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The Most Catholic University in the World: The Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Pablo J. Ginés,
March 15, 2011
Originally published in Spanish at
Translated by Dr. Kathleen Spinnenweber, associate professor of Spanish at Franciscan University of Steubenville, May 25, 2011; edited by Tom Crowe, web content editor at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

This is a special place, where nine out of every ten students is a practicing believer, where plenary indulgences are available at the Portiuncula Chapel, where there are unborn children buried in a memorial tomb and the three daily masses are attended to capacity.

There are many universities that call themselves Catholic, or describe themselves as operating in the Catholic tradition, but it would be difficult to find any one more Catholic than the Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) in Ohio, USA (

The Franciscans of the Third Order Regular (TOR) founded the small college in 1946. By 1970 it attained an enrollment of 1100 and managed to balance its budget. But right around that time, several things happened: four other colleges, branches of the state university, opened in the area; the birth rate plummeted, and “Sixties culture” arrived on campus. Courses in philosophy and theology almost disappeared. The student body requested opposite-sex visitation in the dorms. In the fall of 1973, only 6 students and 8 members of the university faculty and administration attended the opening mass. The Franciscans pondered whether to close the college or merge it with the state university campuses. Fr. Michael Scanlan alone opposed this, and was given the presidency of the college in 1974.

Scanlan had been dean of the college from 1964 to 1969, and in 1974 was one of the leaders of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the United states, a spiritual movement barely seven years old which had spread throughout the whole country. He dedicated the first semester of 1974 to playing with sports teams, going to concerts and plays on campus, and to attending as many student parties as he could. He discovered a profound sense of loneliness and isolation among the youth on campus. And his solution was not to accommodate the sexual revolution, but to unleash a “fraternal revolution.”

Scanlan decided to combine two elements: fraternities, and the small-group structures found in the Charismatic Renewal. Thus the “households” of Franciscan University were created.

Living together, praying together

At first, students were required to live in households. Each household had to have a foundation document, signed by its members, pledging group prayer and mutual support. There were men’s and women’s households, with between 5 and 80 members. If the groups got too large, they would subdivide into smaller groups, from 4 to 6 members each. The members of a household would live together in the same building on campus. They would join in prayer together at least once a week, either saying the rosary, or in adoration of the Sacrament, or in other forms of prayer, though many households engaged in charismatic prayer. Many students, in addition to these group prayer activities, committed themselves to going to Sunday mass with the group. Spiritual advisors were assigned to groups (Franciscans, or, for a time, Missionaries of the Renewal). Additionally, as a group, households had to engage in outreach.

It took a couple of years for the household system to gain strength, and by 1976 it was no longer required to join a household [the requirement to join a household was not dropped until 1980 – ed.]. But households had really caught on, and the majority of students chose to belong to, or to found, a household, as soon as they arrived on campus. Besides, a new type of student started coming to the university: one who embraced charismatic spirituality, or, simply, who was serious about and committed to the faith. Those who were displeased with the new orientation of the university left. But Catholic students started coming from all over the country, as well as faithful professors, eager to join the effort, even while accepting lower salaries. And in the 80s the university became stable embracing the model it still maintains today. It continues to accept students from all over the country and the world, maintaining a 90% rate of serious Catholics.

Three Daily Masses

The Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) has some 2,400 students today. Of them, 350 are regular volunteers for the liturgy (music, cleaning, etc.), which allows the university to maintain three daily masses, and a fourth mass on Sunday. In addition to this, buses are provided on Sundays to go to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite at a parish church in the town of Steubenville, which has an appropriate altar for that liturgy [Since fall semester 2008, the Extraordinary Form Masses have been offered on campus in Christ the King Chapel. This was made possible when the University invested in the necessary accoutrements, vestments, books, and movable Communion rail, sedilla, and a riser for the altar – ed.]. A mass in Spanish is celebrated once a month as well, attended by many members of the Spanish Club.

In addition to this, every Tuesday, from 9 to 10 pm, there is a charismatic-style praise service. One Saturday a month there is a two-hour “Festival of Praise,” which is led by students and is open to family and friends. This is in addition to the weekly group prayer session in every household.

Every semester there are off-campus spiritual retreats, organized by students, in order to grow in discipleship and in one’s relationship to God, charismatic in style and very focused on the discernment of the capacities, gifts, and calling that God bestows on each participant.

During vacations, many students participate in SonLife, missions in Florida that include evangelization on the beach, street ministry, and caring for the needy. There are also missions to developing countries, in places where the Franciscans maintain a presence.

There are different outreach groups using music or theater (“Sent” ministry) that go to high schools and parishes throughout the year. The most organized and committed of these is the men’s a capella music group, “Beatitudes,” which not only sings but also uses personal testimony, humor, sign language or theater, and which spreads the gospel in various venues, including schools and through street ministry. They spend their vacation doing an evangelization “tour.”

There is also a five-day program for forming young evangelists (including non-household members) called LEAD (Leadership, Evangelization, and Discipleship). It is given the week before the Steubenville Youth Conferences, of which there are a dozen throughout the United States, attended by thousands of adolescents and young people [18 this year, with one in Canada, with more than 35,000 attendees expected –ed.].

To Pray Like St. Francis and The Tomb of the Unborn Child

The campus possesses a small stone chapel recreating the Portiuncula, the tiny chapel built by St. Francis of Assisi with his own hands. There are young people there engaged in Eucharistic adoration throughout the day, at least two at any given time. By decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary of the Holy See, there are five different occasions in which one can obtain plenary indulgence by praying at the Portiuncula: August 2nd , the feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula; October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi; January 22, the dedication of the Tomb of the Unborn Child located next to the Portiuncula; and on any day during the year of a person’s choosing, or while completing a “holy pilgrimage” to the Portiuncula with a group.

Near the Portiuncula is located the Tomb of the Unborn Child. There, on January 22nd, 1987, two babies killed by an abortionist were buried. The children were named Francis and Clare and their interment was attended by five hundred people. Since then, five more babies have been buried along with them, and an eternal flame now burns there. Many pray there, and every January 21st a memorial is celebrated, with a procession, shortly before hundreds of students and professors leave for the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. No matter how bad the weather is, this event is never cancelled.

Other places where open-air prayer is available are a small grotto in imitation of Lourdes, a large, stone crèche recalling the mystery of the Incarnation (like the crèche made by St. Francis of Assisi) and the Stations of the Cross, for making the Via Crucis. In addition, every student dormitory has its own chapel with the Sacrament reserved for silent prayer (the noisy prayers of the households take place in the common rooms).

Social and Community Outreach

On Thursday evenings, students bring food and conversation to the homeless on the streets of Pittsburgh. Others do this in Steubenville. On Mondays and Wednesdays they prepare and distribute hot meals in Steubenville for homeless persons. On Sundays, they visit the sick at the hospital in Wheeling, talking and praying with patients. Others go on Sunday mornings to play with and minister to those with mental handicaps.

Monday afternoons are dedicated to high-risk youth, helping them with their homework or engaging them in group activities. On Saturday afternoons they play with them and do some catechesis. Others use music, games, and child-centered activities, to bring Christ to children. There are special programs at medical centers for the many students who are majoring in nursing.

The Household System

The key to the university is not so much how it selects its Catholic student body, but rather in how it maintains these students enthusiastically Catholic and growing in their faith. We’re dealing with a residential campus where, unless you have a car and can go to Pittsburgh, the opportunities for distraction are few. Fr. Scanlan carried out his “fraternal revolution” from below, beginning with the students, and the households are the key to its success. Up till now, other attempts at adopting this system at other campuses and universities have failed.

The households are base don faith: they are devotional, and in their covenants they explain what devotion or spirituality they are nourished by. There are almost 50 distinct households, half men’s and the other half women’s. They can be born, and they can die. Each year, the new students have a month in which to choose a household. Some have a more missionary focus, others, pro-life work, others are more geared towards helping the poor, and others are more evangelistic. They tend to have their own devotions: some are more Marian, others more charismatic, others more Franciscan, and still others boost the traditional liturgy. When a new student arrives at the university and joins a household, he or she is considered a brother or sister, a member of the family who must be loved and supported. If the household is large, the new member is assigned to a small group within it, sometimes composed of four or five people, with whom he or she can share sadness, doubts or struggles. Every week, all the “brothers” (or “sisters”) meet for group prayer. In addition, they do many other things together, maintaining old traditions or inventing new ones. In May, a prize is given to the best men’s and women’s household of the year. The members give each other mutual spiritual support, praying for each other; they are accountable to each other as equals. The union of youth, fraternity, close spiritual bonds, community among equals who love each other, know each other by name, and live in the same building, is powerful. Nobody feels alone.

At the beginning of every year, at mass, every household marches in procession bearing their standard, proclaiming their motto. Many girls who study nursing join the household “Acceptance With Joy” (“Joy is not the absence of sorrow but the presence of God,” they proclaim); others join “Children of the Lord” ("...devoted to the Child Jesus and His example of joy, humility, and simplicity”) or “Daughters of Jerusalem” (“living as Daughters of God and Lovers of we become the women that God has created us to be”); Among the men the following households are famous: the quite noisy and charismatic “AMDG” ("...devoted to Mary Our Mother, following closely the example of St. Ignatius, and holding a vast openness to the Holy Spirit"), “Fishers of Men” (who "strive to live the true virtues of Knightly Chivalry including honoring women and men alike, embracing the dignity of life, and the proper manifestation of manhood in Christ.") or “Disciples of the Word” ("...united in the desire to be true men of God through devotion to Sacred Scripture and daily accountability to each other.")


At Steubenville, you can major in Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics, but also in many Humanities subjects. There are also majors in Business Administration, Political Science, Economics, etc. The Nursing program is especially well-regarded. There are courses in Theology, Philosophy and Bioethics taken by students of all majors. The professors are fully in accord with Roman Catholic teaching. In Spain, the most famous of them is former Protestant Scott Hahn, author of Rome, Sweet Home and other books on biblical, apologetic, family and spiritual themes, published by Rialp. There is an average of fifteen students per class, and, according to US News and World Report rankings it is considered the 28th best university in the United States [Regional University (Midwestern) category –ed.].

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