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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Interview of our Augustinian Priest, Father Bernie Scianna, O.S.A., Ph.D.

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.

Father Bernie: I grew up in Chicago, just south of the downtown in a middle-class Catholic Family. Everyone I knew was Catholic including a large extended family and all our friends. We belonged to the local parish run by the Franciscans and attended the grammar school there. It was less than two blocks from our house. I would say that my parents, grandmothers, the religious sisters, and priests were the most influential on my early faith formation.

It was “normal” for us to attend Mass every school day before classes began. I enjoyed attending and serving Mass so much that I would get up on my own and walk to serve the 6:30am Mass that was in Slovenian! Two Sisters, Delores and Vendelina, my second and third-grade teachers encouraged me to get involved with Church things. Besides serving and reading at Masses, I would help clean and decorate the Church for Christmas and Easter.

Sister Vendelina taught me how to braid/weave palms which I still do for family members for Palm Sunday. Sister Maria Goretti, our principal, encouraged me to get involved with the liturgy committee and to work the young newly ordained priest, Fr. Jack. It was the days of banners and themes, commentators, etc.…..and while we have moved beyond that, it was the comfort and ease that I found while being around these people and doing Church things that encouraged me to pursue religious life and priesthood in the future. My parents were always supportive of my vocation and religious interests. They and my grandparents, aunt, and uncles were all good examples of faith-filled family life.

Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.

Father Bernie: I decided to attend St. Rita High School, run by the Augustinians, where my older brother was already attending. It wasn’t an automatic decision. I was attracted to the highly competitive academic program at St. Ignatius run by the Jesuits. And while I did well enough on the entrance exam, I went to St. Rita because of the Band! St.

Ignatius had an orchestra, but not a marching band and I wanted to play at games as well as in concert and jazz band. So, the Band was my deciding factor to attend St. Rita and to become acquainted with the Augustinians. And that decision has made all the difference! I sometimes wonder; if I had gone to St. Ignatius, would I have become a Jesuit? Been a Headmaster of one of their high schools, been elected Provincial Superior twice, and work in one of their universities as I have with the Augustinians? God only knows! But the decision to attend St. Rita and then Villanova University and then profess with the Augustinians is one that I have never regretted! In the Band, there were two men who greatly influenced me, Mr. Lou Ricci and Mr. Bob Black. They were very disciplined and demanding directors! Sometimes I think we practiced more than the football team! But they instilled in us an attitude of pursuing excellence and not settling for mediocrity. I often look back to those days and credit the Band, Lou, Bob, and the Augustinian Brothers who were Moderators with so much of my success today!

Dr. Knight: You went to college and joined the seminary. How did you make that decision?

Father Bernie: At St. Rita High School there were about 30 Augustinian Priests and Brothers in school. I had many for classes and as principals and chaplains. I didn’t like or get along with all of them, but I learned that in a community that’s the way it is sometimes.

You still need to respect each other and do your best. One significant person was the chaplain, Fr. Murphy. He invited me to take a trip to Villanova University during the Easter break of my junior year in 1982. I thought he was going with us, but when I found out what priest was going, I told Murph that I wasn’t going. He “told” me in no uncertain terms “to get my butt in the van, sit in the back if you have to, and have a good time!”

Sometimes God invites in a gentle whisper, and other times, He commands through a booming voice! Nonetheless, I listened, and the moment I stepped on campus at Villanova, I knew that was where I was supposed to go! It was an awesome experience! And as they say, the rest is history! It is not insignificant, that my classmate, Fr. Tom McCarthy was on that trip too! We have known each other since the summer of 1979 at Band Camp as we were getting ready to start high school at St. Rita!

Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be an Augustinian. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Augustine and Christ?

Father Bernie: Augustine puts a strong emphasis on Friendship and Community! I hope you can see already that God directed me to be an Augustinian and had been preparing me for this vocation before I even knew it. The family and religious figures, the experiences of a large extended Catholic Family, the Band, Friends of like mind on the journey, all helped me to know, understand and try to live in a community and to be of service to others. In our Augustinian Schools, we speak of the core values of Veritas, Unitas, and Caritas (Truth, Unity, and Love). These are Gospel Values, but we look at them through a lens of St. Augustine and Augustinian Spirituality and Tradition. To Pursue the Truth, to emphasize the Primacy of Love and to do this with Others is both Christian and Augustinian!

Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?

Father Bernie: When I joined the Augustinians, I did so with the hope and expectation of being a teacher and priest at St. Rita High School. I never did that full-time! Yes, my first class that I taught in Theology was at St. Rita when I was still in graduate school at both Catholic Theological Union and St. Xavier University, and I assisted with Kairos retreats, taught history and was disciplinarian at summer school, and finally lived at St. Rita Monastery when I was elected Provincial, but discernment and obedience have taken me in many different directions! As a matter of fact, I only taught full-time for one year, my pastoral year during formation, at Providence Catholic High School. While I enjoy teaching, I learned that my gifts of administration and leadership were needed in our schools and province, and so I was led in that direction. I served as Pastoral Director at Providence for three years, as Headmaster of Cascia Hall Preparatory School in Tulsa Oklahoma for thirteen years before being elected twice as Prior Provincial of the Midwest and Canadian Provinces of Augustinians for eight years.

Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?

Father Bernie: Yes, but I can only see this looking back and taking time to reflect on my experiences. Everything I have done and experienced, both the good and the challenging, has shaped me into the person, priest, and professional that I am today. Looking back, I would not change anything because the journey has been amazing, and the Lord has led me to this moment through both great joys and challenges. I have learned from all these experiences and each one allows me to minister to others because of who I have become. God really does know what He is doing even when I may question or doubt His plan. He is always in the boat with us, although at times it seems like He is sleeping! He is indeed the one making the beautiful mosaic of life!

Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being an Augustinian? About living in a community?

Father Bernie: Being an Augustinian is to strive to be of one mind and heart on the way to God! It is a challenge to live the tenets of the early Church Community and to be concerned with having all things in common while dealing with each according to their needs. There is an inherent tension in these statements, and I believe that living in a community gives us plenty of opportunities to live within these tensions in a healthy way. Community Life, Like Married Life or Family Life is not easy, but I believe it is worthwhile. Our Community Life then strengthens us and inspires us to be of service and to fulfill whatever ministry is being asked of us. We are called to be pastors, teachers, administrators, chaplains, missionaries for the Church, and to live the vows we profess. These must be examined both personally and communally on a regular basis so that we are in tune with what the Spirit wants of us!

Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?

Father Bernie: I think there are always challenges to be addressed in any institution. I agree with the phrase “ecclesia semper reformanda est” the church must always be reformed. It is a phrase greatly popularized by theologian Karl Barth, allegedly derived from a saying of St. Augustine’s Sermon 169, that has become one of my favorites both personally and institutionally: “Always be dissatisfied with where you are if you are to become what you are not yet. Evaluate yourself constantly, without guile or flattery. Say ’it is enough’ and you are lost ... Keep on moving forward, walk onward, make progress!” Saint Pope John XXIII also picked up on this philosophy when he opened the Second Vatican Council saying, “while the substance of the faith remains constant, the way it is formulated can change.” Irish Augustinian Theologian Gabriel Daly, O.S.A. says it this way, “the notion that doctrine doesn’t change or that there’s a ‘seamless continuity of church teaching’ in history are simply a fiction.” He also says, “there’s a difference between ‘unity’ (what Jesus made clear he wants for his Church) and ‘conformity’ (what traditionalist authorities have insisted on).”

Pope Francis offers hope as he struggles, despite huge opposition in Rome and nearer home, to bring about necessary reforms in our Church. “Reform is necessary,” Daly argues, “because the message of Jesus is strikingly simple and direct and internal structures are posing an obstacle to our mission in the world.” He accepts that ‘some fellow Catholics will take offense’ at what he has to say but ‘I do not ask that they share my views, and they should not insist that I share theirs’. Daly argues that a diversity of opinion in matters that do not belong to the essence of faith enriches the Church. He believes that, for the good of the whole Church, a range of views should be encouraged rather than trying to impose a narrow view of orthodoxy on everyone. And he’s clearly delighted that Pope Francis is moving the Church in that direction.

Daly doesn’t hesitate to use words like ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ to describe what he calls ‘two conflicting mentalities in the Church’. And he sees no point in trying to reconcile progressives and conservatives because, for him, a consensus between the two wings of the Church is logically impossible since their positions are mutually incompatible. What he wants to do is to let both sides ‘live tolerably and peacefully together in spite of their different attitudes’ but that no side should seek to impose its understanding on the whole Church and that the Church should never use its power to penalize Catholics who dissent from its views and mindset.

I believe that it is within such a philosophical context that we can address the myriad of issues, concerns, and challenges of the Church in the modern world.

Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as an Augustinian follower of Christ?

Father Bernie: In the homily at my ordination on November 12, 1993, the same day that Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago was accused of sexual abuse (there are always inherent tensions to deal within institutions), Augustinian Bishop John McNabb, O.S.A. final words were, “and above all, live a joyful life!” This statement has had a profound effect on me for the past 28 years! I do indeed strive to live a joyful life! It doesn’t mean that I am always happy or in a good mood; joy is much more profound than happiness which can be altered by my health, the weather, current problems, or issues. But Joy is a confident assurance that God is With Me and that all I have is Blessing or Grace to Live as God Wants me too. Some of the Joys that I have experienced have come in the revelation of God’s Power in Creation (perhaps that’s a bit of my Franciscan roots coming out there).

Being still and experiencing a sunrise or sunset or peaceful calm over a lake, or seeing the multitude of stars makes me realize both how small I am in this universe, but also how blest I am to be part of it and have a mission, purpose and ministry to fulfil. Within my work in our schools, seeing the revelations of God’s Love on Kairos Retreats, giving out diplomas or championship medals were some of the greatest joys, and as Provincial, receiving the vows of the new young members made my heart burst with joy! With Family and Friends, being able to administer the Sacraments to them and with them provides immense Joy…the Confident Assurance that God IS with Us All—Emmanuel!

Dr. Knight: As an Augustinian what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?

Father Bernie: Currently I am assigned at Villanova University. I graduated from here in 1987. I served on the Board of Trustees here from 2008 to 2018, and then joined the Staff in January 2019. I work in the Division of Student Life and participate in the Sacramental Life of the University. I look forward to continuing this ministry for many more years to come!

Dr. Knight: Thank you so much for offering us this interview and letting us see all the good works that the Augustinians do for us all.


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