Ave Maria University’s New President Promotes the Saintly and the Scholarly
‘This university is named after our Blessed Mother. This is her university. We are stewards here,’ says Mark Middendorf.
At the beginning of 2022, Mark Middendorf was named Ave Maria University’s fourth president. His journey to Ave Maria comes from the business world, where he worked at such companies as Westinghouse. He left all of that behind to devote himself to the world of faith, founding Lighthouse Catholic Media, which became the largest producer of Catholic audio talks in the world.
On Dec. 8, 2015, Lighthouse merged with the Augustine Institute, and Middendorf, as executive vice president for mission expansion, initiated, launched and then expanded the “Formed” program that is now in more than 6,500 parishes. Middendorf is a board member of Ignatius Press and the Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy. He and his wife, Christine, have four children, one a graduate of Ave Maria University and another presently enrolled.
Meeting recently with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen, Middendorf gave his first press interview since taking the helm at Ave Maria.
What led you to leave the business world to found Lighthouse Catholic Media?
I was baptized, Catholic raised, went to a Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, just incredible parents growing up, and then when I went away to college; they didn’t have a lot of, at least to my knowledge, a lot of the Newman [Guide]-type guide schools that they have today. ... Upon graduating college, I had some great friends that I had become close with during those years. We loved to play sports. One day we were playing basketball, and one of the guys had a Bible and asked, “Would anybody like to read the Bible with me?” I did, and a number of the other guys did. We read it cover to cover. Reading the Scriptures and going through that experience had a profound impact on my life. Then we started asking questions. We decided you’d have to be able to prove it with Scripture, because most of the group was not Catholic. We would stay on those topics until we were all in agreement.
By the end of the third year, the entire group, and many of their spouses — my wife was already Catholic — converted to the Catholic Church. It was during that period you had to read a lot, then listen to cassette tapes. St. Joseph Communications was a great source of cassette tapes back then. During that period, I really became evangelized and fell deeply in love with Our Lord. I asked, “How come nobody knows about these types of talks and books?” That was where the idea for Lighthouse Catholic Media came from.
In 2005, for the first time in my life, I had a deep inner call to leave the corporate world. At that time, we had four kids, 7 and under. It was a big decision for my wife and me, but I knew God was calling us to that. It was never an audible voice, but it was, I would say, a voice in the heart. She agreed. I left the corporate world, and we started up Lighthouse Catholic Media on Aug. 15, 2005, and consecrated it to our Blessed Mother. I wanted to do this for our Lord under our Blessed Mother’s mantle of protection.
There were two other co-founders: Dave Durand and Terry Barber from St. Joseph Communications. God blessed us with the various people that he sent us almost immediately, Day One. Within a few short years, we were in thousands of parishes, distributing millions of CDs and books across the United States, then eventually on four continents.
It was responding to that call, that inner voice, and trusting in Our Lord — and the core to everything we were doing was Marian consecration, one of our foundational charisms.
How did the move to Augustine come about?
We collaborated with most of the major, I would term orthodox, Catholic apostolates. One of those was Augustine Institute. I got to be close friends with Dr. Tim Gray [the president] and his family. Our families would go on vacation together. On one particular vacation ... he asked me a simple but a profound question: “Do you think we could reach more souls if we are one apostolate versus just partnering?” For the second time in my life, I had that same deep inner voice — again, not an audible voice, but to do this merger. I donated my life’s work with Lighthouse Catholic Media, and we gave the entire thing to the Augustine Institute.
Were you familiar with Ave Maria University while at Augustine?
I had been a supporter of Ave Maria University since before the shovel went in the ground. I received a solicitation back in 2002. I was thinking maybe someday my sons or daughters will go to this university. Fast-forward to 2020. My son Michael graduated from here, and this year my daughter is graduating from here, so I’ve always believed in the vision [founder] Tom Monaghan had.
Why did you decide to accept the offer to become president of Ave Maria University?
It wasn’t my decision. It was a calling. I thought I would be working at the Augustine Institute in Colorado the rest of my life. I loved what I was doing.
About a year ago, they were doing a search for the new president. Tim Gray shared with me that he thought I should apply for that position. For the third time in my life — once in 2005, in 2015, and then about a year ago — I heard that same deep inner voice to pursue that. I didn’t know what Our Lord was doing because I thought I would be at Augustine the rest of my life.
I went home right after that conversation and talked to my wife. My wife, Christine, felt the same, that I should pursue it. I did and, through the grace of God, was offered the position of president, and I accepted. It wasn’t “just a job,” or something came up, and I thought about it: It was because I felt God was calling me to something greater.
St. John Paul II believed that “in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences,” as he said during his apostolic visit to Fatima on May 13, 1982. Now, looking back at my life, each step of the way really has contributed to the position I’m in today. All of that, I think, has been to equip me for the responsibilities the Lord has entrusted me with today.
The first thing you did after becoming president was to entrust the university, the staff and students to our Blessed Mother on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Why did you call it “foundational”?
Pope John Paul II would say the turning point in his life was when he made his Marian consecration, which is why there is on his coat of arms Totus Tuus, “totally yours.” It was the same for Maximilian Kolbe. The work he accomplished through God's grace and our Blessed Mother, under her mantle of protection, was the largest Marian consecration movement probably up until that moment. We promote St. Louis de Montfort as well here, and one of the other Marian consecrations, Father Michael Gaitley’s book, 33 Days to Morning Glory.
I saw firsthand not only in my own life, but in all the lives around me, the impact that that had: when we fully entrust ourselves to her and surrender our will so she can most fully work in our lives for the glory of God. It’s really a no-lose situation in our journey to fall more deeply in love with Our Lord, the Catholic Church — and for him to be able to use us in the best possible way.
All incoming freshmen receive that [consecration] book. In freshman orientation, we talk about the importance of the Rosary, the sacraments, Eucharistic adoration and Marian consecration because many have never made their Marian consecration. That’s an integral part of who we are. Also, this university is named after our Blessed Mother. This is her university. We are stewards here.
Do you have immediate plans for the direction you’d like to see Ave Maria grow?
With campus culture, this year, we launched a new program called the Thomas S. Monaghan Scholars Program. We have these Thomas Monaghan scholars on campus. One of the first things they’re doing is going through the Bible in a year as a group, in groups of five. I shared how instrumental studying the word of God was in my life. We have a faculty member and a coach with the group of five. They meet once a week, but every day they read the Bible and have a brief reflection. It’s just amazing to see how that is transformative for them in their lives.
Also, we’ve asked every Poor Clare cloister and a whole host of other religious orders — we work with 87 religious orders in the country — if they would “adopt” the students. So all of these scholars are being adopted by sisters who will pray for them every day, by name, all four years they’re here. Each of the students will have a picture or will know the name of the sister or nun praying for them. They can write them or support those institutions, as well. That’s a brand-new program. It has been tremendous, especially for our freshman class. Over the course of four years, we will have hundreds of students in this program.
Fulton Sheen said throughout his entire life he made the daily Holy Hour. So every one of our dorms has a chapel, and we have a beautiful adoration chapel here to encourage all of our students to try to make the daily Holy Hour, or even if they can only go for 15 or 30 or 45 minutes, but preferably an hour a day, every day, so God can speak to them. And they can discern what are their true gifts and talents that he has given only to them for the service of the Church and for the salvation of souls.
In Ex Corde Ecclesia, the Holy Father says Catholic universities are essential for the growth of the Church and Christian society. Tom Monaghan founded this university to help form future saints in service to the Church and Christian society for the salvation of souls. That’s the foundation that we’re building on here today.
Academically, we have been really blessed. God has sent us some of the best faculty in the world across not just theology and philosophy, but all of the sciences. A lot of Catholic universities cease to really promote the fullness of the faith. But the faculty of a lot of those institutions, whether it’s biology or math or computer science or all these beyond just theology and philosophy, want to teach God in those classes. This university embraces that.
And we will continue to build and strengthen our academics and expand our M.A. and MBA programs.
How do the new technology courses fit into your future plans for the university?
We are greatly expanding our computer science program. We’re starting with a minor, hope to go to a major and then a master’s. We’ve been blessed with an incredibly talented faculty. They gave up tenure to come here and start this program up for us. I knew from my time with Lighthouse Catholic Media, and all the different apostolates that we collaborated with, one of the great common needs at every apostolate was to find people that really understood computer science, to help bring their platforms and programs to share with the world.
Here is another thing that we’re trying to do with technology: The cost to form the whole student — the intellect, the love of truth, the will and the love of God — costs more than you charge for intuition. We’ve been blessed for nearly 25 years of having great benefactors so we didn’t have to raise the tuition to the degree where it would be unaffordable for a lot of people. One of the areas where we want to use technology to really help bridge that gap is with our monthly-giving society called the Annunciation Circle with a link to donate. Using technology like that really will help sustain us for the future to continue to do what we do so uniquely here that’s not available at most colleges and universities across the country.
For our Blessed Mother, who this university is consecrated to and named after, I would be very remiss if I did not share that in my role as president, because you’re giving to her university and to this mission Our Lord has entrusted to us.
Do you have any other thoughts to share with our readers?
We hope it to be a great blessing for the university and for all those that encounter it. And we consecrate and entrust it fully to our Blessed Mother under her mantle of protection. Amen.