiritual guide and preacher. But Dr. Schreck says Father immediately insisted on hiring Ph.D.’s, a step above many other Catholic colleges that, in those days, frequently hired master’s level professors.

With the conviction that theology is “queen of the sciences,” Father insisted that Franciscan have a full department of theology. The College of Steubenville had only a few core theology courses in 1974, but no major. Dr. Schreck later worked with Father to hire stars like Dr. Scott Hahn, Father Francis Martin and Dr. Regis Martin, as well as philosopher Dr. John Crosby.

With regard to student life, Father Scanlan wanted to ensure full integration between the students’ studies, especially in theology, and their campus experience. He instituted “households,” small communities of students who pray together and support each other in their daily lives. Noticing that students tended to go to Mass on Saturday evening before partying, Father preached at Sunday Mass and gradually drew students in. Campus ministry was fully devoted to “preaching of the Gospel.”

All of this made Franciscan University the shining model on a hill that it is today. Other Catholic colleges have followed the example, each in their own way, once again building up faithful Catholic education in many states across the country.

Extraordinary leader

Brian Scarnecchia, who taught legal studies at Franciscan University for 20 years and is now an associate professor at Ave Maria School of Law, also has known Father Scanlan since the 1970s. He tells an amazing story of Father Scanlan before he became president—in the 1960s, when Father was a theology professor and honors dean at the college.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in Memphis in the summer of 1968, and Steubenville was on the verge of a race riot. Because of the city’s great respect for Father Scanlan, the mayor took the extraordinary step of turning the city government over to him. Father’s tactic of placing one black and one white police officer in every police cruiser helped avoid a riot and likely saved the city from burning.

Scarnecchia also recalls when Father and Bishop Albert Ottenweller of Steubenville were arrested outside a Youngstown, Ohio, abortion clinic in 1989. Scarnecchia helped spring them and the other “Youngstown 47” from imprisonment at the National Guard Armory.

In court, the judge asked Father if he is familiar with the Bible passage, “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities” (Rom. 13:1). Father Scanlan asked whether the judge had heard the passage, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

That’s not your typical college president.

I heard another tale straight from Father Scanlan a few years ago that, for me, exemplifies Father’s inventiveness, leadership and trust in God that brought him so much success. Unfortunately, I’ve not found a single person who confirms the story, so it will have to be categorized somewhere in the realm of legend.

Here’s what I recall: Father told me that when he became president of the College of Steubenville, the campus was a sore sight. One thing that particularly irked him was the lack of a proper lawn.

“There was no grass,” he said. That might have been a bit of exaggeration, but the college had no money for groundskeeping, and students had trampled much of the grass bare.

With no money, most college leaders would have turned to other problems with apparent solutions. Instead, Father prayed. And the answer he received meant fertilizing the lawn by a creative method that somehow involved the local sanitation authority. (Here’s where I’d love to get some confirmation—today there are all kinds of laws that keep garbage, or sewage, or whatever it was off private property—but that’s how I remember the story.)

In those days, a struggling Ohio college didn’t have central air conditioning. All summer, Father said, faculty and staff were faced with the terrible options of sweltering in hot buildings or opening up the windows. He said the smell was so bad, they chose to swelter.

Then, with that Irish twinkle in his eye, Father said, “But sure enough, we had grass by the time the students arrived in the fall. And we’ve had grass ever since!”

There are, no doubt, many anecdotes revealing Father Scanlan’s great capacity for looking above his challenges to the God Who makes all things right. No doubt this strength came from prayer.

Dr. Schreck recalls that Father would sometimes not get to his office until 11 a.m., because he spent his mornings in prayer.

“I don’t know how to turn this university around,” Father Scanlan admitted. “Only God can do that.”

Leader of the renewal

I asked Dr. Schreck whether Father had ever indicated any angst about leading the reform in Catholic higher education. His work was counter-cultural, and he bucked the secularizing trend among most Catholic colleges. Surely this didn’t please his peers at most other Catholic colleges.

On the other hand, Father Scanlan must have felt the responsibility of setting an example for other college leaders. He must have known that he was being watched, and thankfully he lived to see some of the enormous impact his example had—especially at the growing number of faithful Catholic colleges.

Didn’t the pressure of leading such important reform in the Church ever get to him?

Dr. Schreck doesn’t think so. In fact, he says that Father Scanlan stayed focused on the tasks that God set before him, and he didn’t seem to worry much about the bigger picture.

“If we do well what we’re doing, we will make an impact,” was Father’s outlook.

Father Scanlan did have the conviction that his vision for Franciscan University “was the future of Catholic institutions as they should be,” says Dr. Schreck, and that vision had real influence. He recalls a symposium some years ago following Father’s retirement, when leaders of several Catholic universities came to Franciscan to discuss the mission of Catholic higher education—a sign of their respect for Franciscan’s stature as a leading example of faithful education.

“He really wanted to do God’s will,” says Dr. Schreck. “If that happened, it was the grace of God” that would bring about other changes elsewhere, “as long as we remained faithful to the vision.”

Today Franciscan is pushing forward into online education, an opportunity and challenge that Father Scanlan never faced himself. But Dr. Schreck says the vision remains the same: to find ways to educate well, and to keep it Catholic.

That surely sounds like good counsel for any venture in Catholic education today. It would have met with much skepticism in the 1970s, when the very possibility of a Catholic college was being questioned. Today, we know for certain that Catholic education can be done well—and can be thoroughly Catholic—because of Father Scanlan’s extraordinary example.

He did what he set out to do: he made Jesus Christ lord of every aspect of his college, and of his life.

May God have mercy on Father Michael Scanlan’s soul and take him into His loving arms.

This article was originally published by National Catholic Register.

Copyright © 2024 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.