Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
When I first started at Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2004, Father Michael Scanlan was already a walking legend on campus. He had retired from his role as president just four years previously and spent his days as the chancellor of the college visiting with students, saying Mass, and hearing confessions. When I heard the news this weekend of Father Scanlan’s death, I was reminded of how the course of my life would have been completely different had it not been for Father Scanlan turning around the failing College of Steubenville and transforming it into the vibrant, community centered, academically focused institution it is today. His life and work, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, obedient to the requests of his superiors, has been formative in so many lives of Catholics, especially those of us who have been able to attend Franciscan University.
My grandfather likes to tell the story of my first visit to campus. I was a sophomore in high school on a come-and-see visit. My mother and I were visiting her parents in Ohio and we decided to make my first college visit. My mother, grandfather, and I toured the campus grounds and at the end of the visit, as my grandfather likes to quote, with Father Scanlan’s book What Does God Want? in my hand I declared, “I can’t think of a single reason why I should not go to college here.”
The summer previously I had attended the Steubenville Youth Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. The youth conferences were one of Father Scanlan’s projects; one conference for teens in 1976 has grown to 25 held for teens across the country every summer. I will never forget that weekend, sleeping in the hallway of a middle school, praising God in a crowded high school gymnasium, eating meals on the lawn, and finding something of that which I had been seeking my whole life. The Saturday night of the conference is always the same: an evening of praise and adoration. A priest processes through the masses of teens and youth ministers holding up the monstrance as a spotlight follows it. Tears streamed down my face as He approached me that first youth conference, I felt like the hemorrhaging woman who reached out to touch Christ as he walked by. After that experience, I knew that a university that brought Christ to people in that way was the one that I wanted to spend four years of my life. I went to the conferences every summer of high school, learning more and more about how to have a relationship with God, and in college I worked two summers of conferences on campus seeing with my own eyes the impact they have on people’s lives.
My second visit to campus was during my senior year of high school for the first Father Michael Scanlan Scholarship Competition. While the scholarship was awarded to a far superior academic candidate than myself (the man I was to marry), the visit renewed for me my desire to go to this school and my belief in God’s plan for me. When I received my financial aid packet in the mail, and realized that I could make it work to go there, my eyes brimmed with tears and I knew that I would be on campus in the fall.
Going to college at Franciscan post-Father Scanlan’s presidency was like going on a four-year retreat with all the hard work of earning a college degree thrown in. All of the things he did to transform the school were in place and the Catholic environment was strong. It was a safe haven for me to grow from an adolescent into a young adult. The household life that he had established created little communities in which students could thrive in their faith. The households are small groups of men or women with a specific religious charism. They have multiple weekly commitments, the highlight of which is a Saturday evening Lord’s Day celebration and dinner together, and support each other as brothers or sisters. The life of households is always in flux with some folding and some forming every year; some might say as the Spirit moves.
Several of my closest friends and I founded a new household at the end of our first year called the Daughters of Zion. Our main charisms were a devotion to Divine Mercy and a healing ministry. These women were the heart of my college experience, as we came to each other for spiritual, emotional, and mental support. Discernment of vocation is central to all young Catholic people, and we spent many long hours agonizing over whether or not we were called to be religious sisters. There were also many hours put into wondering about certain young men and what they might discern. Our household in particular prayed over each other, and anyone who asked, for spiritual healing. We found that our young lives had encountered many hard and painful things, but together in prayer, before God, we sought his healing. These times of prayer with friends and frequent confession helped free me from a lifelong, sinful habit. And again, thanks to the household life established by Father Scanlan, my life was changed.
My husband started at Franciscan in the Priestly Discernment Program, a program established by Father Scanlan in 1985. He wanted a place where he could discern the priesthood, receiving formation, but also be in a normal college setting. We met during our first semester of college, and a year later when we spent a unforgettable semester studying abroad at the campus established by Father Scanlan in Gaming, Austria, my husband finally discerned that he was not called to the priesthood. From that point onward we were on our path towards marriage. Yet, it was the Priestly Discernment Program that brought him to campus, and lead to us being together. We have many friends who are now priests who went through the whole formation program, and many others who discerned out of the program and have found happiness in other vocations.
The beautiful thing about Franciscan University is that the spiritual benefits a student reaps from being at the school are found alongside a solid education. During the convocation Mass every year, another practice instituted by Father Scanlan, the new theology faculty and those involved in spiritual formation of students make an Oath of Fidelity to the Church. There are many great programs of study at the university, but I chose to study theology and philosophy. I knew that at Franciscan I would be taught the truths of the Church and that they would be honored. Yet, they did not just feed me the material, but they taught me how to think and study and seek truth. Through that I developed a greater love of God and a deeper faith. The professors there also aided my husband in his search for graduate school and gave him superb advice on how to succeed in academia, a field on which our livelihood depends.
Like so many that went to Franciscan University of Steubenville, I am deeply indebted to Father Scanlan for all of the work that he did. We did not all get to know him personally, but we all benefited from his good works. His smile and friendly greeting cheered us across campus. We appreciated his preaching when he said a daily Mass, one of the three offered on campus each day. And perhaps we all secretly hoped that he would be the next priest open when we were waiting in the confession line during the daily offered confessions. He made the campus and the school what it was, not on his own, but through his receptivity to the movements of the Holy Spirit. We will never forget his “yes” to God in all the endeavors he undertook to for the sake of the Church. I will pray for the repose of his soul, and inspired by his life of virtue, I hope to ask for his intercession for years to come.