By Emily Stimpson Chapman
Exclusive from the Spring 2019 issue of Franciscan Magazine
Universities, like families, have a rhythm of life. The students come and go, with the academic cycle repeating itself again and again and again. Until it doesn’t.
Over the past several years, nearly a dozen Catholic colleges, mostly in the Midwest, have shuttered their doors. Others soon will follow suit. Institutions whose life once seemed certain have failed. They failed to remain faithful. They failed to remain relevant. They failed to remain out of debt. And so they failed to attract students in an age when fewer and fewer young people graduate from high school and even fewer pursue higher education.
But not Franciscan University.
In 2018, Franciscan welcomed its largest incoming freshman class in history: 680 students. Over the past six years, while enrollment at other small universities has dropped, Franciscan’s has grown by 10 percent. And while other long-respected Catholic colleges are selling off property to cover their debt, for six years running Franciscan has maintained a balanced budget, recently earning an "A" rating from Standard & Poors.
Moreover, it did all that while expanding its programming, growing its faculty, building new buildings, increasing its engagement with the wider culture, and as Franciscan theology professor Dr. Scott Hahn says, "becoming more faithful to its mission, not less."
The credit, in large part, goes to Franciscan University’s outgoing President, Father Sean O. Sheridan, TOR.
This April, after six years of service as the University’s president, Father Sean announced his resignation. Although the Board of Trustees has begun its search for Father Sean’s replacement, it has its work cut out for it.
Father Sean brought to the presidency not only a deep love for the Church, an unwavering commitment to Catholic orthodoxy, and fatherly concern for students, but also an understanding of Catholic higher education’s mission that few other Catholic university presidents possess. As a doctoral student in canon law, he even wrote his dissertation on the implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae (Pope St. John Paul II’s landmark document on Catholic higher education).
It’s that combination of gifts that enabled Franciscan to accomplish so much during Father Sean’s tenure.
Chief among those accomplishments has been the expansion of the University’s world-renowned Theology and Catechetics Programs. In 2014, the University launched the online Master of Arts in Catechetics and Evangelization program. Three years later, in 2017, it also began offering an online Master of Arts in Theology and Christian Ministry. And this summer, the University will launch its online Master of Catholic Leadership program.
"Father Sean always had a passion and vision for serving the church and passing on the faith," says Dr. Bob Rice, director of the Master in Catechetics and Evangelization Program. "It was through his leadership we were able to launch the largest MA catechetics degree in the United States."
Likewise, without Father Sean’s support and concern for the Universal Church, the University never could have launched the Franciscan Catechetical Institute (which currently serves 100 dioceses) in 2017.
The Institute’s director, Dr. Petroc Willey explains, "Father Sean often spoke of ‘the Franciscan family,’ and by this he meant something wider than the students, faculty, and staff; wider even than the parents and families of students, of the alumni, and of university benefactors. In true Franciscan fashion, he was referring to all those whom the University could serve in the broader Church. His reference to ‘the Franciscan family’ is summed up in the Catechetical Institute’s motto: Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor, ‘The love of Christ has gathered us into one.’"
Catholic universities, however, are much more than their theology and catechetical programs, and Father Sean’s understanding of Ex corde Ecclesiae’s mandate to bring the light of truth to bear on all fields of study has been evident across the University.
In 2013, shortly after his tenure began, Franciscan established the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life. Rooted in the teachings of the Church’s Magisterium and guided by the riches of Catholic social teaching, the Veritas Center strives to provide meaningful analyses of moral and cultural dilemmas. Not only has the center helped Franciscan faculty publish hundreds of essays on faith, politics, and culture, but it also has hosted numerous conferences that complement the formation students receive in the classroom. This includes a recent conference on the growing problem of transgenderism.
One of the speakers at the conference was Dr. Ryan T. Anderson, the William E. Simon Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.
In hosting the conference (and others like it), Anderson said, "Father Sean displayed intellectual courage unseen among many leaders of Catholic colleges. He was willing—indeed he wanted—to bring to campus speakers who would speak the truth in love on the most controversial issues of the day. He knew that his students had nothing to fear from reason well thought out, science properly conducted. That faith and reason would work together to reveal the truth about the human person."
Father Sean’s commitment to faith and reason also made possible the resurrection of Franciscan University Press, which launched in 2016 as a publishing house for serious and faithful Catholic scholarship.
"Father Sean’s vision for academics gave rise to the Press," says its director (and classics professor) Dr. Sarah Wear. "It’s thanks to him that it flourishes. He can be credited with giving voice to Catholics in academia."
Dr. Hahn similarly credits Father Sean for recruiting top-notch faithful scholars to the University, saying "Father Sean has helped bring some of the finest Catholic minds in the country to Franciscan. You can’t overstate the importance of this, both now and for the future. Under Father Sean, Franciscan has become more of what it’s always been. It’s the same University, only better, because of his vision and faithfulness to the mission."
Other Franciscan faculty echo Hahn, noting how critical Father Sean’s commitment to Franciscan’s mission of forming faithful disciples has been.
"While leading music at youth conferences on Saturday nights, I could always look to the back of the Fieldhouse and Father Sean would be there, supporting us with his presence," says Rice. "It was always encouraging to me as a member of the faculty and a member of the conferences team that our president really cared about the conversion of young people and our ministry."
"Father Sean’s desire to listen authentically and be present with those around him has not only mirrored Franciscan University's mission; more importantly, he has been a joyful witness of Christ's love for his people," adds education professor Dr. Tiffany Boury.
Education Department Chair, Dr. Mary Kathryn McVey, agrees, noting, "Father Sean provided faculty in our department the invitation and encouragement to examine Catholic identity in our vocation and profession of preparing future educators. We are grateful for his leadership and honored by the invitation to participate in the Oath of Fidelity; reminding us daily of our vow taken as Catholic educators."
For six years, Father Sean has blessed Franciscan University with his passion for and understanding of Catholic higher education. He has challenged the University to do more for the Church and culture. He has engaged other universities’ professors and presidents through his extensive academic writing, which he kept up throughout his tenure. He also has pushed Franciscan’s students to think more deeply about the faith in the classrooms where he has continued to teach throughout his presidency.
Father Sean hopes he is remembered for that and for his work "to always uphold the mission of the university, remain true to what Jesus and the Church ask of us, and that God’s will was always done."
But what Father Sean will remember most is the students.
"Being with the students, celebrating the sacraments with them, talking to them in confession—it’s all been a tremendous privilege," he says. "The Friars have the great blessing of knowing the students here in ways nobody else does. They are wonderful young people committed to growing in their faith, and I will miss them."
Over nearly six years of working alongside Fr. Sean, I can attest, first of all, to his incredible work ethic. As we friars know, Father Sean requires little sleep and the long hours he works demonstrates his dedication to the University.
Second, I have been repeatedly struck by his humility, a key Franciscan virtue, as he dispensed with many privileges that normally accompany the office of president.
Third, he has been blessed with a bold vision and a constant yearning, guided by the Holy Spirit, for Franciscan University to extend its educational and evangelistic impact to the Church and world, far beyond what many think possible.
Fourth, his remarkable breadth of knowledge, including his legal and scientific background, has been invaluable.
Fifth, he is a holy priest who is faithful to prayer and the Holy Spirit’s direction, and he deeply cares about each person and his University family.
The mark he has left on this University is indeed very significant, and one must acknowledge that his successor has some very big shoes to fill!