Rest in Peace Father Michael Scanlan. My First Spiritual Father Has Died
I write this article with a broken heart. I received the news that my first spiritual father, Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. has died. The loss has hit me in the gut. It is like being kicked in the solar plexus in a kickboxing match, but this time I have had the spiritual wind knocked out of me. I am grieving, deeply.
I grieve, not because I am concerned for Father Michael. I know that he is in the fullness of joy in the presence of the Lord whom he loved with every fiber of his being. In fact, upon receiving the sad news of his passing to the Father, I immediately pictured him as a younger man, doing that silly Irish jig dance he loved to do when he was happy, wearing that infectious smile which lit up his eyes, his face and the whole room, and shouting “Hallelujah!”
I grieve because I did not have the opportunity to hug him. I did not have the opportunity to thank him — for all the gifts he gave me during a vital season of my life — my twenties and early thirties. They are gifts I have been opening for decades — and they keep on giving. Though I had not physically visited with him for years, I have carried my affection, admiration and appreciation for him with me every day for many years. This great priest of Jesus Christ could impart the life of God to others. I was one of the ones who received that life from him.
If I had any influence on the process which leads to formal canonization of saints in the Catholic Church, I would immediately pursue advancing his cause. As a tribute to Fr. Michael, I want to share my story. I do so to add it to the many stories and tributes which will rightfully follow the death of this extraordinary Christian leader. I know that his influence on my life, forever changed the course of it.
I met Father Michael Scanlan when I was a very young man. I was a wandering former teenage hippie and seeker for truth, finding my way home to the Catholic faith in which I had been raised as a boy. My family had stopped practicing the faith when I was in the fifth grade. We became culturally Catholic. However, I had an encounter with the power of the Holy Spirit which brought me back to a personal faith in Jesus Christ. I also fell in love with the Bible.
Because of that love, I enrolled in a Bible College. The school was associated with an evangelical and Pentecostal tradition in the Protestant Churches. Having encountered the Living Word, Jesus Christ, I wanted to know the written word. At the time, I was not sure what kind of Christian I was. I just wanted to grow closer to the Lord. I did not fit into the culture for many reasons. But, the Lord used the experience. At that Protestant Bible College, I began to question some of what I was hearing in class. My inquisitive mind drew me to the writings of the early Fathers of the undivided Christian Church. And, I literally read my way back to home to the Catholic Church. I also began to go to daily Mass.
We were given an assignment in a homiletics course, to give an oral presentation on an historic Christian leader who had used the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their ministry. As a child, Francis of Assisi was my favorite saint. When I began to research his ministry, I discovered his use of those gifts. I also read an article which had been written by a young Catholic priest, a Franciscan, whom the Lord was using powerfully in ministry, which confirmed what I had found. His name was Father Michael Scanlan and he was the Rector of a Catholic Seminary in Loretto, Pennsylvania. He was also associated with a movement in the Catholic Church which claimed that those gifts are still available to every Christian.
Reaching Out to a Catholic Priest
Back then, we had no internet or email. So, I wrote a lengthy, handwritten letter to this Franciscan priest. I asked him about the ministry of Francis and the brothers. I also asked him to pray for me. I was trying to discern a possible vocation to the ministerial priesthood. By then, I had returned to daily Mass and my re-version to the Catholic faith was in a honeymoon stage. I was falling deeply in love with the Catholic Church. I feasted on the early Christian writings and immersed myself in Church teaching. It was as though I had discovered a treasure chest — and I was freely exploring the jewels.
I had become what I now call a Catholic by Choice. Though I never formally left the Church, I had clearly returned home after being away for far too long.
Much to my surprise, Fr. Michael wrote a handwritten letter back to me. I was thrilled that he took the time to write to a young man in a Protestant Bible College who had rediscovered the Catholic faith. His letter was filled with information on Francis of Assisi. He told me how Francis and the brothers with whom he ministered used the spiritual gifts. But, the letter also conveyed to me the love of a living God.
That exchange of letters began a friendship which changed the course of my life.
I gave that lecture to a classroom full of protestant, evangelical Pentecostal Christians, on Francis of Assisi. My time at that College was brief. I found a local parish and joined the prayer group. I had the seed of what grew into a lifelong longing for Christian unity planted within me at that Bible College. But, I did not belong there and I knew it. I finished out the semester and sought the Lord’s next calling. All of this happened because a Catholic priest named Michael Scanlan took the time to respond to a letter from a nineteen-year-old man who was on a spiritual journey.
A Benedictine Monastery
The next stop on my journey led me to enter a Benedictine monastery, 7000 feet up in the mountains of New Mexico. There my passion for the writings of the early Church fathers continued. Fortunately, the Abbott shared the passion and helped me on the way. I began philosophy studies at a nearby College. During the nearly two years I spent as an aspiring monk, I continued to write to Fr. Mike and he continued to write back to me. He recommended books on the faith. He gave me fatherly and spiritual direction, all in handwritten letters.
Then, Fr. Michael came and visited me in the monastery.
That monastery, like Father Michael, was associated with a renewal movement in the Catholic Church. People from all over the country would come there, hoping to grow closer to Jesus Christ and rediscover the power of the Holy Spirit. By the time that Father Mike visited me in the monastery, others had clearly recognized his leadership gifts. He told me he had accepted an invitation to serve in a new position of service, as the President of a small Catholic College in Steubenville, Ohio.
Months later, after discerning I did not have a monastic vocation, I left the monastery. But, I knew that I was called to follow the Lord and I had a passionate desire to serve Jesus and His Church. Needing advice, I called Father Mike on the telephone. During the conversation, I asked him if there was any more room in that little College for another student. He spoke words I will always remember, — “There is always room for you Keith, take the next plane.” And, I did. The admissions procedure was somewhat unorthodox, but so was so much during that season of my life.
Journey to Steubenville
When I arrived on campus he invited me to begin one of the first “faith households”. This was his model for promoting the experience of Christian community on campus. That was the beginning. My participation in what was to become the Franciscan University of Steubenville lasted for nearly twenty years. It unfolded in various roles of service. With his pastoral care, I discerned my vocation to Christian marriage and family life.
I was married to my best friend and beloved bride of over forty years now, Laurine. The wedding liturgy took place in the chapel on the campus of the College of Steubenville and Fr. Michael presided. He baptized our children, as the Lord began to give them to us as His gifts. He pastored our whole family. He trained me and called me forward to leadership in the leadership of a lay Christian community which supported his ministry. I was deeply involved in the work the Lord had entrusted to Fr. Michael, what I called in my first book, Evangelical Catholics, leading a “classical revival at a Catholic College.”
After completing my undergraduate degree with majors in Philosophy and Theology at the College of Steubenville, I completed my Law Degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1980. Father Mike, a Harvard trained lawyer, had a deep influence on my decision to become a lawyer. Like him, I had a passion for protecting the lives of our innocent unborn neighbors who were being killed by procured abortions. I went to Law School, hoping to use my law degree to bring an end to the slaughter of children in their mother’s womb through legalized abortion on demand.
During Law School studies, I commuted to Pittsburgh so that my wife and I could remain a part of the renewal which birthed the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Fr. Michael was a shoulder to lean on, a confessor and a friend. He was an example to me, as a young man, of what a manly, gutsy, dynamic, Christian leader should be. I watched him face extraordinary obstacles in the early years of the re-founding of that College. He always did so with steel in his backbone. It had been forged in the furnace of heroic and living faith.
Once again, it was Father Michael’s heroic involvement in the Pro-Life cause which inspired my decision to go to Law School. Years later, I even represented him when he, our Bishop and a group our students were wrongfully arrested for praying in front of an abortion facility in Youngstown, Ohio. That experience sparked what led me to another chapter of my life in the 1990s, as a pro-life, pro-family, religious freedom constitutional lawyer.
After graduating from Law School in 1980, we remained in Steubenville. We did so because we wanted to serve that “classical revival at a Catholic College”. We stayed all through the 1980s. First, I did so as a volunteer, while building my first law firm and getting my feet wet in Pro-Life legal work. Then, I served as the Dean of Students, overseeing the household system I had experienced as a student. Then, I served as the Dean of Evangelization, where I participated in the early launch and growth of the now famous Steubenville conferences. One of my favorite assignments was serving as Fr. Michael’s emissary in his outreach to Christian leaders of other traditions.
Through all those years, I watched as this amazing man of God demonstrated the meaning of the words written in the Letter to the Hebrews about faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). I now understand how fortunate I was just to be with Father Mike as he built that College, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, into what it is today. Franciscan University of Steubenville is a jewel in the crown of authentically Catholic higher education. It was not when I arrived on that campus. It took a courageous, faith filled catholic priest named Father Michael Scanlan to re-found it, in Jesus Christ, and rededicate it to serving the Church and her mission.
Ministry and Example
Father Mike launched me in media ministry during those years I spent in Steubenville, Ohio. One day, after interviewing me on the radio about evangelization, he literally gave me his radio program. He also launched me in ministry on television by recommending me to the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) where I did several programs as a layman.
Those were fruitful years. But, they were also years filled with struggles.
I learned from watching this man of God, that struggle is a part of the loving plan of God. It is one of the promises of the Bible we often do not read about in so many of those books dedicated to those promises. Fr. Michael showed me that it is how you respond to the struggle that matters. I watched his faith grow, as it was forged by fire. I saw him resist assaults, recover from betrayals and grow stronger through them. I witnessed the virtue of humility as it grew in him, borne through the pruning which always accompanies a mature faith and the passing of the years.
Another chapter began for me when my family and I moved from Steubenville in 1991 to help build the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and serve as its first Executive Director. I left shortly after I was ordained as a Deacon and began my graduate studies in theology and ministry. During those years, I saw Fr. Michael for the last time, when I returned to the campus.
This chapter, marked by clerical Ordination, theological studies and continued ministry, would never have happened without the early influence of Father Michael Scanlan.
The years have passed by far too quickly. My contacts with Father Michael became infrequent — and I regret it. The five children he baptized have all grown. My wife Laurine and I have seven grandchildren now. None of those grandchildren had the privilege of meeting him. But they know of him, because I speak of him often.
I am 62 years old now.
As I have aged, I have come to understand more fully the gift I was given as a young man. I had a spiritual father. One who was filled with wisdom. One who showed me heroism and Christian virtue. One who took the time to instruct, admonish, forgive and show me the Way of Life which is the fullness of Catholic Christianity. He did so by his words and by his example.
My heart is broken. My eyes are blurred from the tears I have shed. I lost a spiritual father. At least I lost him from this life. But, heaven has gained a new champion. The Church has gained a powerful intercessor. Dance that Irish jig my friend, my father, my mentor, my brother, my priest. Shout “Hallelujah”, just like you did in the old days. I know you have heard those words for which you always longed, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt. 25:21).
Originally published on Catholic Online. Republished with permission.