By Brendan O’Shaughnessy
VATICAN CITY — University of Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., accompanied by members of his leadership team and the Board of Trustees, exchanged messages of support with Pope Francis on Thursday (Jan. 30) during a private audience in the Apostolic Palace.
In the hour-long meeting, Pope Francis displayed flashes of his trademark humor and humility, and he also spoke seriously about the importance of defending Catholic identity and religious liberty.
He said it is essential for Catholic universities to bear “uncompromising witness … to the Church’s moral teaching and the defense of her freedom.”
“It is my hope,” Pope Francis said, “that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”
Father Jenkins began the meeting with a few words about Notre Dame. He told Pope Francis that he hoped the opening of a new Notre Dame Center in Rome will allow the University to expand its service to the Holy See.
“Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, said education is ‘the art of helping young people to completeness,’” Father Jenkins said. “And we’re proud to educate people, to serve humanity and to serve the Church with deep faith.”
Father Jenkins offered as a gift to Pope Francis a small statue of the Visitation because it depicts “the joyful greeting of Mary and Elizabeth, in whose embrace the Church was born.” The statue is a smaller replica of one on Notre Dame’s campus by the late Rev. Anthony Lauck, C.S.C., a Notre Dame professor, priest and sculptor.
Pope Francis thanked Father Jenkins and said, “I am confident that the new Center (in Rome) will contribute to the University’s mission by exposing students to the unique historical, cultural and spiritual riches of the Eternal City.”
Pope Francis also urged the Notre Dame community to continue its commitment to the “missionary discipleship” that inspired Rev. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C., to found the University in 1842.
“From its founding, the University of Notre Dame has made an outstanding contribution to the Church in your country through its commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason and in the pursuit of truth and virtue.”
Pope Francis greets the Notre Dame delegation at the Vatican. Photo courtesy of Vatican Photo Office.
Smiling warmly at the assembly, he said, “Dear friends, I ask you to pray for me as I strive to carry out the ministry which I have received in service to the Gospel, and I assure you of my prayers for you and for all associated with the educational mission of University of Notre Dame.”
He ended his speech by saying, “Upon you and your families, and in a particular way, upon the students, faculty and staff of this beloved University, I invoke the Lord’s gifts of wisdom, joy and peace, and cordially impart my Apostolic blessing.”
After his remarks, the Holy Father shook hands with each person in the Notre Dame group and left them delighted with his personal touch and humor. When Father Jenkins accidentally went to sit for a photo in a chair meant for a cardinal, Pope Francis joked, “Oh, you’re very ambitious.”
Then Pope Francis noticed that his own white chair had been placed slightly in front of the row of Notre Dame leaders. He immediately pushed it back himself so that he was at the same level with everyone else, drawing an appreciative laugh from the Notre Dame delegation.
The Notre Dame delegation’s papal audience followed a Mass in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica presided over by Rev. Daniel Jenky, C.S.C., bishop of Peoria, Ill., and a Notre Dame Trustee, and a tour of the Vatican Library with Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues, O.P., the archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church.
The Vatican visit capped a week of meetings in Rome by the University Board of Trustees that included Masses in ancient churches, visits to cultural and historical sites in Rome, a tour of the Sistine Chapel and receptions at the homes of the U.S. Ambassador to Italy and Notre Dame alumnus John R. Phillips and Ambassador to the Holy See and Notre Dame Laetare Medalist and honorary degree recipient Ken Hackett. Father Jenkins and other University officials also met with Vatican leaders in papal congregational offices and pontifical councils related to Notre Dame’s mission as a leader in Catholic higher education.
The Board of Trustees business meetings took place about nine months after the election in March of Pope Francis and a month after Time magazine named him its Person of the Year. Coincidentally, the board’s last meeting in Rome was in 2006, also taking place nine months after the election of a new pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI.
The week began with an academic convocation in the Notre Dame Rome Center at Via Ostilia 15, a recently renovated 32,000-square-foot building located a block from the Colosseum. The facility serves as the home to study abroad programs for the School of Architecture and the College of Arts and Letters. This Global Gateway will serve as the focal point for the University’s academic and cultural endeavors in Rome and, in conjunction with Notre Dame’s Global Gateways in London and Dublin, throughout Europe.