Priest and graduate student shares about study and vocation

In addition to members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, many other religious study and work at Notre Dame. This includes several Dominican friars, one of whom is Fr. Henry Stephan, O.P. 

Fr. Henry, a native of California, is the chaplain for the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, as well as for Mendoza’s Business Honors Program. He is in his third year of doctoral studies in the Medieval Institute.

Fr. Henry is currently readying himself for his upcoming candidacy exams, which he must pass in order to begin working on his dissertation. In his work, he focuses on political theory in the medieval period, which he connects to its classical roots and contemporary issues, with special emphasis on civic friendship, constitutionalism, and how the Church and State relate.

Co-teaching “Foundations of Constitutional Order: Political Philosophy of Citizenship & Constitutional Government” with professor Susan Collins is his favorite thing that he has done at Notre Dame thus far. “It brought me into contact with some of the best of the Notre Dame undergraduate population. And for me, it was so humbling, realizing what a novice I am at teaching…it’s a distinctive privilege to get to be a priest and a teacher,” he told the Rover.

Fr. Henry believes that there is a connection between his vocation as a Dominican friar and his academic life: “For Dominicans, study is a quasi-sacramental thing. So, it’s not a sacrament in the strict sense, but, what work is for a Benedictine monk, study is meant to be for a Dominican friar.”

He views his study of political theory as linking to his vocation as well, sharing, “I’ve joined St. Thomas in thinking that the political life is not just a punishment for sin, but is rather an expression of God’s government to the universe and of his providence.”

Fr. Henry also spoke about finding his vocation as a friar. After moving in fifth grade, there was no space for him at the local Catholic school, so he was sent to a Christian school instead.

“It was a wonderful place, but it was the first time I was around people who weren’t Catholic,” Fr Henry explained.“I learned a ton because it was the first time that I was really forced to grapple with the fact that I was rather ignorant of the scriptures, that my faith had been just kind of perfunctory, that I just did what my folks did without thinking too deeply … I’d get into debates and disputes with my classmates and even with their parents. And I spent all my birthday money on Catholic apologetics books.”

After returning to the Catholic school system, he was confronted with the fact that he was more invested in the faith than his peers—for instance, he served daily Mass. “That was when I first thought about being a priest, but I kind of put it out of my mind.”

At Princeton University—from which he obtained his undergraduate degree in politics—Fr. Henry encountered a thriving Catholic community, which included Sherif Girgis, a then-student of the university and a current professor in the Notre Dame Law School, and Fr. Marty Miller, who was the assistant chaplain and is now a priest in South Bend.

His time with this Catholic community was important for his vocation. “I fell into this circle of friends, and I really experienced the beautiful reality of what Christian friendship can be in a profound way because we had a shared love for the common good, a shared love for the truth, for the faith, and a desire to be more virtuous people,” he shared.

Fr. Henry had planned to be a lawyer. But as he readied himself to attend law school, he described, “I experienced a real sense of loss about how much I was going to miss the friendships, the shared study and conversations, the life of prayer, the whole thing that we shared at Princeton.” 

Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain on the Ninth Court of Appeals, for whom he was an intern, proposed that he think about the priesthood, which did not please him initially. “I was insulted at first,” said Fr. Henry, and he wondered if Judge O’Scannlain was implying that he would not succeed in a law career. Instead, the judge had thought it appropriate for him to think about the priesthood before investing a significant amount of money in attending law school.

“And you know what, he was absolutely right. I found the Dominicans, which is an order that’s very much all those things I just mentioned—it’s all about the life of friendship, of study, of prayer, of preaching … and teaching. And so, for me, it was less of a matter of radical change as just, gosh, these are the things I love most.” 

He entered the Dominican Province of St. Joseph directly after his graduation from Princeton in 2011. 

After spending several years in formation he served as a priest at St. Gertrude’s in Cincinnati for two years, after which,  “the province kindly and graciously gave me permission to apply for further studies, and they let me come to Notre Dame, when Notre Dame was foolish enough to admit me.”

After completing his doctorate, Fr. Henry would like to teach political thought—but he will end up where his superiors decide, which is also contingent on which places express interest in him.

Kathryn Bowers enjoys running on Notre Dame’s campus. She is in search of running companions–email her at to join her.

Photo Credit: Dominican Friars Foundation

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