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A Special Section on Father Pilarz: ‘A Pastor and Teacher to the End’

Father Pilarz drew on the words and lessons of Jesuits, poets and philosophers to shape and share his worldview, inspiring countless others and forever changing the face and soul of the University he dubbed the ‘miracle in the mountains.’

A Special Section on Father Pilarz: ‘A Pastor and Teacher to the End’ banner image

When he was installed as the 24th president of The University of Scranton on Sept. 26, 2003, the Rev. Scott R. Pilarz, S.J., laced his inaugural address with reverence for the past and rhapsody for the future.

In his first inaugural address in 2003, Father Pilarz recalled how Bishop William G. O’Hara, who laid the cornerstone for St. Thomas College, the University’s precursor, on Wyoming Avenue, “imagined this valley, in his own words, ‘lighted up with the fires of learning’” in 1888. The first bishop of Scranton's “modest and audacious” dream, said Father Pilarz, was that the graduates of St. Thomas College would “go forth to enlighten the world.”

Though separated in time by more than 100 years, Bishop O’Hara and Father Pilarz shared a driving purpose. Both prioritized opportunities for families of slender means, feverishly supported scholarships and worked passionately to secure the resources to make these families' dreams possible. In Father Pilarz’s words, Bishop O’Hara “scraped, saved, begged and borrowed” to make the modest yet audacious possible. By all accounts of the University community today, Father Pilarz carried that torch, as much by overseeing the largest fundraising campaign in University history as by spiritually tending to the thousands of souls entrusted to his care.

Father Pilarz passed away from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease in March 2021, during his second tenure as president at Scranton. He became the second-longest-serving president and a tireless promoter of cura personalis, proud to say the University had a “reverent familiarity” with the defining Ignatian concept about care for the unique, individual person, especially in the context of student-teacher relationships.

“We are, and we must remain always, the party of hope."

“We are, and we must remain always, the party of hope,” he said at his first inauguration, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Out of our works and days as a Catholic university comes one great virtue: the virtue of hope, the hope that God has a purpose for creation and for us in it,” he said. “Discerning God’s purpose and committing ourselves to its fulfillment remains our challenge.”

Also, at that first inauguration, he spoke reverently of the University as the “miracle in the mountains,” which began as an “engine of opportunity” and remains “an institution that has always welcomed those who were looking to find their place in the world.”

Once and Always a Teacher

For all Father Pilarz did to build the University’s reputation and physical campus, however, this “iconic son of Saint Ignatius,” as his predecessor the Rev. Joseph McShane, S.J., called him, Father Pilarz remained “a pastor and a teacher to the end.”

His instructional resume was diverse: lecturer in philosophy at Saints Peter and Paul Major Seminary at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria; English teacher at Loyola High School in Maryland; professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia; assistant professor of English at Georgetown University, his first collegiate alma mater.

In fact, Jack the bulldog, Georgetown’s onetime mascot, traveled to Scranton with Father Pilarz when he became president and became a regular fixture on campus, living in the residence hall with the new boss and basking in the adoration of scores of students. The duo was approachable, and Father Pilarz was relatable and familiar, qualities that never waned even as he reached the pinnacle of his career.

“Anyone who spent time with Father Pilarz experienced his humor, compassion and genuine humanity,” said James M. Slattery ’86, chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. “He was a person for others in every sense, devoted to a life of service that exemplifies what it means to be a Jesuit and a priest.”

Through his tenure, he taught at least one course each semester, and he was a tireless advocate for the humanities and the liberal arts as core to student formation.

He was known for his commanding voice, yet freely offered quieter accompaniment.

“He was a giant, with his deep, booming voice, yet approachable with his bespectacled, disarming features,” Matt Tibbitts ’14 remembered.

Others recalled lively dinners and social visits, with one fondly remembering Father Pilarz buying beers for him and friends at a concert. Father Pilarz had an ear for music and a principled stance on musicians, having firmly believed Bruce Springsteen -- or “The Boss” -- was the greatest artist who ever lived. It became University tradition for him to belt out “Rosalita” at scores of President’s Undergraduate Receptions.

“Who says you can’t go home?” he quoted another New Jersey musician, Jon Bon Jovi, in 2018 upon the announcement of his second tenure at Scranton.

On the University’s memorial webpage for Father Pilarz, alumna and trustee Tracy Bannon recalled words she offered in her welcome toast for him in 2018: “On Scranton’s campus, we have each other’s back; we take care of each other; we open doors for one another. As your favorite New Jersey poet, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “You can't break the ties that bind; you can't forsake the ties that bind.”

Father Pilarz would send a similar message when he promised to lead and work, as much as possible, through his illness and, eventually, when he announced it was time to step away.

On Aug. 19, 2020, in an emotional video address, he called the preceding months “a long and lonely slog” and, ever the literature scholar, quoted St. Thomas More’s Utopia.

“You must not forsake the ship in a tempest because you cannot rule and keep down the winds.”

Physical, Spiritual and Academic Advancement

Father Pilarz regularly turned over rocks in his hunt for resources. “Pride, Passion, Promise – Shaping Our Jesuit Tradition,” his signature strategic plan, included a $125 million capital campaign intended to transform the campus through construction.

The campaign saw exceptional success and made possible the largest, most ambitious projects in University history: the $35 million Patrick and Margaret DeNaples Center; the John and Jacquelyn Dionne Campus Green; the 200,000-square-foot, $83 million Loyola Science Center; Christopher and Margaret Condron Hall; Sandra and Paul Montrone Hall; and the hall that would bear Father Pilarz’s own name.

“We’ve got this instinct that we’re about the transformation of souls.”

Father Pilarz (center), Commencement 2019
Father Pilarz (center), Commencement 2019

At the President’s Breakfast in 2011, PNC Bank President Pete Danchak announced the naming of the Rev. Scott R. Pilarz Hall.
Father Pilarz gave the keynote at that breakfast and spoke of what has always set Scranton apart:

“We must enculturate young professors coming out of graduate programs focused almost exclusively on research and publication,” he said. “We’ve got this instinct that we’re about the transformation of souls.”

Through the length of his Scranton days, his eyes remained firmly fixed on matters of the soul.

Scranton earned national recognition under his watch not only for academic quality and student success but for community engagement. Prestigious scholarships – Goldwater and Truman awards – continue to go to students at Scranton, which also maintains a longstanding reputation as a Fulbright powerhouse. And he also expanded international mission and service opportunities.

A Memorable Orator

“Don’t waste love,” was a directive he issued in 2011 in the last commencement address during his first presidency, reminding students to “dance at one another’s weddings” and “stand as godparents for each other’s kids.”

“I love this place, and I am blessed to be back here with you,” Father Pilarz told the assembly.

He described how he was moved by the words of the Rev. Robert Southwell, S.J., which he had etched on the front of the DeNaples Center as one of the last acts of his first presidency: “Not where I breathe but where I love, I live.”

This became the theme of his second inauguration in September 2018. It was during that speech that he also referenced the words of Mexico City’s Rev. General Adolfo Nicholas, S.J., former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, in calling the University “a privileged space” in which the Gospel message can open “a space for hope to enter” daily lives in the midst of overwhelming difficulties.

He said he was committed to finding resources for student-faculty research and faculty development and to redoubling efforts to support the endowment. He also stressed the need to embrace the city of Scranton and Northeastern Pennsylvania as enthusiastically as the world.

“I pray today and every day that all of The University of Scranton will be preoccupied with love,” Father Pilarz said.

The love Father Pilarz so frequently professed was returned in abundance, by students, faculty, staff, parents and alumni

The Beginning, and End, of an Era

In 2018, Father Pilarz announced the devastating news that he had ALS, a rare and incurable, muscle-weakening disease of the nervous system.

"We are invited all the time to seek and find God in all things. That’s what I plan to do, and I hope you’ll do it along with me."

“We have great work that lies ahead of us here, work for the greater glory of God and the well-being of the world, as only The University of Scranton can do it. We are invited all the time to seek and find God in all things. That’s what I plan to do, and I hope you’ll do it along with me,” said Father Pilarz in the announcement.

It would be little more than a year later when COVID-19 upended not only the University but the world, increasing the pressure points on a president already carrying a heavy personal cross. Many would say, however, that Father Pilarz was best when faced with a challenge and left “space for hope to enter.”

He was “a light in the dark year that we all faced together,” staff member Carolyn M. Bonacci wrote on the memorial page.

He summoned the strength to lead for as long as he could, delivering reassurance to the University community who relied on his virtual messages of hope.

On March 3, 2020, the first day of online learning, he spoke via video of the excruciating decision to send students home. He later addressed students, faculty and parents with an overriding message: “We must come together to make sure our University endures.”

He continued to preach love during the most difficult times, including in the midst of the pandemic following the death of George Floyd.
“At this time of strife and struggle,” he wrote to the University community in June 2020,” I ask you to join me in prayer that the love that defines our University of Scranton community focuses for us the moral mandate to be a source for peace and healing.”

That summer, Father Pilarz announced the decision to hold classes in a variety of formats, including on campus, for fall. He oversaw the creation of the Royals Safe Together plan, with detailed guidelines intended to reduce the spread of the virus on and around campus, often reminding students of their “shared mission” to keep one another safe.

Eventually, his love for the University guided him to another difficult decision, which was to step down as president at the end of the 2021 academic year.

Reaffirming his commitment to the health and safety of the University community as the pandemic persisted, he continued work on the new strategic plan, which includes goals focused on diversity and inclusion and the humanities. He pledged to remain steadfast in addressing systemic racism and see through the continued success of the Slattery Center for the Humanities, made possible by a $1 million gift from benefactor and current University trustee James M. Slattery ’86 and his wife, Betsy.

Then he made one of his final professions of love.

“I love the University too much to ever jeopardize her future,” he said, noting he wanted to offer ample time for the trustees to find a suitable replacement.

When the next University president, the Rev. Joseph G. Marina, S.J., provost and vice president for academic affairs at Le Moyne College, was announced on Feb. 9, 2021, Father Pilarz was thrilled with the choice.

“Father Marina belongs at Scranton,” he said during the announcement. “He understands well what makes Scranton special.”
Just about one month later, ALS claimed Father Pilarz’s life.

His hope and his spirit will long live loudly over the “miracle in the mountains,” the evidence abounding in the pages of testimonials placed upon the memorial webpage by so many who knew him.

As professor emeritus of history and University historian Francis X.J. Homer ’64 put it: “Scott's deep love for the University's Jesuit heritage infused everything he did and, as such, left an indelible imprint. While sadly he no longer can breathe, his immortal soul still loves. Therefore, as his beloved poet Robert Southwell said, ‘He still lives!’”

Three Life Lessons

On March 13, in a Mass of Christian Burial streamed live from the John J. Long, S.J. Center, Father Pilarz's themes of hope and love radiated for a final time, in Scriptural words from St. Paul and memorial words from principal celebrant the Rev. Herbert B. Keller, S.J. H’06, vice president for Mission and Ministry and, previously, interim president.

Father Keller encapsulated Father Pilarz’s life in three lessons:

1. A lesson of faith: “Scott truly lived the motto ‘Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,’ for the greater glory of God. Scott believed that all of us were born for God – that our true home is in heaven. Our ultimate happiness depends on how fully one accepts that truth.”

He recalled Saint Ignatius’ words, “embraced and exemplified by Scott: ‘We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.’”

Father Pilarz “taught all of us that this world, as inviting and exciting as it may seem, is not all there is,” Father Keller said.

2. A lesson from “Scott the teacher:” “Embrace life. Never waste love. Appreciate the beauty of this world and the beauty of love and friendship.” Father Keller quoted from a poem Father Pilarz had long admired, Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes,” which offers “Instructions for living a life:”

“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

“That was the rhythm of Scott’s life,” Father Keller said. “Whether he was talking about friends or family or the poetry of Robert Southwell or Mary Oliver, or the benefits of a liberal arts education, the lyrics to a Springsteen ballad, whether it be the people of Scranton or the beauty of Wildwood, he paid attention, he was astonished, and he told us about it. Because in telling us these stories, he was telling us the story of God traced in his life.”

3. A lesson about purpose: “We are called on this earth to build one another up. We’re called to support each other. Strengthened and loved by God, it is our task in this world to strengthen and love one another.”
And, in a fitting tribute to the proud Polish Jesuit from Jersey, Father Keller could not pass up the opportunity to quote the “Bard from New Jersey.” He drew from Bruce Springsteen’s “Into The Fire” by offering, “My strength gives you strength. Your faith gives me faith. My hope gives you hope. Your love gives me love.”

“That was Scott’s vision of a Catholic University,” Father Keller said. “This is how it’s supposed to work.”

He also, poignantly, shared how Father Pilarz, whose iconic image was that of a teacher long accustomed to the ability to control situations and outcomes, but who, by his own admission, became an uncomplaining student in his waning days.

“What Scott was learning from God was that Scott was not in control,” Father Keller said. “The way he handled his disease was his crucifixion. Through it all he heard the words of Jesus to Peter, ‘Follow me.’”

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