The Steubenville Story
Father Sean Sheridan, TOR, is an interesting guy. In addition to a BA in pharmacy, he's a lawyer with degrees is both secular (University of Pittsburgh) and canon (Catholic University of America) law. He's a late vocation, too, having spent a decade practicing law in Sacramento and Pittsburgh, with a focus on healthcare litigation before joining the Franciscans in 2000. He's also an expert on the role of a Catholic university; his 2009 dissertation was a canonical commentary on John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” which deals with the role of the Catholic university in the Church’s mission.
Today, Father Sheridan is the new President of Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he's taken time out of his busy schedule to give this exclusive interview — an-depth look at his University, as it stands today.
Q. What was the genesis — the inspiration for the college?
Franciscan University of Steubenville was founded as the College of Steubenville in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II. The Diocese of Steubenville had just been formed and its first bishop, John King Mussio, reached out to a religious order to establish a Catholic college in his diocese. That order asked the bishop for $1 million to accomplish the task.
Not having the funds, Bishop Mussio turned to the religious order to which I belong, the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is based in Loretto, Pennsylvania, and which already was running a Catholic college there. The friars accepted Bishop Mussio’s offer, and in true Franciscan fashion they borrowed $348,000 and to the surprise of many, were able to open the College of Steubenville in under six months.
From our first president, Father Dan Egan, TOR, we find that his vision is in concert with today’s vision for the school. In a 1946 speech he said, “The College has a two-fold purpose . . . to give those who enroll here a thorough sense of values designed to train men for a full life which occupies 24 hours a day, not simply 8 hours spent in the shop or office. It also aims to contribute to the development and welfare of a man’s nature, recognizing that he has not only a body but an immortal soul.”
The College of Steubenville went through some tough times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was on the verge of closing due to stiff competition from state institutions and the social unrest of the era. Our fourth president, Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, did an amazing job of rededicating the school to Jesus Christ and turning it into a Catholic university of national prominence that today draws students from all 50 states and many foreign countries.
Father Terence Henry, TOR, took the mantle from Father Scanlan in 2000 and built on that foundation, adding a Catholic bioethics institute and many other academic and student life programs that have bolstered our Catholic identity and our commitment to academic excellence.
In true Franciscan fashion the Friars borrowed $348,000 and to the surprise of many, were able to open the College of Steubenville in under six months.
Q. What has been your experience of the university?
When I became president in June 2013, I dedicated myself to upholding these foundations. I taught theology here for one year before becoming president, and I can tell you first hand that there is a rigorous pursuit of truth through academic study here. This comes in every course of study, from accounting to theology and every subject in between. But we know that academic study, while good in and of itself, is not the supreme goal of our learning. Our students and faculty know that academic work naturally lead us to the source of all truth – God himself.
And so, in our daily activities, the way we gather as a worshipping community is central to this encounter with God. In his apostolic constitution, Ex corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II taught that as a natural expression of the identity of the Catholic university, the university community should give a practical demonstration of its faith in its daily activity, with expressions of prayer, and especially the Eucharist, as the most perfect act of community worship.
So the life of prayer is central to our academic life. Each semester, 24/7, students take an hour with the Lord for eucharistic adoration in the Portiuncula Chapel, a replica of one of the chapels repaired by St. Francis early in his public ministry. Our daily Mass attendance is very strong: Over 70 percent of our students voluntarily go to Mass two or more times a week. On Saturday afternoons over 800 students who belong to small faith-sharing groups known as faith households hold Lord’s Day celebrations. We have a monthly Festival of Praise that fills our fieldhouse, and students join in weekly praise and worship, Bible studies, Rosaries, among other prayers and devotions.
In my homily at the Opening of the School Year Mass, I told the students that
“as members of the body of Christ, all that you say, all that you do, must be rooted in God. God is the center of our lives, God is the beginning, God is our source for beginning to understand and embrace the truth.”
Q. How would you characterize the formation of young Catholics these days, as opposed to 20 years ago? Any reason for hope?
Young Catholics today are passionately searching in their lives for the truth that can only be found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Many have come to understand that despite what society might promise with regard to finding “happiness” in material possessions, they can only find joy by embracing, rather than running away from, the challenges that living lives of truth might require. As a result, many young Catholics are willing to dedicate their lives to not only pursuing holiness themselves but to assisting others with their pursuit of holiness. Strong catechetical programs such as we offer at Franciscan University prepare young Catholics to be formed and also to form others.
All of these themes tie into what our recent Holy Fathers have called the new evangelization—to catechize properly the baptized so that they might catechize others. There is great cause for hope that the formation of young Catholics will continue to improve as we see their great desire to deepen their relationship with Christ and to demand the formation needed to do so—both personal and as provided in catechetical programs.
Many young Catholics have come to understand that despite what society might promise with regard to finding “happiness” in material possessions, they can only find joy by embracing, rather than running away from, the challenges that living lives of truth might require.
Q. How is your school helping to answer the dire need for vocations?
First of all, I would say by the overall spiritual atmosphere that pervades the Franciscan University of Steubenville campus. Students often tell us how much they appreciate the many opportunities for prayer and the daily interactions with priests and nuns they find here.
We have 20 Franciscan friars teaching and serving in various capacities—an astoundingly high number for any Catholic university today. Our friars are a strong presence on campus. They serve as chaplains to the athletic teams, as advisors to the faith households and other student groups, they provide individual spiritual direction and have many informal interactions with students, such as conversations after Mass and while walking across campus, which help increase awareness of the call to the priesthood and religious life.
We have eight Franciscan TOR sisters who work in campus ministry at the University and at our study abroad program in Gaming, Austria. Add to this the many women’s religious orders who send members here for studies, and it’s clear that our female students have many encounters with religious sisters during which they can learn about these orders and their particular charisms.
In a more formal ways, our Priestly Discernment Program was established in 1985 expressly to encourage vocations. In this program, the men commit to a shared life that includes daily Mass, a Holy Hour, daily communal prayer, regular spiritual direction and weekly talks on the call to the priesthood. This year, six men who graduated from this program entered a major seminary or joined a religious community.
Over the last seven years, more than 76 Franciscan graduates who discerned and prepared for the priesthood through the University’s Priestly Discernment Program have entered seminary or a religious order.
We also have a Third Order Regular Affiliate House in one of our residence halls for men discerning entering the Franciscan Third Order Regular after they complete their studies at Franciscan University.
Of course, not all vocations come directly through these formal programs. For instance, two men not in either of these programs who graduated this year are now Franciscan TOR postulants. We did some research recently and found that in total, more than 400 Franciscan graduates currently serve the Church in the priesthood.
We’re also helping with vocation discernment at the high school level. Franciscan University hosts high school summer conferences that this year reached over 42,000 participants at 18 locations across the U.S. and Canada. A highlight at each conference is the “vocations call” at the closing Mass where young men and women step forward to be prayed over about a possible religious vocation. Over four thousand youth responded to the vocation call this summer.
According to a study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 11 percent of all priests ordained in the U.S. in 2013 said they participated in a Franciscan University Youth Conference before entering seminary or religious life, and 11 percent of women in the U.S. who professed perpetual vows in religious life in 2012 said they participated in a Franciscan University Youth Conference prior to entering religious life.
We did some research recently and found that in total, more than 400 Franciscan graduates currently serve the Church in the priesthood.
Q. What kind of young person is attracted to your school? Where are they from? What kind of student are they?
Franciscan University is a national Catholic university. We draw students from all 50 states and over a dozen foreign countries. For the incoming class of 2017, the top 10 states were: Ohio, California, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, and Indiana.
The top 10 majors chosen by these new students were theology, business, nursing, communication arts, catechetics, education, biology, and psychology.
Academically, our students place above the national average. The average ACT score of new freshman students is close to 25, which is 4 points higher than the national average.
Q. What are your students seeking?
What we hear from our students over and over is that they seek a living Catholic culture to immerse themselves in while in college. Our students tell us they want to be around other students who can encourage them in developing a prayer life, to be called on to live a life of holiness but also to be encouraged to study hard—and still have good, wholesome fun, too, I might add.
We have many transfer students who tell us that they felt isolated at the state, private or Catholic university they were attending. When they came here for a visit, especially when they spent a night in one of the residence halls, they found what they were looking for. They saw how our students had fun—dances, outdoor movies on the grass, socials on the Piazza dei Santi, NCAA athletics, and the like—while they also lived out their faith life. And that appealed to them.
We have many transfer students who tell us that they felt isolated at the state, private or Catholic university they were attending. When they came here for a visit, especially when they spent a night in one of the residence halls, they found what they were looking for.
Q. How do students rate their experience at your school? After 5 or so years? Further out?
Our recent alumni survey revealed that:
- More than 90 percent of Franciscan graduates successfully enter the next phase of life—employment, further education, the priesthood, or religious life—within one year of graduation.
- Ninety-four percent of alumni said they would recommend Franciscan University to a prospective student or parent.
- Over 91 percent rated their overall Franciscan University experience as an 8 or higher, with 48 percent rating it a perfect 10.
- Over 90 percent of alumni say they are “very connected” to Franciscan, and have visited campus, attended reunions or University events and read Franciscan Way and other materials sent to them by the University.
Q. Cost is a huge factor these days as students balk at assuming large debt for undergrad degrees. How is your school addressing this?
Over 80 percent of Franciscan University students receive some form of financial aid that totals more than $11 million each year. Aid comes in the form of academic and need-based scholarships, military aid, and grants that do not need to be repaid, to various types of loans and work study. Students are also directed to outside scholarships and direct financial aid for which they may be eligible.
During our most recent Capital Campaign $15.6 million was raised for new and existing scholarships. Our newest scholarship, the Spirit of St. Francis Scholarship Fund, benefits students who qualify to attend Franciscan University but have limited income, including those who come from large families.
Our newest scholarship, the Spirit of St. Francis Scholarship Fund, benefits students who qualify to attend Franciscan University but have limited income, including those who come from large families.
About Franciscan University of Steubenville:
- For more than 11 consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report’s guidebook on “America’s Best Colleges” has ranked Franciscan University in the elite “top tier” of Midwestern universities.
- Young America’s Foundation rates Franciscan as one of the top 15 conservative colleges in the nation.
- The Templeton Honor Roll for Education in a Free Society considers Franciscan one of the 13 colleges that are “best in liberal arts education.”
- Franciscan is one of 22 “faithfully Catholic universities” in the U.S. recognized by the Cardinal Newman Society.
- Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine has included Franciscan University of Steubenville as one of its “best values” in private higher education, ranking it 55th among the top 100 private universities in the nation.
Ways to Give
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However you choose to support the mission of Franciscan University of Steubenville, you have our deepest gratitude, and will be included in prayeres offered at Mass as well as holy hours for benefactors and supporters.
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