Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Steubenville: Echo of Old or Glimpse of the Future: (Franciscan University of Steubeville, OH: Conservative Catholics - Part 1)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Steubenville: Echo of Old or Glimpse of the Future: (Franciscan University of Steubeville, OH: Conservative Catholics - Part 1)

Article excerpt

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- On the bluffs along the Ohio River in eastern Ohio stands the campus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Among institutions of higher learning it is not large: 1,964 students this year, a fulltime faculty of 86 and an operating budget of $27 million. Yet the school has attracted a level of attention as an "overtly Catholic Christian" institution that far exceeds its modest size.

New York Cardinal John O'Connor has said, "I don't know a better university in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world than Franciscan University "And the magazine AD 2000 called it an "outstanding exception" to the trend among Catholic universities to become "infected by theological dissent and secularization and are therefore longer truly Catholic."

Franciscan University is so truly catholic that it is visited regularly by church representatives from around the country seeking to hire its graduates. According to school president Franciscan Fr. Michael Scanlan, Denver; Portland, Ore.; Rapid City, S.D.; and Peoria, Ill., are among dioceses most active in recruiting on campus. Many are looking fro theology majors to work for the church as high school teachers, directors of religious education and youth ministers.

And Franciscan U. has a sizable crop to offer . The school claims more undergraduate theology majors (about 250) than any Catholic university in the country, including Notre Dame. The school also boasts some 150 theology majors in its graduate division.

Recruiters are also eagerly seeking candidates for the priesthood and religious life. Dozens of alumni are pursuing seminary studies, many of them at Mount St. Mary's in Maryland. An estimated 60 to 70 current students are seriously considering church vocations. Peoria, in particular, said Scanlan, has been "quite successful" in obtaining priests from the university's alumni, but, he adds, there is no geographical pattern, nor does the school keep close tabs on the deployment of its graduates

In a sense, said Scanlan, "we may be a better oasis for vocations than many seminaries today."

I spent three days in January at the school to learn something of the teaching that goes on there and the students who are attracted to it. I discovered that Franciscan U. is an intriguing blend of paradoxes. And I came away wondering, is this a quaint relic, an isolated enclave trying to breathe life into a moribund form of the old church? Or is it the crib of the "restoration," a less turbulent, more submissive manifestation of Catholicism destined to flourish in the next century? Or is it perhaps just a work in progress?

Exceptional reverence

The university is on the outskirts of Steubenville, an old river town whose central area is marked by crumbling brown mansions, potholed streets, dejected-looking citizens, a continuous traffic jam of pickup trucks and a profusion of sulphurlike odors wafting across the river from the few remaining steel mills in neighboring Wierton, W.Va.

By contrast, the university's 14 buildings are nicely spread over a well-cared-for 115-acre campus. At the center is the new, 200,000-volume John Paul II Library and a modern chapel whose separate baptistry rises to an oddly shaped peak that looks something like a shark's fin (and which serves as the university's logo).

It is at the chapel that one encounters one of the university's most interesting, visible characteristics: A total of 600 to 700 students regularly attend three daily Masses, although there is no requirement or official pressure to go.

A little before noon one day, students began converging on the chapel from every direction; some came alone, some in groups of three or four. The level of reverence was exceptional, reminiscent of a pre-Second Vatican Council seminary. They genuflected and blessed themselves slowly before entering the pews, then knelt in quiet prayer awaiting Mass. The liturgy, concelebrated by seven Franciscans, was post-Vatican II in almost every respect, with a lone guitarist leading the singing of contemporary hymns. …

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