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.

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28 Comments

  1. Thank you Bob, from a kid who was at that conference in 1994 and has loved you for it ever since.

    A fellow brother, alumn, and I’m glad to say friend.

    Sincerely,

    Michael M Speyrer

    Sincere

    1. A friend and I took our four teenagers to one of your Conferences – travelled from Canada to the main campus. It was an all-around deeply spiritual encounter including the beautiful grounds and the faithful witness. Since then all those 4 youth, now young adults, have been involved in youth ministry in our local parish as well as through Net Ministries and have in turn take the youth in their care to Steubenville Toronto annually. Steubenville and its many satellites, is akin to a Lighthouse on a stormy, dark night. These reports were deeply distressing precisely because of the place Steubenville holds in the hearts of so many Catholics throughout North America. Thank you for addressing these concerns. It sounds like the Professor and the President responded appropriately and with an understanding of the gravity. You will have my prayers.

  2. Thank you Bob! All Catholic institutions/schools are at the same place. So sad. We all have to keep the Catholic faith.

  3. There is no true gift to the church then people like you Bob, I agree with you the culture right now is sad and we need people like you to fight the good fight. God bless you and your ministry as I’ve always said, and I can’t wait to see you and our little town of Barto PA soon I hope. I haven’t seen any of these articles but I am not surprised that the devil is trying to attack something good. This always happens and we will rise above it.

  4. Thank you Dr. Rice for your words of encouragement. I transferred from FUS last year. I attended FUS for two and a half years, but the longer I remained at Franciscan the harder it was to endure the toxicity of the student body. I attended several conferences that you spoke at, and they profoundly changed my life. Because of these conferences, I thought, what better way to foster my faith than to go to Franciscan? However, my faith was destroyed when I came to Franciscan; at my dream college, I found so many “orthodox” Catholics who were hypocritical, nasty, judgemental people. I hope the faculty keeps up the good fight, because these students need you now more than ever.

  5. Thank you Bob for this letter. I was extremely upset last night when I first read about all this. Franciscan has been about the only ray of sunshine in the Church. Then I read about the abuse. I couldn’t believe it could happen at Franciscan where I’ve always seen the most sincere loyalty to God and His Church. Then reading about this current situation and the supposed agenda of the administration, I was ready to withhold my monthly donation, stop bringing kids to the youth conference ( been doing since 1997), and stop attending the adult summer conferences. I hadn’t decided, but questioned whether I would still come.
    I appreciate your perspective since I have been extremely upset about what I’ve been reading.

    1. Isn’t that exactly what the people who are attacking the school want, deter support for the school?

      Judas has been with the church since the beginning. But that didn’t stop people from following Jesus.

      You have been to the conferences, you have seen the Holy Spirit at work. Reports of the situation at Franciscan campus are attacks on an institution whims results speak for themselves. They are providing an environment and time without God for conversions at their campus and conferences, more so than any other place in our country. Please stop and think about that and the number of high school kids that raise their hands for vocations there and the Good News they bring into our dark world. When in doubt get involved and help reinforce the army of youth who are fighting for their faith.
      May the peace and love of Christ be with you all,
      Maria
      Pittsburgh

  6. Thanks for sharing this Bob – as an alum, these articles have been troubling, but what’s even more troubling is the way the articles seem to keep coming and the similarities between them, even between the attacks coming from different sides of the political aisle (i.e., unnamed sources, little verifiable data but lots of fiery innuendo, all seeming to attack the current administration as being unfaithful for one reason or another, etc.) Given the barrage of them and the content, I’m honestly starting to wonder if there is a single source behind all of them, but I can’t think of who would have the resources to do that and it’s bugging me….

  7. There is something Holy that is abundantly clear to me when truth triumphs. There are elephants in the room that people do not want to discuss due to the potential conflict that could ensue. These elephants are often uncomfortable truths. I came into the Church in 1994 at the Easter Vigil. It was the greatest day of my life. My journey has lead me to experience many communication styles of those who are part of the Body of Christ. I have experienced many who work for the Church being content with the elephant in the corner of the room. I have witnessed brave and bold members of the church along with brave and bold church leaders who proclaim the truth. These brave and bold people as a whole lead me in truth and bare abundant fruit. Where there is no truth in a discussion about realities those realities are placed in the room as elephants. The elephants then climb onto an elephant wheel (similar to a hampster wheel but much bigger). Dr Rice……YOU ARE BRAVE AND BOLD AND A BREATH OF FRESH HOLY SPIRIT AIR!!!!! Your essay brought a feeling of relief to hear the truth. The Body of Christ needs Holy truth!! The Body does NOT need more relative, empty, gobibily gook truth that scandalizes the Body….Thank you for your willingness for the Brave and Bold……

  8. We would all do well to remember that lies travel much faster than truth, arriving at false conclusions that bring only heat and little light or substance.
    I am suspicious when any person or group (self appointed authorities, individuals, media seeking the next hot headline, etc.) decides that they are
    the judge and jury of someone else’s faith or Catholicism. It is a small step from there to be the judge of identifying who is a good Catholic and who is
    not, and why we should therefore not want to be around “those people.” We are all sinners, and Jesus seemed to like to hang out and eat with sinners.
    We cannot judge the inner lives of others or how God’s love and mercy are playing out in the lives of others. There are many reasons that scripture tells
    us many times over not to judge one another. I am thankful for Franciscan, and for you Bob. We have much to do together to bring hope and the Good
    News of Jesus’ love and mercy to the world. Let’s stop judging and condemning others and focus on what God is calling us to individually and together.
    There is plenty of work to be done… let’s get to it! Peace be with you.
    Dobie Moser

  9. I found this blog to be more of a rant page than a real response to the problems and issues facing Franciscan University. Our response to youth culture should be at all time be respectful and compassionate. Calling youth less mature and more broken than past generations is not loving rhetoric. I have found a greater search for truth among this generation than at any time in the past. They do question the status quo and want to understand our reasons for our faith. Traditionally, we feel more comfortable having people blindly accepting the faith but is that truly a mature faith response? Also, in the future it might be helpful to site sources and explain the content you are commenting on to provide context for your responses so readers can develop informed opinions.

  10. We are currently at orientation lol. So happy to have my son here. No it’s not the same as the old days when Fr Mike was here and the charismatic energy was in full swing. To all things there is a season. This is still one of the most anointed places in earth and one of fthe few authentic Catholic Colleges in the world.

  11. I hope I can call you a friend Bob Rice because this link makes me proud to work with the fabulous people at Franciscan University. To all of you out there that doubt who we are, this article is a great example. I’m honored to serve Our Lord with the great people who serve FranciscanU. If you chose not to send your children here, you are robbing them of the greatest Catholic education available to them anywhere… As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.

  12. Praying for you and Franciscan
    Lord have mercy
    Holy Spirit inspire with hope, joy and truth.

  13. Thank you Bob, for defending one of my favorite places on earth. Steubenville changed my life, and I can think of many people who would say the same. I work with youth, and I too, have seen a shift happen, it could be a generational shift of the parents, or a more aggressive secular culture or both- but the result is that the youth of today are more broken, and unfortunately have not been given the means/ tools (from the secular world) to deal with this brokenness. That being said, as a recovering “broken, immature” student, myself, I was, given the tools (at Steubenville) to begin to heal that brokenness in my life; through the exposure of the Sacraments, prayer and fellowship.
    I don’t think it’s uncharitable to recognize this culture shift (especially if it effects your job), and respond accordingly.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this.
    God Bless you Bob, and Franciscan University of Steubenville.

  14. Hey Bob Ross this is Jean in Florida! Blasphemous literature? With the exception of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is not literature, there is no blasphemous literature! In my book in the sunshine State down here, there is no censorship! Do you read flattery O’Connor again because there’s a murder from a convict on the side of the road heading to Florida. Now you know

  15. Bob. Have been praying for all of you for a while. I even talked to some of the people mentioned in articles to tell them they are in my prayers. That University has done so much for so many! It was never perfect, but the perfect don’t need Christ. May God continue to strengthen all of you in this difficult time. I still love that place and respect all of you who work to make it what it is!

  16. Great article….as a parent of a Franciscan student, I thank you. Our family continues our prayers for FUS.

  17. Thank you! The world is swirling about at the moment and we need to think about what to hold onto – Christ, Our Lord. We are pilgrims while on earth and as such we are not yet conformed to the eschatological reality as the saints are. No one has really been a living saint other than Our Lady, the rest of us are a work in progress. There will be dark moments, doesn’t mean the light has gone out!

  18. Thank you for this article! CM is relentless on this. They are dissuading people from sending their kids there. I am so disgusted with them and the comments that go with their articles! Of course CM didn’t bother to mention the Holy Hour in reparation to Mary. FUS celebrated a record enrollment! My daughter goes there and LOVES it! She is thriving there! I’ve been there on 3 occasions. Each occasion, there was Mass held. I felt at home. I felt positive energy! My daughter gets to talk about being pro-life without being shamed. I wish more faculty members, alumni, and students would come out and defend this great school!

  19. Thank you Bob for your wonderful article reaffirming the dedication at Franciscan to be, as the ad says, passionately Catholic. You know you are doing something right when Satan mounts an attack against you. Prayers to the Holy Spirit for guidance for all your staff and students

  20. After reading this article, which was linked by CNA’s Jenny Uebbing, I remain puzzled that so many people, including Uebbing, are missing the entire point of Church Militan’s coverage of Franciscan. CM’s initial report centered on the problematic book, which was chosen by Lewis, the Chair if the English Department. When brought to the University’s attention, CM received, from FSU’s PR manager Tom Sofio, a response that defended the professor’s decision to introduce this book to his students. After the story broke, the president of FSU, Fr. Sheridan, put out his own letter. The initial CM article did in no way condemn the entire school. Instead, it brought to the Catholic public’s attention, that a pornographic book dealing with Our Lady was being taught in the CATHOLIC school. For people to defend the book, or the teaching of it, simply because it was taught to ONLY 5 upper class students is a poor excuse for an excuse. Calling CM Satan’s work is beyond non-sensical, since they are bringing to light what begins as a hardly perceptible shadow, creeping into yet another Catholic institution. From the very first Vortex by Michael Voris, he spoke about his own alma mater, Norte Dame, how slowly over the years, it has become a Catholic in-name-only institution. He is obviously angry that things like this are being introduced, ever so slightly but with confidence, into yet another institution. If anything, FSU and their alumni should be thanking him. To say that this professor Lewis made a mistake in choosing this book is ridiculous. He should have known it should never have been brought into a Catholic classroom. I can and will assume he had read the book and given anyone Catholic’s common sense, should not have introduced it to students, whether it was only 5 or 500 students. What is the value of one soul? Why does it matter, as some people have used in his defense, that it ‘was only 5 atudents’? Can someone, the author of this article, or anyone else, explain to me why the uproar and why is everyone blaming the messenger?

  21. Parent of a FUS student here – our experience has been joyous and uplifting. Stay the course FUS!

  22. Dr. Rice, Thank you so much for your article! As a Franciscan Student and soon to be Alumni (God Willing) I have to say that the teaching staff at Franciscan is anything but liberal from my experience. The information that was given to me was, what I feel, to be in line with the traditional teaching of the Church. I am very sad that our school has come under attack like this, but I guess with the way the rest of the society is acting towards the Catholic Church in general, I guess we need to brace and expect it. Thank you for your article!

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