Many of you have heard by now that Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, has been fired from his position as provost and chancellor of Ave Maria University in Florida. In an email to faculty and students yesterday, Father said he had been asked to leave campus by the end of the day.
He said he had not been given a reason, but I have my suspicions. For one thing, I think there was tension between Fr. Fessio’s open and forthright style and the administration’s more close-to-vest approach. A few years ago, Fr. Fessio wanted to address controversy over the school in an article in Catholic World Report, and I can tell you that the initial draft was much different than the final one. I am not saying that it was changed against his will, but only that his instinct was to tell it like it is and address all controversies directly while he was eventually convinced to tone things down.
Another source of tension may have been liturgical. Fr. Fessio’s liturgical sensibilities run very definitely toward the traditional and Latin, while that of the university’s president, Nick Healy, and the Franciscan University of Steubenville crowd at the school tended toward the charismatic and praise & worship style. Rumor has it that the students were much attending Fr. Fessio’s Latin Masses in much higher numbers than charismatic-style Masses. Interestingly, that was a tension that was very evident at Steubenville in the early to mid-90s when I was there. In the Eighties, Steubenville was very much a charismatic school, but by 1994 there was a definite gravitation among the students—not all of them, but a lot—toward a more traditional and Marian spirituality and especially a more traditional form of worship. I’m curious whether such dynamic were playing out at AMU.
The bottom line is that I think that Fr. Fessio comes out of this in a much better position than AMU. Ave Maria has had a lot of controversy in its short life, alienating plenty of folks, very many of whom would be expected to be their natural allies, orthodox and conservative Catholics disillusioned by what they see as the betrayal of promises and Catholic principles. Fr. Fessio is a well known and beloved figure in those circles and casting him aside like this will only further alienate supporters of AMU.
I’m sure Fr. Fessio will land on his feet. Perhaps he will have greater opportunity for a hands-on influence at Catholic World Report. His lack of time for the magazine—not intentional but only because of the other demands on him—has been very obvious in recent years, including my short stint as editor and even before. And I’m sure that someone in Rome might have something for him to do too.
Catholic World News says in its coverage that “his sudden departure raises questions about the overall future direction of Ave Maria University.” I believe that’s an understatement. I think it also raises questions about the competence of the remaining leadership
of the university, questions that in my experience of their past activity are apropos.