Father Michael Scanlan Was One of the Most Decent Men I Have Ever Known

While Father Scanlan built many things, his greatest edifice was an atmosphere in which thousands of people have come to Christ in a new and profound way.

Father Michael Scanlan (Courtesy of Franciscan University of Steubenville)
Father Michael Scanlan (Courtesy of Franciscan University of Steubenville) (photo: Screenshot)

I was sad to learn about the passing of my former boss—one of the most decent, kind, gentle men I have ever known—Father Michael Scanlan.

Before meeting him, I knew him by reputation. Then after moving to Steubenville, I came to admire him from afar while working at Catholics United for the Faith.

Then I had the blessing of succeeding Patrick Coffin as media relations coordinator at Franciscan University. It was then that I learned just how large was Father’s influence over the University he helped bring back from the edge of dissolution. Learning what he did left me very impressed.

Established in 1946 by Bishop Anthony John King Mussio as the College of Steubenville, the school did very well for most of its first three decades. But changing times and diminishing enrollment threatened the school with closure. Its reputation as the San Diego State of the Ohio Valley—i.e., a top-notch party school—didn’t help.

Father took over as president of the College in 1974, turning it into a place of academic excellence and a bastion of orthodoxy at a time when similar institutions were quickly sloughing off their Catholic identity. In fact, his condition for accepting the post was that he have full rein to achieve this end. In the classic phrasing of one of my former coworkers, he made the school “hell-bent on heaven.”

He also made the school the epicenter of the burgeoning Catholic charismatic renewal. All of this took Franciscan University from being a largely regional institution to one that drew students from around the world.

Indeed, it can be said that while Father Scanlan built many things—buildings, institutions, events, etc.—his greatest edifice was an atmosphere in which thousands of people have come to Christ in a new and profound way.

Consider this: Most of the people who came to Franciscan did not do so “hell-bent on heaven.” Many matriculated there because their parents insisted. This was due to the atmosphere his leadership created.

When I worked there, 75 percent of the student body attended daily Mass. No one made them go. They did this because they wanted to sustain their relationship with Jesus. I remember that lines for confession were always long.

And not just amongst the school’s scholars but at local parishes and amongst the youth attendees at the summer conferences. I remember one incredibly hot, miserably humid day, the air so muggy and thick, you could almost see it. And yet there was a line of teenagers a large city block and a half long, happily, patiently waiting for confession.

Thus it became the dream of parents to send their kids to Franciscan. They trusted their progeny would receive a solid Catholic education, one that would prepare them for the world while not teaching them Church doctrine in a way that would make them lose their faith.

That Father accomplished all of this took incredible fortitude. Business schools and companies should study how he did it, for he faced staunch opposition at first. As a manager, I know it can be painful to get employees to buy into a vision, especially when this threatens the established order or they don’t see the purpose. I have only had to do this with a few employees. I can’t imagine how one turns around an entire institution.

Yet he did. And by the time I came to work for him, buy-in was not an issue. Every oar was rowing in the same direction. Everyone was on board. Everybody followed the captain, Father Scanlan. What’s more, they loved him.

How could you not love this man with the charming New York accent and impish smile, who always had a kind word for everyone who met him?

Still I felt intimidated by him. Maybe it’s because our interactions weren’t voluminous, but I never gained a total level of comfort with him. I never felt like he had anything but a wary regard for me.

One winter day, he had to visit a local television station. Its building was stuck back in some woods, and I don’t remember why, but I was tasked with driving him. It was dreary, the roads were windy, the terrain was wooded and hilly, and I remember the drive being long. Worse, I was uneasy in his presence.

So to pass the time, I asked Father about his life.

He told me about his time in the Air Force. The way he spoke about it, it was like he was just a normal, everyday airman. You would never know that this Harvard Law School graduate had served in the Judge Advocate Corps. I don’t remember him telling me he never lost a case in his first year, or that because of this he was made a certified Judge Advocate. I only learned that later from other sources.

Father was also fond of charismatic praise music and liturgies. Unlike some at the University, however, he didn’t disparage those whose tastes did not accord with his.

I recall a staff meeting to discuss the liturgy on campus, a gathering he led. One of my colleagues made a snide remark about the Mass in the extraordinary form. Given the school’s charismatic bent, I generally tried to not advertise my deep affinity for the traditional Latin rite. But the man’s comment that it featured no “active participation” of the kind called for by Vatican II irked me (the sentiment was actually stronger, but this is a family newspaper), so I spoke up.

At first I hesitated. I was about to let it be known that I went to, gasp, a liturgy celebrated in a dead language, where the priest faced the same way as the people, and the music was no more contemporary than, say, 1920. Certainly congregants didn’t raise their hands in the air or speak in tongues. As such, a lot of my coworkers looked down on this ancient form of worship that had helped make countless saints. Certainly this gentleman did.

So I was a little afraid, but still I began. I started explaining – almost apologetically – that I attended Mass at the Byzantine church across the river, at St. Peter downtown, at the chapel on campus, and, yes, at the church in Pittsburgh where they held what was then called the indult Mass.

Father Scanlan listened intently, nodded, and showed me he was hearing what I was saying.

With this tacit encouragement, I got to my point: There were times I felt I had more active participation at the TLM than I did at any novus ordo Mass. At the TLM, I had to pay attention, I had to pray the prayers if I wanted to be engaged, I had to focus on the liturgy.

At the English Mass, though, I could put my mind on autopilot. My mind could wander. I could get through an entire liturgy without really paying much attention at all.

Father nodded, an intent look on his face. I sensed he appreciated the point.

That relaxed me. Because of Father, I felt my opinion was just as valuable as anyone else’s at school, even though my liturgical tastes were out of the norm.

I’d like to close with the words of another coworker, a man I am honored to know, Jason Negri, who was inspired to enter the legal profession directly because of our former boss.

“The man I am is because of the man he was…. Who am I that I was so blessed to know this man, to have the opportunity to talk with him, work with him, learn from him? … the legacy he leaves behind is of the best, most enduring kind. [The buildings he built], the stones of these … will someday crumble. But the countless souls that came to know God and His Church, the holy marriages and families that were created at FUS, the hearts that were transformed and the minds that were opened to truth, goodness, and beauty – these are the legacy of Fr. Michael Scanlan, and they are eternal…. I am profoundly aware of my own debt to him. I will spend the rest of my life attempting to pay it off.”