In the days since Franciscan University’s Board of Trustees elected him to serve as the school’s seventh president, that’s the thought to which Father David Pivonka, TOR, ’89, keeps coming back: “I’m home.”
Is he excited? Yes. Is he nervous? A little. Is he eager to get started? He already has; although his installation won’t happen until students return, his appointment was effective immediately.
But in the midst of all the emotions, all the work, all the chaos of getting a job and starting it in the same day, there is joy in the knowledge that he has finally come home to Franciscan. And for that, Father Dave is grateful.
So, too, is Franciscan University.
The First Home
How did a Franciscan friar who grew up in Durango, Colorado, end up calling a Catholic university in Ohio, home?
In large part, the credit goes to Father Dave’s parents, Bob and Margi Pivonka. During an era when most Catholic families struggled to raise children in the faith, the Pivonkas prayed daily that one of their children (five boys and one girl) would have a religious calling. They also were living witnesses to the faith. Through Margi’s ongoing struggle with multiple sclerosis (she was diagnosed with the disease when Father Dave was just 5 years old), they helped their children see how faith in Christ could bring beauty out of suffering.
With the help of that witness, Father Dave says, “I was always serious about my faith—not perfect, but there was never a time I didn’t go to Mass and confession.”
There also was never a time (at least that he can remember) when he didn’t think about becoming a priest. Although Father Dave joked with his siblings that he would never become a priest, “because I would have to go to school for too long,” the question was always there, in the back of his mind. Later, after he began studying at Fort Lewis College in Durango, the question moved to the forefront. What direction was God calling him?
So, in 1985, Father Dave decided to step back from his life and wrestle more intensely with the question. He left college, said goodbye to his family and girlfriend, and signed up for a year on the road with NET Ministries.
For nine months, Father Dave traveled the country with 11 other young adults, sharing the Gospel with middle schoolers and high schoolers. It was, Father Dave says, “The most formative experience I ever had.” Not only did it help him decide to move forward toward the priesthood, but he also learned about Franciscan University (then the University of Steubenville).
“I’d never heard of it before,” he recalls. “I was heading to play basketball, but instead of walking into the gym, accidentally walked into the middle of a presentation on Franciscan University. I was too embarrassed to walk out, so I stayed. After that ‘chance’ meeting, I decided to apply.”
He also applied to Benedictine College in Kansas. Both schools accepted him, but Benedictine was closer to Colorado, so that tipped the scales in its favor. He was all set on going there, when his parents dropped a bombshell: His dad was closing up his medical practice in Durango and his parents were moving to Guam.
“At that point, I decided it didn’t matter where I went to school,” says Father Dave. “Nothing was going to be close to home. So, I chose Franciscan.
In August 1986, his parents sold their home and boarded a plane bound for the South Pacific. Two days later, Father Dave boarded a different plane, the one that would take him to the University. “Well, I guess I’m going home,” he thought as the plane landed in Pittsburgh.
A New Home
Although in Colorado Father Dave had studied political science (with an eye on law school), at Franciscan, he focused on theology and philosophy (with an eye on seminary). He started a men’s household, Instruments of Peace, and spent a semester interning on campus with the University’s Catholic Evangelization Training School. All the while, he was still discerning, not so much the priesthood (“I was pretty settled on that by the time I arrived,” he says), but more specifically what kind of priest he wanted to be: diocesan or religious?
His time at Franciscan helped answer that question.
“I always had an affinity for religious life,” Father Dave says. “My parents had a lot of OFM friends [Order of Friars Minor], and as one of five boys, the idea of brotherhood appealed to me. I wanted brothers, and I wanted to be a brother. Plus, I knew there was greater range of ministry in religious life. I wasn’t sure if I could see myself in a parish for 40 years.”
Once he was at Franciscan, that affinity for religious life grew, strengthened in part by his time with his household brothers and a deepening understanding of “the support, encouragement, and accountability” a brotherhood could offer. It also was strengthened by his time with the TOR friars.
“One of the things I liked when I met the friars was how different they were from one another,” he explains. “They were all going after the Lord, but not in the same way. I appreciated the diversity. It can be challenging . . . really challenging, but God uses those challenges to sanctify us. When I look at Jesus’ apostles, they were very different men, but Jesus called each of them to follow him. I love that.”
The TOR charism of “metanoia” also appealed to Father Dave.
“I learned that word on NET,” he explains. “It means ‘constant conversion,’ that conversion is a process, it’s ongoing. The first time I heard it, I thought, ‘Yes, this is the spiritual life. It’s a continual journey.’”
By the end of his three years at Franciscan, Father Dave was ready to apply to the TORs. He did. He was accepted. But doubts lingered.
“My mom and dad have a really beautiful marriage,” he explains. “They just celebrated their 60th anniversary this past June. They made marriage attractive. I wasn’t pursuing the priesthood because I didn’t want to get married. My challenge was reconciling the desire to be married and the desire to be a priest. At one point, I was feeling down about it and thinking maybe I was pursuing the wrong path.”
A conversation with Father Augustine Donegan, TOR, however, put those doubts to rest.
Father Dave recalls, “He told me, ‘To say no to a marriage is to say no to something good and beautiful, so there should be a sadness there.’ That helped.”
In May of 1989, Father Dave graduated with his BA in theology. That fall, he began his postulancy with the TORs, in Loretto, Pennsylvania. He professed his first vows in 1991, and then headed to the Washington Theological Union in D.C. to work on both his MDiv and MA in theology, with a concentration in canon law.
Before completing the degrees, however, he needed to do an apostolic year of service. Much to his surprise, the TORs sent him back to Franciscan, where he spent the 1994-1995 school year working in the Office of Evangelistic Outreach, helping coordinate Born of the Spirit Retreats and Festivals of Praise.
After the year ended, Father Dave professed solemn vows and returned to Washington to finish his degree. He was ordained to the transitional diaconate that November, then went south to Tampa, Florida, to serve in a parish. He was there when Father Mike called and put a question to him: After his ordination, would he want to come back to Franciscan?
Father Dave said yes, not expecting the order to agree. He was wrong. Not only did the TORs assign him to Franciscan, but they also agreed to Father Dave’s request to have his ordination on campus, something that had never been done before.
On May 4, 1996, Brother Dave Pivonka became Father Dave Pivonka in a packed Finnegan Fieldhouse.
“Someone once said to me, ‘How awful you were ordained in a fieldhouse.’ But it wasn’t awful,” he said. “It was beautiful.”
The next day, in Christ the King Chapel, Father Dave offered his first Mass, and Father Mike announced he would serve at Franciscan as director of Household Support and adjunct professor of theology.
Father Dave worked in that position for two years, until, in 1998, Father Mike asked him to take on a new role, as his personal assistant.
While the two worked and traveled together, Father Dave learned a great deal about preaching and prayer. He also learned how to lead.
“We all know Father Mike was a spiritual leader, but he worked hard at being a good administrator and was focused on passing those lessons on to me,” he explains. “He taught me how to handle a schedule, how to tell people no, to delegate and prioritize. Every book he gave me to read was about time management or leadership. He even gave me a book on speed reading. I don’t think I finished that one.”
In 1999, less than a year after Father Dave started working in the President’s Office, Father Mike told him he was ready to step down. They discussed the possibility of Father Dave taking Father Mike’s place, but ultimately determined he wasn’t ready for that.
What he was ready for was more leadership. In 1999, Father Dave took over the Youth Conference Office, and in just four years expanded the number of youth conferences from 3 to over 10. Then, in 2003, he accepted another job on campus: vice president of Mission and Planning.
During that time, Father Dave also took doctorate-level classes at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University. Unlike other friars, who worked on their doctorates over the summer, Father Dave spent his summers speaking at and managing youth conferences. So, he did the work gradually, and finally, in 2005, earned his educational doctorate, writing his thesis on “Catholic Education in a Post-Modern World.”
With his doctorate in hand, Father Dave next headed to Gaming, Austria, where he spent three years as director of Franciscan’s Austrian Study Abroad Program. While there, he also wrote two books, Spiritual Freedom: God’s Life-Giving Gift and Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles With Jesus, a memoir of his pilgrimage with Father Joe Lehman, TOR, on the Camino de Santiago.
Father Dave was still in Gaming, when his provincial, Father Christian Oravec, TOR, called. After 12 years of service with Franciscan, the TORs wanted him in Washington, D.C., as director of Post-Novitiate Formation.
“Don’t worry, though,” Father Christian told him. “I have a feeling you’ll get back to Steubenville someday.”
Father Dave spent the next four years in D.C. He also continued writing, speaking, and studying, earning an executive juris doctorate (a law degree for professionals who don’t plan to practice law) from Concord University School of Law of Purdue University Global, an experience he valued not just because of the education, but “because of the process of learning through an online program.”
By 2012, however, Father Dave was feeling what he describes as “tension” between his work in Post-Novitiate Formation and the increasing requests for him to preach and write. After sharing this tension with Father Michael Higgins, TOR, the minister general of the Third Order Regular, the TOR community offered him the chance to focus all his energies on preaching, evangelization, and spiritual renewal.
That’s what he’s done for the last seven years as Director of Franciscan Pathways. Although his home base has been the TOR friary in Pittsburgh, Father Dave has been on the road for almost 25 days a month, every month, speaking at conferences, retreats, and parish missions.
He’s also written two more books—Encounter Jesus: From Discovery to Discipleship with Deacon Ralph Poyo, and Breath of God: Living a Life Led by the Holy Spirit; produced a video series with 4PM Media—The Wild Goose: Developing a Deeper Relationship With the Holy Spirit; and is now close to finishing Metanoia, yet another book and accompanying video series on conversion.
Through it all, however, Father Dave sensed, like Father Christian did, that he would go back to Franciscan. That sense was confirmed on May 21, 2019, when the Board of Trustees unanimously elected him to serve as the school’s seventh president.
Father Dave had been asked to apply for the position a month earlier, following the resignation of Father Sean O. Sheridan, TOR.
“At first, I wrestled with the question of whether or not I wanted the job,” he says. “That’s a hard question for a friar to answer, because I want what the Lord wants. But, the more I prayed about it, the more excited I got about the possibility of serving as president and living in Steubenville again. The Lord was definitely working in my heart. At a certain point, I realized if I wasn’t offered the job, the Lord was going to have some explaining to do.”
By mid-May, the board narrowed down the possible candidates to two, and when Father Dave arrived on campus for an interview, one of the trustees greeted him with two words, “Welcome home.”
Those were the right words.
“In many ways, this place has been my home for 33 years,” says Father Dave. “That’s two-thirds of my life. I love this University, and I don’t believe the best is behind us. There are great people here, great students, and we are positioned to do wonderful things.”
Father Dave knows the work ahead won’t be easy.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to form young people,” he explains. “Things that, 20 years ago, students would have thought were crazy, are becoming normative for them. So we have to help young people see that things they think of as moral and normal are actually rooted in the culture and not the kingdom of God.
“In St. Louis, Pope St. John Paul II prophetically told a group of young people, ‘When you separate truth from freedom, the moral fabric of society begins to unravel.’ That’s where we find ourselves today. We’re told that freedom means doing whatever you want and truth is believing whatever you want, and we are witnessing the very moral fabric of our society unravel before our very eyes. If there ever was a need for an academic institution to speak truth into that chaos, it’s right now.”
Father Dave also knows that Franciscan can’t accomplish that goal simply by doing what it did 20 years ago.
He explains, “The Holy Father has said that there is a current of grace that goes through the Church. I like that idea. Sometimes people see grace not as a current but more like a lake behind them, and they keep trying to pull from that. But you can only do that so many times before it’s dry. So, it’s not my desire to go back to how things were in 1989. I love Father Mike, but I don’t want to do what he did. We can’t do what he did.”
He continues, “In D.C., I did an internship at Children’s Hospital, and the pediatric surgeon said to me that in the old days, they treated children like little adults. So, if they gave an adult a whole aspirin, they’d give a child half an aspirin. Then, they realized medicine has to be done differently for children. Well, we have to do things differently for young people today: how we articulate information, how we provide formation. We can’t do what we did 20 years ago. So, the question is: What does God want us doing now? This is something that Father Mike witnessed to: listening to what the Spirit is saying now.”
Going forward, Father Dave wants to build on what Franciscan has done under Father Sheridan: Giving young people a challenging Catholic education that helps them to think with the Church and equips them to live lives of discipleship as “mothers and fathers, entrepreneurs and teachers, scientists and historians—in every arena in the world as well as in Church ministry.”
Alongside that work, however, Father Dave wants to see the University equip those students to enter into an honest and loving dialogue with the world.
“I would love the University to become a model of greater charity and a vehicle of dialogue and discussion,” he says. “Some people may hear that and say ‘You’re wishy-washy.’ That’s the last thing I am. But we have to reach out to people. We have to engage and encounter people who are not like us, who think differently, who live differently. We have to enter into the messiness of this world.”
He continues, “This is at the heart of the Incarnation. It’s what Jesus did. He didn’t only spend time with people who thought like him and agreed with him. He went to the sick, the marginalized, the outcast. He wasn’t concerned by what people would say when he prayed with the prostitute. Because of this, people hated him. We should be prepared for the same reaction. But Jesus commanded us to love those who are not like us, to love our enemies. We must not dismiss them, and we can’t demonize them.”
How do you do that, though?
Several years ago, Father Dave asked himself that question and began praying about who his “enemy” was. He settled on the head of Planned Parenthood.
“I decided to not just pray for her, but really pray for her, intentionally, specifically, daily, during Holy Hours and while at Mass,” he says. “I started sending her Christmas cards and Easter cards. I don’t know if she saw them, but I always told her I was praying for her and her children.
“In the process, something changed in my heart. She became a person for me. I saw her as a mom, with the same hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties for her kids that my sister has for hers. She wasn’t just the head of Planned Parenthood anymore. She was a person who really mattered—to me and, more importantly, to God. I still disagree with what she promotes. I pray every day for greater respect for the beauty and sanctity of human life. But something changed in me toward her, my ‘enemy.’”
Seeing those who disagree with us as people who are loved by God, and who we’re called to love and respect, is, Father Dave believes, the key to entering into a dialogue that can transform the culture.
He explains, “In Evangelium Gaudium, Pope Francis said when we tear down the walls, what we see are faces and stories. My concern is that we’re not seeing faces anymore. Instead, we are creating this wall and hiding behind it.
“But Jesus didn’t do that. He tore down the wall, went out, and spent time with Pharisees, prostitutes, and tax collectors. St. Francis did something similar. He stood on the edge of the Umbrian valley, looked out, and said, ‘The world is going to be my cloister. My brothers and I aren’t going to hide from the world or run away from it. We are going to bring Christ to it.’ That is what I want Franciscan University to do.”