Tom Nash is a Research Associate at Ave Maria Radio, and he formerly served as a Theology Advisor at EWTN. Tom is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church (Incarnate Word Media) and The Biblical Roots of the Mass (Sophia Institute Press). He is also a contributing author of Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass (Emmaus Road Publishing). He is also a Regular Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
Long before Eminem released his mega-hit rap single, Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, was preaching on how important it was to “Lose Yourself.” And with all due respect to the talented lyricist and singer Marshall Mathers, he could learn a thing or two about how to do that well from this friendly and fiery Franciscan.
You see, that’s because Father Mike learned from the Master and his Mystical Bride on this most important matter, realizing that if you didn’t get this one thing right, nothing else you did this side of the grave would ultimately matter. Indeed, it was Jesus Christ who first proclaimed what seems so counterintuitive: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 16:25). That only makes sense makes if Jesus is who he says he, as affirmed by Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium of his Mystical Bride, the Catholic Church’s: God Incarnate, who became man to lose his life out of love for us, so that we might find ours anew in him, dying to sin and death that we might attain eternal life (cf. Rom. 6:8-11; Jn. 6:53-58).
This Jesus is the one who took an ancient Roman symbol that represented a publicly ignominious and torturous death, let himself be nailed to it, and thereby transformed what initially looked like a crushing loss into the greatest victory and related sign ever, rising triumphantly from the dead on the third day, ascending to heavenly glory 40 days later to culminate his one Sacrifice of Calvary in everlasting glory, and then sending the Holy Spirit 10 days later on Pentecost, so that his Mystical Bride could be empowered to fulfill her divine mandate to make disciples of all nations (cf. Mt. 28:18-20), welcoming the world to become part of God’s family.
As Eminem might say, this Jesus consequently has some serious “street cred.” “Been there done that,” so when he says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24), you take him seriously, as a young Michael Scanlan once did while praying in the woods one day as a student at Williams College. And did so again, when he gave up a wonderful fiancée and then, after graduating from Harvard, a promising law career to . . . take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience? The Evangelical Counsels of religious life are undoubtedly signs of contradiction in our modern world, in which “Choose Yourself” seems like a much more attraction than if you have to “Lose Yourself” like that.
But Michael Scanlan understood that Christ and his Church are the real “pearl of great price” (Mt. 13:46), and at the heart of that is the peace which Jesus provides and the world cannot (Jn. 14:27). A young Father Avery Dulles, SJ, reaffirmed that important lesson well in guiding Scanlan’s religious discernment: “Mike, a vocation is the restless Spirit of God within you. When that Spirit settles and is at home, stop and join the group where you are.”
Scanlan stopped by the Jesuits and the Dominicans, but he “settled” for the Franciscans. That is, “It was when I visited the Franciscans that I felt at home and at peace,” Father Mike recalled many years later. “I joined up and never questioned it.”
And for that I and many thousands of Franciscan University of Steubenville graduates are forever grateful. Father Mike took over in the mid-1970s a college on the verge of closing, and helped transformed it into a leading Catholic university over the next 37 years, including his final 11 as Chancellor, realizing all along that any academic excellence or public prestige purchased at the price of forsaking Christ and his Church was profoundly foolish, a modern variation on the ancient “30 pieces of silver” (Mt. 26:15) that once procured the betrayal of the Prince of Peace.
I first met Father Mike in Ann Arbor, MI, at the University of Michigan, and then again several months later while a first-year graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Those were the early days of the F.I.R.E. rallies, Catholic convocations that galvanized the troops about faith, intercession, repentance and evangelism and included speakers Ralph Martin, Father Mike Sister Ann Shields, SGL. It was in nearby Kansas City, and I used the occasion to experience the edifying talks while also fulfilling a journalism-class requirement in reporting on some of the presentations.
Father Mike spoke—appropriately enough—on repentance, that recurrent theme of dying to oneself to find one’s true self, one’s divine mission in life. By building what he did at Franciscan University, he provided me and numerous others a deeper understanding of why we should “lose ourselves” for the Lord: “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Mt. 16:26).
Along the way, Father Mike exemplified the humility that losing yourself requires. In 1991, when I interviewed him about the Charismatic covenant community problems that required diocesan interventions in Ann Arbor and Steubenville, Father Mike, a leader of the Servants of Christ the King community, candidly admitted that community leaders exceeded in some unhealthy ways the kind of obedience even required by vowed religious: “It was unrealistic to attempt to extend the authority of the community to every aspect of a person’s life,” he said. “This whole thing called whole-life pastoring” (“Schism in Ann Arbor: Just Another Split? or Reform for the Charismatics?” Fidelity, June 1991, p. 37).
In addition, he saw how the Charismatic Renewal combined with bad faith formation could lead to a significant Catholic exodus to Pentecostal congregations when misguided lay people concluded their parishes were “spiritually dead”—“three lanes out of the Church and one lane in,” as Dr. Scott Hahn once soberly assessed the early years of the Charismatic Renewal. So Father Mike taught well that any parish that has the Eucharist offered and available for some type of adoration—which is every parish, of course—necessarily can never be dead. To the contrary, he would affirm, our Eucharistic Lord is the key to eternal life, and that a person needs to be formed in the fullness of Christ’s truth, which can only be found in his Catholic Church.
Because of his humility and perseverance in faithfulness, the fruit of Father Mike’s labors continues to reverberate in an ever-greater fashion throughout the Church in America and around the world. Just among my friends and classmates in the mid-1990s, when I earned my MA in Theology (’96), we have priests, and men and women religious, some who have founded important Catholic apostolates, others who teach at Catholic and other universities, and still others who serve the Church—or society at large—in a variety of ways, not to mention many who also positively impact the world through holy Catholic marriages and families.
Father Mike’s “yes” to lose himself in the Lord, has played a significant part in our own. And so we pray for our faithful departed and beloved Father Mike, as he would want and we should do out of love, and yet also be consoled by the witness he gave and the legacy he leaves
us (cf. Wis. 3:1-9).