Franciscan University of Steubenville’s newly appointed president, Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka, is being widely praised by faculty, alumni and staff as exactly the kind of leader the school needs in a time of change and controversy.
Father Pivonka is filling the post vacated by Franciscan Father Sean Sheridan, who announced he was stepping down in early April.
Prior to the announcement, Franciscan Father Malachi Van Tassell, the minister provincial for the Sacred Heart Province and also the chairman of the university’s board of trustees, in an interview with the Register, described the kind of qualities he was looking for in the next friar-president.
“We’re looking for somebody who is going to build on the success of Franciscan University: someone who is committed to dynamic orthodoxy; someone who has a love for the Church; someone who has an appreciation for academics. But I think at the heart of it all someone who is going to be a pastor and a shepherd of really one of the finest Catholic institutions in America,” Father Van Tassell said.
One noted Catholic scholar who knows Father Pivonka well says he fits the bill.
“There couldn’t be a better pick than Father Dave Pivonka as the new president of FUS. He was a close disciple of Father Michael Scanlan, who set the direction for FUS that has been fruitfully followed ever since: dynamic orthodoxy. Father Dave is uniquely equipped to understand this direction and bring it to new levels,” said Ralph Martin, who is president of Renewal Ministries and on the faculty at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Martin said that Father Pivonka serves on the board of Renewal Ministries and will continue to do so after his appointment takes effect, just as Father Scanlan did, in recognition of the “bond between our two ministries.”
“He has served in every area of the university and has a deep love for the mission, the faculty and the students,” Martin said.
Father Pivonka served in a number of roles at the university from 1996 to 2008, including as director of household support, assistant to the president under Father Scanlan, director of the youth outreach conferences, vice president for mission and planning, and director of the study-abroad program in Austria.
Martin’s children, all of whom attended Franciscan, have fond memories of Father Pivonka.
“He was such a charismatic personality — it seemed most kids knew him. He was always smiling and happy and welcoming. I have not met a person who didn’t have good things to say about him,” said Rachel Von Stauffenberg, Martin’s daughter.
“I knew him and really liked him,” added Elizabeth Beirne, another daughter of Ralph Martin. “In fact, everyone I knew really liked him, and they are all thrilled he has been appointed president. He is smart, fun, approachable, accessible and well respected. He is the type of priest that could hang out with us and no one felt judged.”
John Beaulieu, the director of evangelization and engagement in the Christian Outreach Office at the university, has known Father Pivonka since they were roommates at the school. Father Pivonka is Franciscan’s first alumnus president. He graduated in 1989.
“Everything he has gone through has prepared him for this,” said Beaulieu. “He’s a very caring person, and he’s a very deep spiritual person, as well; and yet that doesn’t make him aloof in any way. He’s very approachable.”
“People say to me, ‘What was Father Dave like before he was a priest?’ Well, he was holy, prayerful and a very loving guy, so he hasn’t changed,” Beaulieu said.
As an alumnus, Father Pivonka understands Franciscan University’s distinctive mission, according to the Register’s editor in chief, Jeanette De Melo, who is a Steubenville alumna.
“I have no doubt that Father Dave understands what makes Franciscan unique. He experienced it himself as a student and, in a way ever since then, has carried that experience to others through his pastoral ministry,” De Melo said.
Humorous and Prayerful
Beaulieu also recalled the more personal, humorous side of Father Pivonka. Once, he said, his friend came over to his house when he moved back to Steubenville to help him remodel his kitchen. When Beaulieu’s daughter met Father Pivonka, he asked her what her name was. She told him it was Catherine.
“As a joke he said, ‘Well, that’s my name, too,’” Beaulieu said. “She called him Father Catherine for like a year.”
Beaulieu has also gotten to know Father Pivonka on pilgrimages to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lourdes and Assisi, where Father Pivonka celebrated Mass in the cave where St. Francis used to pray. “Some of the most profound spiritual experiences I’ve had in my life I’ve had with Father Dave,” Beaulieu said.
He said Father Pivonka has also been a “tremendous source of prayer” and support over the last five years, during which time he lost his mother to cancer, his son almost died in a car accident, and his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is now in remission.
Prior to his appointment, Patrick O’Meara, an alumnus and Catholic financier, described Father Pivonka as the ideal candidate to reaffirm Franciscan’s Catholic identity and mission after the mold of Father Scanlan.
“We want to get back to that zeal in preaching the Gospel that Father Mike had,” O’Meara said.
He said Father Pivonka is a worthy successor to Father Scanlan.
“If they’re going to get a TOR [Third Order Regular Franciscan priest], how do you not take your most dynamic preacher and put him there?” O’Meara said.
“He is energetic, vibrant and a convincing preacher, much like Father Mike was,” said De Melo.
“In each of my encounters with Father Dave, I have been impressed by his commitment to Christ and the New Evangelization. He is the perfect choice to keep Franciscan University as the leading force for equipping young leaders for a lifetime of dynamic, Christ-centered renewal,” added Curtis Martin, an alumnus and president of Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
“Speaking personally, I was struck with a sense of gratitude and excitement in hearing that the university board of trustees voted unanimously to call such a dynamic priest — a protégé of Father Michael Scanlan — and my good friend of many years. Believe me, the Lord has great blessings for us in the years to come!” Scott Hahn, a Catholic author and professor of theology at Franciscan, posted on Facebook after the announcement.
Father Pivonka arrives after a series of controversies at Franciscan. Most notably, in January, the university made headlines after Stephen Lewis, a professor of English, assigned The Kingdom, a text said to offer blasphemous statements about the Virgin Mary. Lewis was subsequently removed as department chair, and the university announced that the text would not be assigned in any courses on campus.
Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology, praised Father Pivonka for his commitment to Church teaching.
“I am happy to welcome Father Pivonka. He understands our mission to be ‘Passionately Catholic’ and will infuse that passion and love for Christ into all aspects of our academics and our student life,” Hendershott said. “There will be no question of our commitment to our Catholic identity.
Added Hendershott, “I think Franciscan University is going to be a pretty exciting place to be in the coming years. I am so grateful to the board of trustees for this inspired choice. The Holy Spirit was surely at work.”
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.