STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Trustees at the Franciscan University of Steubenville have selected a new president to carry on the university’s mission to be the leading light of faithful Catholic higher education in the United States.
But the Franciscan friar chosen to take over the helm of the university also has a strong legal background that could prove invaluable as Franciscan University fights the federal government in court to retain its Catholic identity.
The university announced the selection of Franciscan Father Sean Sheridan to succeed Franciscan Father Terence Henry as the university’s sixth president. Father Henry served in the post since 2000, and he built upon the legacy of Franciscan Father Michael Scanlan, who rapidly transformed Franciscan University from a dying party school in the 1970s into a Catholic university known for its commitment to academic excellence, strong theology and philosophy programs, as well as oath of fidelity to the Catholic Church’s magisterium.
“I am honored to serve as the next president of Franciscan University,” Father Sheridan said in a statement. “It is inspiring and truly humbling for me to be here at Franciscan University with the students who are pouring their hearts into their education and their prayer life, falling in love with God and the Church and striving to become saints.”
Father Sheridan pledged to build upon Father Henry’s 13-year legacy as president of Franciscan University, and he praised his predecessor for enhancing the university’s “reputation for excellent academics and faithful Catholicism.”
The Franciscan friar will be filling big sandals left by his predecessor when he officially takes up his duties as president on June 1.
Since 2000, Father Henry expanded Franciscan’s academic offerings to include business, legal studies, biology and bioethics programs, overseeing a $31-million capital campaign to fund the university’s growth.
Under his leadership, the university’s campus doubled in size, the school re-entered NCAA Division III sports, and enrollment hit an all-time high in 2012, with 2,466 undergraduate and graduate students.
The university also established an Institute of Bioethics in 2007 and created the endowed Father Michael Scanlan Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization, now filled by biblical scholar Scott Hahn.
Michael Hernon, the university’s vice president for advancement, said Father Henry also left a very strong pro-life legacy as president; he attended every March for Life with the students.
“Father [Henry] has left a lasting impression on our students as a bold, personal witness to faith,” he said.
Father Henry said he would be helping Father Sheridan transition into his new role of leading the university.
“I have the utmost respect for Father Sean, and I have deeply valued his opinion, especially on Church issues, over the years,” Father Henry said. “I’m happy to be leaving the university to his leadership, and I am certain he will continue to raise the bar of excellence.”
Father Sheridan’s Credentials
Father Sheridan entered the Franciscan Third Order Regular in 2000, leaving behind a career as an attorney focused on health-care litigation. He made his solemn profession of vows in 2005 and was ordained to the priesthood the following year. Father Sheridan continued his legal education in the Church, earning a doctorate in canon law from Catholic University of America in 2009. He wrote his dissertation addressing seven challenges — and potential solutions — to implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education.
Father Sheridan served as an assistant professor of canon law at CUA from 2009 until last fall, when he became a professor in Franciscan University’s theology department.
“He’s got the right mix of academic, pastoral and professional experience,” Hernon said. “He’s got the mission of the university in his heart, and he wears it on his sleeve. We know he’s going to continue to see how the university can respond to the call St. Francis received from Christ, to ‘Go, rebuild my Church.’”
Hernon pointed out that Father Sheridan’s legal background is an asset for the university, which is locked in a legal battle with the federal government over the Health and Human Services mandate that requires the university to subsidize contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization services in its health-insurance plans. The U.S. bishops and other Catholic leaders assert the mandate violates both the Church’s moral teachings and the religious liberty of its institutions and members.
“It is not a coincidence that someone with professional legal experience is taking the helm at Franciscan University at a time when we’re in a lawsuit with the federal government,” he said, adding that Father Sheridan has advised both the board of trustees and Father Henry over the HHS mandate. “He knows the fight intimately and is committed to stay the course, so we have the legal right to practice what we preach and live the faith we believe.”
Student and Alumni Enthusiasm
Students and alumni who know Father Sheridan said they are excited to know that he is taking up the mantle of Father Henry.
Amy Seitz, 30, a graduate student in the university’s theology program, said she and her fellow students in Father Sheridan’s 8am theology class celebrated the news with him on Monday.
“Our class was very excited to be the first class to find out,” Seitz said. “We were very excited to congratulate him and then pray together with him.”
Seitz, a residence director for Marian Hall, said Father Sheridan celebrates a Mass twice a month in the hall for her female residents and described his homilies as “very thought-provoking and applicable to the lives of the women he’s preaching to.” She added that Father Sheridan has a very pastoral character and a “great sense of humor” that makes him accessible to others.
“He has a great ability to relate to students,” she said. “He’s always open to questions. He challenges us to go deeper and think deeper about whatever we happen to be discussing that day in class.”
Alumnus Father Michael Gaitley, MIC, the director of the Association of Marian Helpers in Stockbridge, Mass., recalled meeting Father Sheridan when they both studied at The Catholic University of America.
“Father Sheridan is extremely intelligent, but he doesn’t live in his head,” he said. “He remembers people’s names and situations and has a very caring heart.”
Father Gaitley said that what struck him most about Father Sheridan was his genuine interest in other people and his example of how to lead a “balanced” life. Father Gaitley recalled his own days as an undergraduate at Franciscan and believed Father Sheridan would provide a great example to students.
“When I was there [at Franciscan University], it was always a challenge to find that balance between prayer, service and study and a social life in all that,” he said. “But he’s the kind of guy who really finds a balance for all those things and integrates them in himself, so he’ll really be a great blessing to the university.”
Father Sheridan’s formal installment as Franciscan University’s sixth president will take place during an inauguration ceremony planned for Oct. 10.
Hernon said prayer was a huge part of the decision; the trustees had asked the entire university family to pray that the Holy Spirit would guide them in selecting Franciscan University’s next president. People attending every Mass, he added, read from a prayer to the Holy Spirit written by the famous medieval Franciscan philosopher and theologian St. Bonaventure, asking the Holy Spirit to guide the board in its decision.
Hernon said the university also sent out this prayer to the university’s alumni and benefactors.
“We had thousands of people praying for this decision,” he said. “And the board of trustees felt this was a clear choice, that God had made very clear to them that Father Sean was supposed to lead and direct the university.”
Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.