I (Still) Love Franciscan

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had many reaching out to me asking a variation of this question: “What is going on at Franciscan?” So allow me to share, from my perspective, what I see happening.

I’d like to emphasize the phrase, “from my perspective”. I do not portend to be authoritative source on all things Steubenville. In the hopes that others might share this article to those who don’t know me, let me give a brief bio.

My first involvement with Franciscan was speaking at a youth conference in 1994. It was there I heard the Lord (via our Blessed Mother) tell me to “drop everything and move to Steubenville.” I did. I got involved in youth ministry in the city and became a part-time Masters in Theology student, graduating in 1997 (and also getting married to another student I met in the program).

I headed to upstate New York to work in youth ministry at a parish while I continued to speak/lead worship at Steubenville conferences. I figured this would be my life (I had no aspirations to do anything else) until I was invited to come to Franciscan University to teach catechetics (and specifically courses in youth ministry) in 2004. Since then, my involvement in the conferences has grown to both adult and youth (I celebrated my 25th year serving the conferences last summer), I received my doctorate (my dissertation was on youth evangelization) and was promoted to the rank of tenured professor. I currently direct our MA in Catechetics and Evangelization.

So my relationship with Franciscan is both professional and personal, spanning more than half of my life. It has not only given me great career opportunities but it is where I had a deeper conversion to the Catholic faith, met my wife, and is now the environment in which I raise my seven children.

In short, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without Franciscan University of Steubenville. Schools are often referred to as an “alma mater”, or “foster mother”. That is certainly the case for me.

And so it hurts when I see my “foster mother” attacked by various media outlets, though I think referring to some of those as “media outlets” is generous, as they come across more as glorified blog posts that seem entirely devoid of the charity that is at the heart of Jesus’ message. One of the things that frustrates me most, as a researcher, is the total lack of sources. Take this excerpt, for example:

“I would guess only about a third of the faculty and administration can be described as orthodox,” says a Steubenville professor.

I don’t know what department that “Steubenville professor” is from, but that is certainly not what I experience. At daily Mass, I frequently see not only Theology faculty, but Psychology, History, English, Chemistry… the list goes on.

Also, our faculty doesn’t turn over that much. Many of our faculty were hired under Fr. Michael Scanlan. That’s the funny thing about administration and tenured faculty—administrations change every few years; faculty stays for decades. I’ve already seen two presidents in my fourteen years and I’m likely to see two or three more before I retire. So if only a third of our faculty is orthodox, we’ve had problems for decades. SPOILER ALERT: we haven’t.

And then there is this:

A Steubenville student with whom I spoke put the number higher, “I think maybe fifty percent is quietly opposed to Sheridan and Gorman (president and COO).”

Wow, I’d like to meet the student (likely someone between 18 and 22) who is so connected that he or she can speak accurately about the “quiet” opinions of half of our one-hundred and twenty member faculty. That’s more than I’d be able to do, and I work with them! The fact that the author of the article thought to even include this makes me question his entire argument (if I wasn’t questioning it already). And now I’m seeing this article quoted in other articles, as if that gives it any more veracity.

Even more troubling was a recent article because it directly involved a colleague of mine in the English department, a man who I know to have a sincere faith and love for the Church. In an upperclass elective (with five students in it) that examined the difference in approach between Catholics and non-Catholics in literature, he included a blasphemous and arguably pornographic book as an example of the kind of “bad” literature that was out there. It was a poor choice (that he did once).

By the way, none of that context was included in the article.

I was a little worried that the University might have reacted the way others have: “He’s a tenured professor and there’s nothing we can do.” Because on many levels, that is true. You’ve probably all heard stories of Catholic Universities having faculty teach blasphemous and heretical things, and the administration’s hands are tied to do anything about it. I didn’t understand why this was until I began teaching at a University. Tenure is actually about protecting a faculty member, who has proven expertise in a subject, from someone in administration who might not have that expertise and who will likely not be at the institution as long. Without tenure, faculty might feel (or be) pressured to change what they teach depending on who is in charge.

The initial PR leaned that way, defending the choice of a professor in a class to assign whatever readings he or she thinks are the best for the subject. However, I appreciated our President’s strong and sincere reaction:

I would like to apologize to Our Blessed Mother and Her Son, and to anyone who has been scandalized because of this incident. While I believe the professor’s intention in using this book in his class was not malicious, the book is scandalous and extremely offensive… the professor did not intend to scandalize, but (the assigned book) is so directly pornographic and blasphemous that it has no place on a Catholic university campus.

That is certainly not the reaction of someone who is trying to steer Franciscan toward a “liberal agenda”.

And yet the articles keep coming, leading one to believe the old axiom that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Surely with all these negative reports, something must be going wrong at Franciscan, right?

I don’t see it. I mean, do some on the faculty (including myself) disagree with certain initiatives of the administration? Sure, but that is a tale as old as time. Getting a faculty to agree on anything is worse than herding cats; it’s like trying to rearrange trees.

I don’t want to make it sound like everything is perfect at Franciscan and it is all sunshine and flowers. I’ve been involved in Steubenville under three different presidents and there are always concerns and issues that people are trying to work out. I’d also like to throw in that I’ve noticed over the years a decrease in maturity (and increase in brokenness) of our students. That’s not a critique, just a comment. The proliferation of porn, the high divorce rate, and the nihilism of the culture are just some of the many factors that can cripple a young person’s walk with Jesus Christ. To some alumni who comment that the students at Franciscan don’t seem as faithful or vibrant as generations past, I reply that the culture is not as faithful, and the “fighting the good fight” is more difficult than it was twenty years ago… this is why we need your prayers!

I still believe, with all my heart, that Franciscan University of Steubenville is one of the best places in the country (if not the planet—and I’m not going for hyperbole there) to learn about the beauty of the Catholic faith, be surrounded in a community real Christian brotherhood and sisterhood, and be empowered to live saintly lives in a culture that seems trending toward darkness. Over ten percent of our student body major in Theology. Hundreds of students every year are actively involved in missions. Daily Mass is full three times a day, and that even includes the 6:30 AM one. We have a significantly large group of men and women discerning priestly and religious life in a culture where half of 25 year olds are still living at home. Our summer conference ministry continues to grow and reaches over sixty-thousand people each year. The list goes on. God is continuing to do great things at Franciscan.

I can’t speak to everything these articles address—this is where my limited perspective comes in. Every Catholic institution is re-examining (and ideally, repenting for) the way they addressed sexual abuse and misconduct, and it breaks my heart to hear of people who were traumatized by something that happened at Franciscan. Other articles are directed toward people in our administration, whom I have little contact with. According to one article (the source of this is, of course, “anonymous”), “the (LGBT) agenda is real and moving forward quietly, behind the scenes, and away from the view and knowledge of most faculty.” So, since I am one of those faculty members, what do I know?

Well, I do know this. Jesus Christ is Lord. And, for whatever reason, He has chosen the broken, sinful people of Franciscan University (like me) to do great work for His Kingdom. It is an honor to work here and be a part of our mission to “educate, evangelize, and send forth joyful disciples to restore all things in Christ.” Please pray for Franciscan University of Steubenville that we will be faithful to go where the Holy Spirit leads.