Brian Mershon
April 3, 2007
Chaos erupts at Ave Maria University after Fr. Fessio firing
McCaffrey: Traditionalist Catholics need not apply
By Brian Mershon

Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., Publisher of Ignatius Press, and former Provost of Ave Maria University, was unexpectedly and suddenly dismissed from his position around 2 p.m., Wednesday, March 21, 2007, without detailed explanation from the University administration. The next day, without explanation, the University did an apparent "about face" by outlining a list of responsibilities that appeared to keep Fr. Fessio actively involved in the University. In an upcoming series of articles, we will explore many facets of the soap opera-like atmosphere at this Catholic university one that has received more than its fair share of publicity for attracting only 350 students to date, many of whom are reportedly seeking to transfer after this school year.

In the end, the secular media let this die out, and apparently, the public relations tactics, as poorly executed as they were, of Ave Maria's administration have continued to keep Fr. Fessio as the face of the university, despite the fact that he is no longer involved in any specific decision-making role for the university. That capacity is now solely in the hands of Nick Healy, whom it is reported was primarily responsible for Fr. Fessio's abrupt firing, and former pizza magnate, Tom Monaghan.

As a student of Pope Benedict XVI's and a leading proponent of the "reform of the reform" style of the sacred liturgy, Catholics throughout the United States, and indeed the world, are familiar with Fr. Fessio's firm grasp of the faith and his forthrightness, courage and fortitude.

The following is a direct, first-hand account of the day's activities from an Ave Maria University student. Although he agreed to allow the use of his name for attribution, because of the draconian-style crackdown by Ave Maria University by threatening immediate expulsion to any student who dares to publicly speak the truth to the media about the less than ideal situation at the school, it was decided to protect his identity for fear of real reprisals by the University. This fear is real and is the direct result of other incidents with students and staff of Ave Maria University:

    I was in my room studying, when in rushed my roommate. He told me they had fired Fr. Fessio, so I went down to the administrative part of campus where President Nick Healy and Tom Monaghan's offices are, which are in the same small house.

    There were students praying the rosary outside of it, and other students were walking around aimlessly, seeking information. The only thing I could find out was that Monaghan had called Fr. Fessio into his office at about 1:45 p.m. and told him he needed to resign. When Fr. Fessio refused to do so, without Monaghan explaining what was wrong, Monaghan simply told him to get off campus.

    I was over there about 2:20. By 3 p.m., there were very many students milling about trying to find out something. I went to see my professor, to see if there was going to be class, as other students' professors had cancelled some of theirs, but he was having class. I could not focus very well on the subject of the class, and when it was over, I went into Stella Maris, which was full and filling with people. Stella Maris is the large building where we have Mass on Sundays, and large meetings. It is really a fancy auditorium.

    I heard from some people that they were going to tell us what had happened at 4:30, so I stood around waiting. Soon after that, Monaghan, Healy, Dr. Dauphinais, dean of faculty, and Fr. Garrity, the chaplain, appeared.

    I was surprised to see T.R. Minick, the chief of security, and Steven Henley with them, wearing black suits.I quickly surmised that they were providing security, in case someone attempted to attack Monaghan or Healy.

    They announced that Fr. Fessio had been fired on the basis of a conflict of administrative policy. This is following the Casey and Frank debacle over spring break, and I am willing to say I suspect that had something to do with this, in a minor role of weakening Fr. Fessio's strength, by his use of authority to prevent Casey and Frank from being kicked out.

    Even though many students kept asking why he had been fired, Healy insisted that we would not be told. Many people are very angry, and many students will leave.

President Nick Healy refused to answer any specific questions and referred all reporters to their PR firm and their "media statement." Shortly after his apparent reinstatement to the university, Fr. Fessio also referred this reporter to Ave Maria's public relations firm, which to date, has refused repeated requests to grant any interviews.

What is quite ironic is that Fr. Fessio sent an e-mail to students, staff and faculty at 10:21 a.m., shortly before he was fired, notifying them that a consulting firm had been hired by the university, Royall & Company. According their website at, the firm is "made up of some 200 professionals who are exclusively focused on full-time, first-time, traditional-age undergraduate student recruitment."

So less than four hours prior to committing what is perhaps the university's largest public relations blunder to date, they had the provost they were about to fire publicize the fact that they have retained a consulting firm to recruit and retain students. Then they fired him the public face of the university in the mind of many interested Catholics, students, parents and benefactors.

After repeated PR nightmares involving Ave Maria and this most recent debacle, it looks as though both the recruiting firm and Robert Falls & Co., a Cleveland-based PR firm, have their work cut out for them.

Fr. Fessio e-mailed the following message at 2:06 p.m., and was not available for additional comment at time of publication:

"I have been asked to resign my position as provost and leave the campus immediately.

"I will miss Ave Maria and the many of you whom I hold dear."

And even after Fr. Fessio's apparent "reinstatement," the truth of the matter is that while he is spending the vast majority of his time in Europe, he will be out of sight and out of mind, with no more authority to make real decisions for the students and faculty of the university.

Roger McCaffrey's Take on the Ave Maria University Saga

Roger McCaffrey is best known as the Publisher of Roman Catholic Books and former publisher of Latin Mass Magazine and Sursum Corda.

His father, Neil McCaffrey, held editorial and marketing for MacMillan Publishing and Doubleday, which included the "Image Books" Catholic division of Doubleday. The senior McCaffrey was the original marketing strategist for Bill Buckley's National Review, and they built a very large initial circulation for what was at the time a dramatically different magazine.

McCaffrey continues to do political consulting and marketing for other entities. And until very recently, McCaffrey was employed by Ave Maria University (AMU). As a well-known and respected Catholic figure, and in light of his recent employment and intimate knowledge of Ave Maria University, McCaffrey shares his thoughts about Fr. Joseph Fessio's recent firing and his opinion on the direction of the university under the leadership of Tom Monaghan and President Nick Healy.

Q: In light of the unceremonious firing as Provost on March 21, and the continued reported persecution of traditionalist and conservative leaning Ave Maria students by the administration, what do you think this means for the future of Ave Maria University?

A: Fr. Fessio was the glue of campus life. He is a zealous and apostolic priest, and partly for that reason, plus his long friendship with Pope Benedict, he was the key to national fundraising and recruitment. He was the only real guarantor of a semblance of traditional Catholic order at Mass.

Once the new semester begins, they'll move to get people off their knees for Communion, mess around more and more with the liturgy, and the self-proclaimed "healer" priest, with his national organization, will inevitably have a widened role, if the bishop permits him to remain here.

Q: What attracted you to move your family to Naples, Florida and to work for Ave Maria University?

A: I had planned to move to north Florida in 2004. Talking with Fr. Joseph Fessio, the AMU Provost, he convinced my wife and me to try Naples. AMU wanted some help in both the fundraising and publishing areas. I had done magazine marketing for Father over the years and I trust his judgment. I knew Fr. Fessio in 1985. I knew Fr. Fessio when Fr. Fessio wasn't cool. I worked with Father and AMU's vice president. I saw the president regularly, Tom Monaghan occasionally, and I resigned from AMU in September to pursue a couple of attractive options elsewhere.

Q: Did the university meet your expectations? It has received much publicity and notoriety as a bastion of "conservatism" and "traditionalism" in the mainstream media. What did you find?

A: It met my expectations. AMU is relatively traditional in areas like student life, doctrine, moral teachings. Paradoxically, it is eager to downplay its traditionalism as much as possible, a phenomenon you see in GOP politics as well.

"Image" is always the reason given for the downplaying, but the nagging impression is that some in the administration are not comfortable in their own Catholic skin, or don't want the world to think they're nutty Catholics. The world is thus permitted to define the University.

Another factor is that AMU is charismatic to some degree, at least at the top. The jury is still out about where the small charismatic element in the student body is headed. The faculty is not charismatic.

Q: I have been told by more than one student at Ave Maria University that Nick Healy and his wife, both "charismatic" Catholics so-called, are really the drivers behind this liturgical brand of Catholicism being openly promoted by the University through so-called charismatic "healing" Masses and other such charismatic leaning spirituality.

In light of the evident persecution that Nick Healy has reportedly authorized and allowed of traditionalist and conservative students, do you think the Holy Spirit is behind this brand of Catholic spirituality? In other words, isn't the Holy Spirit about unity, but it seems things at Ave Maria have been quite divided?

A: Is there anyone who can picture God on Nick's side in this? The firing is manifestly unjust and brutal in its execution, reminding one exactly of the treatment accorded long-loyal corporate executives in the modern era, who are told to get out of the building and not even bother to clear their desks.

But what is most striking is that AMU's leaders have no feel whatsoever for their own market and no idea how many future students they have lost. Students here now will be leaving in droves. But maybe they don't care. Maybe the profits from the new town are being counted upon to produce a new PR effort that will make people forget Fr. Fessio.

Q: What do you think the future holds for Ave Maria University? In a separate interview, Fr. Robert Garrity, chaplain, presented a picture of perfect unity among the students and faculty completely faithful to the rubrics of the Holy Mass. Do you think this picture is accurate?

A: Nothing Fr. Garrity says can be taken seriously. Nick Healy is his sponsor, and made him chaplain after dumping Fr. Fessio from that role well over a year ago. I can understand his attempt to be a good employee, but you cannot take his answers seriously.

Q: Do you think Ave Maria is a college that orthodox, conservative leaning Catholics should consider sending their children to? Why or why not?

A: With Fr. Fessio gone and many of the superb faculty sure to follow, and with the very modestly traditional liturgical life under dire threat now, there is no chance I'd recommend Ave Maria to family or friends. Just the way they treated Fr. Fessio is a rather large hint that your kids might not fare much better, if they fall on the wrong side of this or that administration type.

Q: Why do you think this angst among charismatic Catholics so-called, mostly in the administration, and traditionalist leaning students seems to create so much animosity and division?

A: It's not the charismatic students who are the problem. Those few who feel so strongly as to commence hostilities with traditionalists would not do so if they did not know for certain that the University president is on their side and will keep the traditionalists at bay which was proven quite clearly today.

Unfortunately for Mr. Monaghan and AMU, they've just cut off the legs of the largest body of students on campus. Soothing words will flow from the administration now, but it's all corporate lawyer-speak and means nothing. Watch what they do, not what they say.

Q: Any other comments you'd like to make in light of recent developments and/or to modify your original answers to questions?

A: How do you recommend a University whose leaders behave as they did in firing their best friend, their most loyal and devoted player? I will say this: things will change over a couple of years, not necessarily right away. However, Masses will change at the very earliest opportunity. That you can be sure of.

Q: Can you comment on the reports that the University administration and board are not sensitive to the concerns and needs of the faculty? Is it run too laissez-faire and business-like?

A: It's fair to say that academics and billionaires are not a great marriage. I've always thought that the president, Nick Healy, a corporate lawyer who can write, has the role of harmonizing the two, in the eyes of the Board and of the billionaire.

That billionaire, by the way, is no longer a billionaire, and no longer even makes the Forbes 400 list. He's giving away his money.

But Tom Monaghan does remain entrepreneurial by nature, and I see no point in flaying him for that. Do I sympathize with struggling faculty? Of course. They need all the help they can get and need to feel as secure as possible for AMU to flourish.

Q: Do you think this university will live up to the vision of surpassing Notre Dame, an often-declared goal of Mr. Monaghan, as a top-caliber Catholic research and teaching university?

A: Ave Maria has already surpassed it. Notre Dame shifted into reverse decades ago, doing about 60 miles per hour. I don't think AMU needs to duplicate Notre Dame "before the fall." I understand Tom's sentiment, however. And sentiment is one of the things that drove great Church accomplishments of the past

Q: What did you find the liturgical life to be? Many Catholics recognize Fr. Fessio as one of the founders of Adoremus and the "reform of the reform"of the liturgy advocated by the current Pope. Is Ave Maria a bastion of liturgical orthodoxy and tradition?

A: Not a bastion of anything liturgically more like a smorgasbord. Fr. Fessio's Masses are fairly strict and thought-out interpretations of new-rite post-Conciliar directives, and of Conciliar directives, which are a different thing sometimes.

Those are the Masses I try to take my family to. When I first arrived, Fr. Fessio had charge of the Masses and things were calm, though new-rite Latin even then was restricted, for image reasons.

We cannot find a traditional Latin Mass in the area. Latin Masses at Ave Maria are, however, celebrated ad orientem rather than facing the people.

Q: Nick Healy, it has been reported, is a big advocate of the Charismatic movement. How has this influence permeated Ave Maria's liturgical life for its students? Do you see it as a positive good or negative?

A: I see Nick's influence on the liturgical life as a negative, although it has not permeated Fr. Fessio's Mass or some others. Guitar Masses, which sound so quaint now, 40 years after their invention, do exist. Are they charismatic? Not really.

On the other hand, you have a third of the students recently signing a petition requesting more frequent Latin Masses in both new and old rites. Very likely some of those signatures were from kids who might call themselves some kind of charismatic, but I've learned down here that this word does not have the sharp definition it had when Cardinal Suenens thought he'd discovered the "Next Big Thing" back in the 1960s.

I think there is a trend wherein students from charismatic families seem to be proud of their families and love their parents, but show indifference to charismatic practice as such. But AMU did import a so-called "healing priest" last year. Lots of older folks come to his regular services, which are, presumptuously, called "healing Masses."

He personifies a rift at AMU, in my view, and he is widening it, vividly. This is a big deal because it has to do with AMU's identity. I found myself on one side of the divide, as I tend to be. Anyway, his first miracle, as far as I'm concerned, was my departure.

You can't pay me enough to get involved in, or have my children live through, a replay of the 1970s internecine liturgical struggle. Been there, done that.

Q: What advice would you give Catholic parents who are trying to discern if Ave Maria is a good fit for their children?

A: It depends upon where else they might go it is much better than most other Catholic colleges, not to mention non-Catholic institutions. Academic standards are relatively high at Ave Maria. A serious education is offered.

I think parents should evaluate all elements and compare them to other institutions. On balance, AMU comes up plus. A few things should be factored in. It's growing, and the character of the student body is beginning to change, some students say.

Then there is the question of what security will be like on the new campus, situated as it is five miles from the troubled city of Immokalee.

Also, will there be priests, as there are now, who make it hard for your kids to kneel for Communion?

Will kids who complain about liturgical abuses be bullied by the chaplain or by the administration?

Will students who desire the old Latin rite be accommodated or given the back of AMU's hand?

Q: In light of continuing prognostications of a document coming from the Pope easing restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass, do you believe the priests and administration at Ave Maria are well disposed to make the Mass of Pope St. Pius V widely available for those students who request it?

A: Widely? No.

But I know Fr. Matthew Lamb has offered to celebrate it regularly on campus, and there are other priests who would too.

Q: What kind of tensions are created by having "charismatic" Catholicism openly promoted and advocated by some priests and administrators alongside some students who prefer the Mass of All Ages?

A: Some charismatics I know are in transit to a more intellect-based faith. This is, after all, a university. The tensions you mention tend to encourage an indifference on the part of a significant group of students who are averse to "choosing sides." I'm told this was not a problem at AMU initially. Therefore, to bring in self-described "healers" is an attempt to neutralize or dilute the Fr. Fessio influence, as I read this picture.

The administration's charismatics seek to dilute the forces of boring old static Catholicism, through which people grind out their salvation grimly that's the adolescent charismatic caricature of the old Church. What a shame.

And I know I risk being accused of over-simplifying the matter. And sure, the healer is here to draw benefactors, too, and is thought to be good PR. But look at this from his point of view. He gets a base at an ambitious new high-visibility university, circumventing episcopal authority. Meanwhile, traditionalists can't get the old Latin Mass without a prescription.

Q: Do you believe the university is becoming a top-tier academic institution while maintaining its Catholic identify?

A: This is impossible to answer. There are lots of top-tier, young faculty, and lots of superb students my wife and I have met in our two and a half years in Naples. There are plenty of serious scholars and scientists with impressive resumes. Their pre-theologate is growing fast and is directed by a priest with a degree from the Biblicum.

Joseph Pearce, already a celebrated writer at 45, is on the faculty. You have Lamb and Segrue and Levering, and several more very talented scholars. So the pizza money has made lot of things possible. And it's just a pleasure to deal casually with most of the folks here.

There are lots of home schooling families. AMU for now is the nucleus.

Q: Do you believe home schooled students and those who were brought up attending primarily the Traditional Latin Mass are welcomed with open arms by the administration and priests? Will their "rightful desires" be accommodated, as Pope John Paul II requested in Ecclesia Dei Adflicta?

Home schooled students are all over the place. Those raised on the old Latin rite are obviously unwelcome, if they are expecting to participate in the rite of Mass which nurtured their faith and their ancestors.

Q: There were two reported negative incidents with priests from the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter who came to minister to students who requested them to do so. What happened in your opinion? Who was primarily at fault? How was this reconciled? What kind of message do you believe such incidents give to parents and benefactors attached to Tradition?

A: I don't know what else you've heard, but here is the bare bones version. AMU's chaplain put heat on the first priest to concelebrate Mass. Fraternity priests concelebrate at their ordination Mass, so you can't accuse them of not concelebrating. They are chartered by the Vatican to celebrate the old Latin Mass, which has no provision for concelebration except with an ordaining bishop. Yet, the chaplain implied that concelebration was a condition for the Fraternity priest being permitted to say the old Mass on campus at all, even in his room.

I can only say what I said to Nick Healy the Fraternity is chartered by the Holy See to answer directly to the Holy Father's Ecclesia Dei Commission. No chaplain may require something that the Holy See itself, in the group's constitutions, does not require. That Fraternity priest withdrew from the talk he was going to give.

Not unreasonably, the students who invited the next Fraternity priest, months later, booked his private Mass in a public facility next door. They spread the word. The University protested to the chancery. The Fraternity priest then decided not to say the Mass [Ed. Note: publicly].

I'm inviting any Fraternity priest who ventures into this radioactive locale to come to my home to celebrate his private Mass. It would be a blessing for my family.

Copyright 2007 by Brian Mershon. All rights reserved.

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Brian Mershon

Brian Mershon is a commentator on cultural issues from a classical Catholic perspective... (more)


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