STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — When Franciscan Father Michael Scanlan was appointed president of Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1974, the school was debilitated by low enrollment and mission drift, and the trustees were debating merging with a state university or calling it quits.
“But I saw a third option: an awesome opportunity,” recalled Father Scanlan, who served as president until becoming chancellor 10 years ago.
Inspired by the Catholic charismatic movement that spiritually transformed him in the late 1960s, the priest led an academic and religious renewal with an enthusiasm that would prove contagious.
Today, Franciscan’s days of malaise are a distant memory. And boasting the largest number of theology majors of any Catholic university in America, it is in no risk of closing.
But its influence and reputation extend far beyond its small hometown in Ohio through its annual summer conferences, now marking their 35th anniversary.
This summer, more than 41,000 people will participate in several conferences held on campus and at satellite sites in 11 states and Canada. Since 1975, that brings the total participants to more than 143,000 adults — priests and religious, catechists, and ordinary lay men and women — and more than 540,000 teens who have attended youth conferences since the first one in 1976.
“We are humbled how the Lord has greatly blessed us through our conferences ... and become the source of so many conversions and vocations,” said Father Scanlan, who organized the first conference in 1975: one for priests in which 500 clerics were challenged to charismatically embrace what Pope John Paul II would later term the “New Evangelization.”
Yet, as Bishop Sam Jacobs of Houma-Thibodeaux, La., explains, there’s nothing essentially new about New Evangelization, which now informs all the various conferences that have developed since 1975, such as the Catholic Men’s Conference, the Applied Biblical Studies Conference, and this summer’s concluding Defending the Faith Conference (July 30-Aug. 1).
Bishop Jacobs, an old friend of Father Scanlan’s, first suggested holding satellite conferences for youth after they numbered far too many for the university to accommodate on campus. Through his efforts, more than 7,000 Louisiana teens participated this way this summer.
“They are about entering a deeper life in the Trinity through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts listed in First Corinthians,” said Bishop Jacobs, who gave the keynote address at the Priests, Deacons, and Seminarians Conference in June.
“The Pentecost experience — the signs and wonders that the Holy Spirit first worked through the apostles and the early Church — is meant for the Church for all time. We, too, are called to embrace and share [this dynamic orthodoxy expressed through a renewed spirit of evangelization].”
‘A Miraculous Dream’
The conferences stress this theme, and participants are encouraged to imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary’s total surrender to God for the purpose of personal sanctification and service to the Church.
While there is no quantitative measure of success beyond the numbers of annual participants, conference organizers say the real signs of success are the personal testimonies.
Participants touched by grace come from all walks of life and all stops along their faith journey — including way off track, the “gutter position” that Father John Corapi sympathized with as he related his Road to Damascus story at past conferences. Many attended their first conference on a whim, not knowing what to expect. Others were teens escorted to Steubenville against their wishes on parents’ orders.
Father Mark Rutherford, 27, would not have been ordained a priest last year if his grandfather hadn’t had a “miraculous dream.”
Concerned for his and his two older brothers’ spiritual welfare, his parents sent them to a youth conference in 1997 at the behest of his grandfather, who later admitted to having a dream in which Christ commanded him to send the boys to Steubenville, though he had no idea what “Steubenville” even signified at the time. (He had to ask around the next day.)
“My brothers and I were headed down a dark path,” said Father Rutherford, associate pastor at St. Patrick’s Church in Brighton, Mich. Despite his youth, Father Rutherford didn’t feel like a boy. “I was a 13-year-old [sports] jock, aggressive, angry and silent.” He felt no relationship with Christ after a “dry and boring CCD experience” and attending a public school rife with alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity in which he said he would have indulged barring his Franciscan University epiphany.
The experience was “overpowering and bewildering” in its newness, presenting the faith as a reality to be embraced by each person through total surrender, thus “allowing the Holy Spirit to do the hard work.” At first he felt self-conscious because he and his brothers seemed like odd men out in an environment both inviting (“The conferences are very relaxed, not pushing you to have an experience, but presenting all the elements of the faith in a way that invites you to be receptive to Christ.”) and alien (“Who were these cheese balls, holding out their arms, singing and glorifying God?”).
The moment that changed his life came during the Saturday night exposition of the Eucharist, during which the priest slowly processed past each row of teens as a spotlight illuminated the Host in the monstrance.
“Every step the priest took toward my row was like a veil lifting, showing the reality of Jesus’ presence,” he said. “I was afraid, but wanted it. Finally my heart cracked, and a floodgate opened to his mercy, pouring into my heart and breaking all barriers I’d built up inside me.”
He dropped to his knees and wept as others laid hands on him and prayed. Still somewhat self-conscious, he turned around to see how his brothers in the row behind him were reacting. They, too, were crying. And they, too, never again trod dark paths.
35 for 35
The next day they went to confession, “the logical next step that took the load off our shoulders.” And like other young men before and after him, Father Rutherford would answer the “altar call” at the Sunday night closing Mass: the presiding bishop’s invitation for young men considering a vocation to the priesthood to step forward and be blessed. (Mark Nehrbas, Franciscan’s executive director of Christian outreach, noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently surveyed men to be ordained to the priesthood in 2010: 8% reported having attended a Franciscan University high school youth conference prior to seminary.)
Before the conference, Father Rutherford had never considered a vocation, regarding priests as “mere functionaries with no personalities”: men whom he only saw at Sunday Mass, which “meant nothing to me anyway.” Yet the seed of his vocation was planted there and sprouted continually through his ordination: “It was like a gust of wind blowing at my back, speeding me up to the altar that night.”
The youth-centric focus of the conferences is no accident. While adults need encouragement and redemption, conference organizers stressed the importance of nurturing the faith in tender hearts that might irrevocably harden with age.
“It’s false to think that teens are not ready for Jesus Christ, and that the Holy Spirit can’t accelerate in their hearts what God wants of them,” Father Rutherford explained the week after he helped escort a group of 35 teens to Franciscan’s youth conference, his parish’s first-ever delegation. “If somebody in their infinite wisdom decided I wasn’t ready to go [at age 13], I wouldn’t be talking with you now.”
Scott Hahn, a convert and prolific author who teaches at Franciscan and leads summer conferences, concurs with Father Rutherford’s sentiments about the focus on youth. “As the father of six, five out of six of my kids [his youngest is only 10] and their friends have been evangelized, awakened, renewed and transformed at these youth conferences,” he said. “The effects are beyond measure.”
Hahn also reiterates the value of the conferences in affecting not only the participants but those whom they in turn affect in their families, parishes and workplaces.
“The conferences have had a threefold goal from the beginning: the evangelization of young people, the renewal of Catholic laity and the empowerment of clergy,” Hahn said over the phone during a break in the conferences. “The impact has been so unmistakable and dramatic, but immeasurable. The institutional forms of Church life — of bureaucratic procedure, press conferences — might make the headlines, but they impact far fewer lives.
“Here, so much happens beneath the radar screen, creating a ripple effect of conversion sending shockwaves through the Church in America and the world. When the history of the Catholic Church in America at the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third is written, considerable attention has to be given to what has happened as a result of Franciscan University in particular, three and a half decades of conferences in particular.”
Ending on a Gospel note appropriate to the Gospel-centric focus of Franciscan conferences, Hahn quipped, “People in Christ’s day smirked, ‘Can any good come out of Nazareth?’ The same could have been said about Steubenville. It’s perhaps the unlikeliest place to have a dramatic effect on millions: a sign that the Lord is doing the most with the very least.”
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.
To learn more about Franciscan University’s summer conferences, as well as other conferences held throughout the year, go to franciscanconferences.com or call (800) 437-8368.