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Memories of Father Michael Scanlan with Scott Hahn and Monsignor Shea

June 10, 2021 21 min read
By Dr. Scott Hahn Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R., Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization, Franciscan University of Steubenville
Msgr. James P. Shea President, University of Mary
Dr. Scott Hahn reflecting on the life of Father Michael Scanlan

Dr. Scott Hahn, who holds the Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University of Steubenville and is the founder and president of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology, sat down with Monsignor James P. Shea, President of the University of Mary, on the University of Mary’s campus on June 8, 2021, to discuss the life and legacy of the late Father Michael Scanlan, whose tenure as President of the Franciscan University of Steubenville helped to enliven a renewal of Catholic higher education at institutions across the country.

Monsignor James P. Shea (MShea): Dr. Hahn, I’m very grateful to welcome you here to the campus of the University of Mary, and I’m grateful for your generosity. Your self-gift is really impressive. Last night we packed the McDowell Activity Center on our campus when you received the Lumen Vitae Medal from the university, and you gave a stirring and extraordinary talk. Having taught the FOCUS missionaries earlier in the day yesterday for New Staff Training, today you spent the day with our Year-Round Campus students. Typically, Scott, when we have a luminary like you come to campus, I’ll sit down with them in a quiet fashion like we’re sitting now, and I’ll ask them some high-level questions about some great topic. In this case, though, I want to talk in a more personal fashion, because if I asked you about covenant or fatherhood or the Eucharist, I would have to dodge the firehose! But I want to talk to you about memories of Father Michael Scanlan. I have the holy card from his funeral, and every now and then when I’m having a hard time, because the administration of a Catholic university is no easy task and probably nobody knew it better than him, I’ll take it out and I’ll consider the contribution that he made to Catholic higher education. And not just the concrete contributions, but the manner in which he made them and the way in which he followed the Holy Spirit. I believe with Cardinal Newman that each of us has a work to do, and that that’s true of institutions, too. And so a place a like the Franciscan University of Steubenville has a particular work or contribution to make. A place like the University of Mary has a contribution that might look very different, and yet in the end we’re all part of this great enterprise of Catholic higher education. And you worked for Fr. Scanlan from 1990 and you were with him very near to the time of his passing into everlasting life. I wonder if you might share with me, as a young college president, your memories of Fr. Scanlan.

Dr. Scott Hahn (SH): Sure. Well just a few bullet points, you know, in terms of the objective background and then in terms of my own subjective relationship: the College of Steubenville was founded in 1946 as a G.I. Bill school for returning veterans who were looking for higher education. And by the late 1960s it had kind of run its course. It had become something of a secular college – a party school – and it lost its Catholic identity like other institutions. And so in the early 1970s they were debating whether to shut it down or to try to reinvigorate it, and of the two candidates for the presidency, one was going to become president just to help them through bankruptcy and the other one was Fr. Michael Scanlan, who becomes the second founder of what becomes the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

MShea: This is 1974 about, right? And he had been dean of the College earlier?

SH: That’s right, it was 1974, and he had been dean in the 1960s. And when he came back, he had a very clear sense of Catholic identity. He had a radical openness to the Holy Spirit. He also had solid grounding in Harvard Law School, so he had the best of both worlds, the natural and the supernatural. But he had a kind of sanctified common sense that I encountered even before he becomes the one who hires me in 1990. Firstly, I met him with my wife, Kimberly, and we had almost three hours together with him in his office. Kimberly had just suffered a miscarriage, and when he heard that, his first response was to pray with us and to pray over her, and within a matter of weeks, she conceived. Another thing that he did was to listen to me tell my story in a kind of brief way, how I had become a Catholic after being a Protestant minister, and how I had studied and had done research and was finishing doctorate work. He gave me a line that on one level sounded like a throw-away line, but it was a gold nugget that I’ve never dropped or let go of: “We’ve all got to be careful in Catholic higher education,” he said, “because in God’s Word we remember that God opposes the proud, even when they’re right.” And I mean it was the gentle zinger that struck me between the eyes and right to the heart, you know? God opposes the proud even when they’re right – especially when they’re conservative and orthodox with the truth of God’s mercy, because what are we to be proud of if it’s all grace, if it’s all mercy? You could see that was is modus operandi: he lived by the mercy of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit. He had a clear sense of Catholic identity and a very strong sense of leadership skills, but it was always under the lordship of Jesus Christ, and none of this was jargon for him.

He also had this capacity to enter into friendships with people he didn’t agree with. I don’t want to digress for too long, but one story he shared with me, years after it happened, was that when he came in as president in 1974, the head of the faculty was a Marxist and a former Catholic. They butted heads, and there was a vote of no confidence that Fr. Scanlan escaped, and then Fr. Mike let this professor know that the future does not look good for Marxist professors subverting Catholic identity, so he moved on. Unbeknownst to the rest of the faculty, Fr. Mike and this former professor stayed in touch, stayed friends through it all. The professor went up to New York and worked for the Communist newspaper out of New York City, and even over the next 25 years they stayed in touch. Fast forward, this man gets cancer and asks Fr. Mike to come up, and surreptitiously – because his life would have been in danger as well as Fr. Mike’s – Fr. Mike hears his confession, he comes back into the Church, he gives him Holy Communion, and he dies a short while later. And only after the professor’s death was it safe for Fr. Mike to get up on the pulpit and to give a homily describing the opposition from this enemy, the friendship that they had in spite of it all, and then through friendship, how the joy of the Gospel returned to a man who went to him for confession. And it was all surreptitious, flying up and coming up, all of that. And for me that captures the heart of his leadership style more than almost any other natural set of phenomena.

MShea: What a tremendous gift to be able to love like that, and to do it over the course of years with such patience and to have a history like that.

SH: To be fearless and yet to be friendly. It’s great!

MShea: You know you ministered to me just now when you talked about God’s approach to the proud. Because one of the things that I’ve found that afflicts higher education is the question of pride. And academic pride doesn’t know left and right – academic pride is something which suffuses the academy. And so I’ve prayed for many years now, and I’ve invited others to pray with me and our faculty to pray to repent for the sins of academic pride, which blind us to the real capacity that we have to serve students, to serve them well, to touch and transform their hearts, not just to equip their minds. So that seems to be a good starting point for one of the principles that Fr. Scanlan was keen on in his leadership at Steubenville: that God is stern with the proud, and so we shouldn’t be proud. What would you say are some of the other sort of guiding principles that you witness in him which were the texture and tone of the greatness of his leadership?

SH: Well, he was a Franciscan priest. Here you’re secular clergy, but it’s a Benedictine spirit that pervades the University of Mary. It wasn’t just Francis, it wasn’t just Clare, it wasn’t just the tradition of Francis and the Franciscans, it was this strongly sacramental sense of life. That particular province of Franciscan friars emphasizes ongoing conversion and penance. And that’s what he brought to bear in his leadership, as well, because you can see a man who is continually repenting and returning to the Lord. In fact, in that first office visit he shared with Kimberly that after Vatican II, like many others, he struggled with Marian devotion and piety and these sorts of things, and then explained how after he had abandoned praying the rosary, he came back to it with a humility and a fervor that he had never known. And Kimberly told me later, “Look, if Fr. Michael Scanlan can struggle with the rosary, I can, too!” If he can come back to it and discover his mother in the order of grace, you can, too. But it was that radical openness to the Holy Spirit not just to do zany things that are going to be obviously supernatural, but to do the natural in a supernatural spirit. Intellectual pride can be traced all the way back to the devil himself. It wasn’t a sensual fall for the devil, you know, through the temptations of the flesh, it really was that spiritual pride that is rooted in the intellect, in one’s own excellence. So I think Fr. Mike recognized that. Like you, he went to Harvard to study: he had the pedigree and all that. But he also recognized the inherent limitations and a lack of awareness of those inherent limits, and how (that all relates to) academic pride. So in recovering this attitude of service, of repentance, of showing love in concrete ways in the community, he also bridged the “town-gown” split between the university and the inner city. During the riots when he was the dean in the late 1960s, he led the parade with the black pastors. He was always an instrument of reconciliation in ways that many people on the faculty didn’t know, even into the 1980s and the 1990s. And so the one thing I believe that he helped me to see more clearly than anybody else was when you subordinate the intellectual life of academic education to faithfulness to the Gospel, to a kind of awareness that we are part of the Church’s mission to evangelize, to illuminate, to form the next generation of disciples, you actually do the academic better than if you prioritize it and make that the be-all and the end-all. And so by subordinating reason to faith, you end up discovering that you can reason more reasonably in the light of faith than you can without faith and with a lot of intellectual pride. That’s a lesson academics have to relearn almost every week.

MShea: Gosh, that’s Pope Benedict, isn’t it?

SH: Oh, to a T.

MShea: You know when I think about the person of Fr. Scanlan, I met him just one time, it was it my brother Bob’s graduation from Franciscan University. He’s now a priest – in fact, until last year he was the chaplain here at the University of Mary. But it was at his graduation from college, I was vesting with Fr. Scanlan for the Baccalaureate Mass in the Fieldhouse, which was an extraordinary experience for me. I was a high school chaplain at the time, and to be in the Fieldhouse and to hear young people sing with such fervor and to have their education and their formation all culminate in this worship, in this great praise, it was very moving for me. But anyway, I was vesting with him, and I had just been named as president here, so I was eager to get some of his wisdom. He had been chancellor for a handful of years at that time, maybe nearly a decade, I suppose, and it was a beautiful encounter. He was very attentive. He asked a lot of really good questions, and then he gave some succinct but very practical advice. There was nothing ethereal about it.

What would all of us who admired him from a distance - who really reverence and cherish the legacy that he left – what wouldn’t we know about him? Was he lonely, was he quirky, is there something about his character that you knew working closely with him that could give us a window into the life of the man?

SH: Yeah, I mean he would talk, with discretion, about his broken family, and how he was raised in a religious high school but really in a community at a boarding school. I don’t remember all of the details. His dad left his mom, and so he ended up having spiritual father figures who really made up for what was lacking. I mean he stayed close to his father, and his father imparted to him an amazing taste in wine. He could really choose the best wine wherever you were with him. And I also would say this, we ended up doing over 200 shows together, but even more he baptized Jeremiah, Joseph, and David, our three youngest sons. Jeremiah is now Fr. Jeremiah…

MShea: 12 days ago!

SH: Yes! And now Joseph is pursuing the priesthood, as well. And I think both of them are aware that they can trace back not just to the example of Fr. Mike, but to confession and the spiritual direction that they have received from him, and so I would never delve into that, obviously, but sometimes they would share how much courage and how much humility he had. And he himself would also talk about the fact that he had struggles – most of the private ones I would suspect he didn’t divulge to them or me, one thing I remember, and this is just kind of anecdotal: I had already accepted eagerly the invitation that came from him to come and teach theology at Franciscan University back in Advent of 1990. And I couldn’t wait. I didn’t feel adequate, but I just thought God can make up for what I lack, because that’s what Fr. Mike promised. And we were getting ready to move, our van was packed and all of that, and we went to our parish in Joliet, Illinois, for one last time. We noticed halfway through the Mass that the couple behind us was just singing louder than the parishioners that we knew, so we thought, “they’re guests.” And at the sign of peace, they gave heartier handshakes. At the end, we prayed as a family, and they invited us to join them for lunch, and so we ended up having lunch together. And in the next two or three hours of this conversation, John, the fellow who was inviting us, just said, “You know, before we go far in our conversation, I’m going to tell you something. We just came a few weeks ago from a place in Ohio, the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Have you heard of it?” I’m like, “Yes, I have.” And I just stopped: “Go on.” And so he said, “I went there an atheist. I went to commencement because family member was graduating, and I had pressure put on me to attend. And this Fr. Mike said the Baccalaureate address and then the Mass that Friday night, and he gave this homily, and I don’t know if you’ve met this Fr. Mike, but my life will never be the same.” And he said, “In that Mass, I came to know that the faith is real, and true, and that Christ was there,” and so he said “If you ever get a chance to go to Franciscan University of Steubenville, you’ve got to do it.” And Kimberly is like, “Come on Scott, tell him.” And so when I did, he’s like, “Oh why didn’t you tell me, you set me up!” I’m like, “Oh no, this was a providential mercy for you to share. That story confirms a hundredfold that I am called to that place.”

MShea: But this is very interesting, because I asked you Was he lonely?, Was he quirky?, and oftentimes the brokenness of one’s life is the stuff out of which God makes holiness. The struggles that we have, the sorrows, and we forget how important it is not to have a perfect life.

SH: And he talked about the emptiness he felt after Harvard Law School when he became a J.A.G. attorney (in the military), and how he didn’t lose a case but he didn’t find meaning in life, and how in his brokenness, one day he went in search of God and strolled through the woods and told the Lord, “I am not leaving this forest until you’ve made it clear that you have a plan.” And it was hours – I don’t remember him telling me exactly how much later – but his brokenness gave way to this deep connection with the Holy Spirit, and a deep sense of priestly vocation, so he went and looked at the Jesuits. He actually met Avery Dulles at that point. But he discerned his way to the least likely place of all for a Harvard J.A.G. attorney, and that was the Franciscan Third Order Regular (T.O.R.) Province of the Sacred Heart. But it was such a clear sense of calling, a sense of homecoming, but also a sense of, I think, completeness. Because what God had given him in the religious brothers who taught him to make up for what was lacking in his own dad, I think that community also provided for him, as well, and believe me, he supplied a whole lot of grace and skills for that community, too.

MShea: What do Franciscans say: “our Holy Father Francis,” is that the phrase?

Fr. Scanlan passed into eternal life at the beginning of 2017. I remember I was at a huge FOCUS conference – I think it was SEEK – and it was announced from the main stage. And I felt that it was a moment like the veil being torn in the Temple, a passage.

You encountered him toward the end of his life. He had struggled with memory. How did you find him at the very end?

SH: Wow, okay. So he was president from 1974 until about 2000, when Fr. Terence Henry took over and asked Fr. Mike to remain as chancellor. His presence as chancellor was never in any way in competition with Fr. Terry. They were really strongly supportive of one another.

MShea: I had that blessing, too. Sister Thomas Welder, who just passed away this last year of kidney cancer, had been president for 31 years. She had the office next to mine and it was never anything but a support, really. What a blessing.

SH: He went into a retirement facility in 2011, where he was for the next six years or so. And he lived at first in the motherhouse of the Franciscans in Loretto. I went to see him there two or three times and he was always chipper, but you could see him getting weaker and weaker. And then finally he went off to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, where they had a retirement home. That’s where he lost the fraternity, the community. He still said Mass, but you could sense that there was just a whole lot missing that he had known for most of his adult life. I went out there again and at one point, the last time I went with my son, Joe, who is going to be ordained a deacon, we were told when we got up to the floor, “Look, he’s been nonresponse for the most part. He’s not in a coma, but he’s not really conversant in any way.” His roommate stepped out in the hallway and just warned us that he’d not really come out of himself for weeks. So I went in with low expectations. At first we just kind of began to chitchat, reminding him of who I was and where I cam from and who Joe was and how he had baptized my son, and about ten minutes into it, he just said, “Oh, I remember all of the shows that we did together! How is your wife, Kimberly? That was the last show I think I ever did.” And I’m like, “Welcome back!” And it just went from glory to glory, because he not only came out of himself, but his memory awakened, and he began to make connections and by the end, he said, “Can I lead us together in prayer? I would like to pray over Joseph your son, as well. And I’m so grateful because you reminded me that you have the Fr Michael Scanland Chair, the professorship of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization. I had to approve that, Scott!” And I’m like, “Believe me, I feel like Elijah’s mantle fell on me, and at first it was crushing, but what a grace, what a privilege it is to carry on this legacy!” So he prayed over me, he prayed over Joe, and as we were leaving his roommate kind of scurried down the hall and said, “I don’t know what just happened, but none of us saw that coming! We thought he was just close to a coma or close to a complete unresponsive state,” and this retired priest said, “I have to give all the glory to God, but thank you, because we haven’t seen him like that for months.” We could have flown home without a plane or a car, it was such a grace. And we got a bunch of pictures and we shared them with a lot of friends, and I look back because it wasn’t much later that I was in Haiti on a mission with Fr. Louis Merosne, who was very close to Fr. Michael, as well. Haiti being what it is, we couldn’t find a flight to get back in time. I eventually did get back for a major service.

He was a heroic leader. When the history of the Catholic Church in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is written, Franciscan University will have a prominent place, I suspect, almost entirely because one man kept saying “yes” no matter what our Lord asked of Fr. Michael Scanlan.

MShea: Praise God for the vision that God gave to him and the presence of the Holy Spirit. And I have to say you referenced the mantle of Elijah, I think that means something like a double portion, and so I don’t think it’s just him. I think that you and other people that he gathered on that campus who serve students – three of my brothers graduated with a great education from Steubenville. So there’s that effect. But it’s not just that, because – what does St. Thomas say? Bonum diffusivum sui – the good is diffusive of itself. The ripples of the renewal of Catholic higher education, of which Steubenville is an exemplar, are felt all around. The students that we get to serve here at the University of Mary are recipients of that as well, and so I’m grateful and I still keep that prayer card from Fr. Scanlan’s funeral as a memento and a reminder that we have him and many others who are interceding for us – Sr. Thomas, my predecessor, as well. May we be worthy of that legacy.

You’ve been so generous to spend a little bit of time with me. I wonder if you might offer some of your impressions from your time here on campus. And there’s no need for you to hold back!

SH: Well you know, it’s funny because like 90 seconds ago I thought you were wrapping up and I was wondering, “Is there any way I can shoehorn a comment or two?” Because I thought between that prayer card and the image of Elijah’s mantle, I can’t help but think that a piece of that mantle somehow fell onto you and this place, because I’ve been here several times, but each time it just gets better. It gets bigger and better, but not just quantitatively, not just institutionally. The innovative forms of education and this sort of thing, it’s like “Wow, the Holy Spirit is present and active supernaturally but also in the natural and the ordinary, the curriculum and all.” I’m struck by the fact that the Benedictine sisters who founded this university founded other things that were always of service to the community. And so by the time this university is founded in the late 1950s, it was just an extension of that attitude of Christ the Servant working through the members of his Mystical Body. More than a figure of speech or religious rhetoric or a coined metaphor, there’s a realism to this that I felt this time in the two days – it’ll be three tomorrow – I’ve been here. This visitation made me realize the Holy Spirit has obviously been working overtime at Franciscan University, Benedictine College, Belmont Abbey, Christendom, and Thomas Aquinas College (TAC). It really is an unexpected renewal in Catholic higher education: fidelity, orthodoxy, but vibrancy, every bit as much at Mary and maybe much more than I expected. And it’s not just the banquet, the students, and the FOCUS staff training. There really is something almost tangible or palpable about what your “yes” is, and just like Fr. Michael Scanlan assembled a team of coworkers, of fellow disciples, who were as radically open to the Holy Spirit as he was, but really under the leadership of Christ working through this instrument. I was just telling Dr. Leroy Huizenga that I wondered after teaching the students here for eight hours – “Lord, with all due respect, why am I not out here more often!” It’s like, this was almost too much fun! The philosophy and the theology students, and my colleagues in the departments of philosophy and theology – Dr. Philip Porter, Dr. Huizenga, of course, Dr. Daniel Sportiello, Dr. David Echelbarger and others – it’s just like, I wish that I could extend this stay for another three or four days just for the sake of conversation, but also to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in the students that I keep meeting, because I just get a sense that it exceeded my expectations. But I feel like the Holy Spirit is whispering, “The best is yet to come, believe me.” And so I have to say, glory to God in the highest and may the Lord continue to bless your work, your leadership, but also your surrendering to Christ the King here at the University of Mary.

MShea: God bless you Dr. Scott Hahn. If you want to come more often, you’re welcome any time all the time!

SH: Here’s my arm, please, twist it!

MShea: God you bless you and thanks for spending a little bit of time with me today. Memories of Father Michael Scanlan.

SH: What a joy.

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