STEUBENVILLE — Franciscan University of Steubenville graduates were urged Saturday to live their faith in an increasingly unfaithful world.
The university said its goodbyes to the 756 members of its Class of 2021 during outdoor ceremonies at Vaccaro field featuring a commencement address by Eugene Scalia, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and son of the late Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia.
“The world you’re entering poses challenges to people of faith,” Scalia told the graduates. “Our nation is more secular than a generation or two ago — church attendance is lower, and the percentage of Americans who see themselves as religious is lower. Popular culture is increasingly at odds with traditional religious teachings on morals and behavior.
“And it is harder in some ways for people of faith to follow the dictates of their faith without facing discrimination, or even accusations that they themselves are discriminating, for observing their faith.”
Scalia told the group they were privileged “to have grown up in an environment with an appreciation for faith” that brought them to Franciscan, founded and operated by the Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance whose origin dates back to St. Francis of Assisi.
“St. Francis’s life stands for exceptional charity and generosity; it stands for love for all living creatures; it stands for love for all living creates; it stands for peace; it stands for the deepest faith and closest of relationships with God, including a great devotion to the Eucharist; his life stands for painful self-denial and sacrifice; and it stands for the outgoingness and courage to embody and share all these things with others, even the powerful head of a hostile army.”
He said graduation is a “rare opportunity … to live your faith and better understand it, exhibit it and defend it” and said there’s concern that the U.S. “is becoming more hostile to religious faith, that the two are now or may soon be in conflict.” Scalia said that kind of tension is nothing new, pointing out that Americans are blessed to be protected by the Constitution’s promise of free exercise of religion and it’s incumbent on them to share their blessings with others.
“In the world we live today, you will need the courage at times to look the fool and to ‘suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world,’ like millennia of Christians before. Don’t shrink from that,” he advised. “But as you occasionally defy convention to live your faith and do what is right, remember another kind of foolishness, too — that of the saint we sometimes know as God’s Fool.
“St. Francis showed that living the faith, doing right, being distinctive and ultimately being great is not just hard and painful. It is also loving, joyous, lyrical and, in an importance sense, carefree.”
He told the class to look back with pride and thanks on the blessings they’ve enjoyed, but going forward, “do so not just with steely determination to do the right thing and to strive and succeed, but with joy and happiness in your faith and the world around us, and in the blessings you have to share with others.”
The Rev. David Pavonka, president of Franciscan, presented Scalia with an honorary doctorate of public administration.
Pavonka said commencement should be a “celebration for the community,” pointing out the ceremony had originally been scheduled May 15 but they’d decided to push it back a week — bringing them sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s, vs the cold temperatures and downpours of a week ago.
“There was a lot of prayer,” he said.
This year’s graduating class is the largest in school history, attributed to the steady growth of online programs as well as the popularity of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program and its new Masters in Catholic Leadership program. Also factoring into the class size were the students who opted to postpone their graduation in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Vice President of Enrollment Joel Recznik said the university now has about 900 online students, more than triple the number of distance learners enrolled five years ago.
The Class of 2021 numbered students from Australia, Great Britain, Malaysia “and all over,” Recznik added.