March 10, 2010 // Local

Notre Dame president looks forward to working with new bishop, strengthening culture of life

Father John I. Jenkins

By Diane Freeby

NOTRE DAME — In a new year with a new bishop, the president of the University of Notre Dame is looking ahead. Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins says he is looking forward, not only to working with Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, but also to helping strengthen the culture of life on the Notre Dame campus.

Criticized by many for his decision to invite President Barack Obama, an ardent supporter of abortion rights, to speak at last spring’s commencement, and to confer upon him an honorary doctorate of law, Father Jenkins faced opposition not only from faculty and student groups but from over 60 United States bishops. Bishop Rhoades was among those who spoke out, writing to Father Jenkins last year to express his disagreement with the decision.
The two Catholic leaders have met several times since Bishop Rhoades was named bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, including a brief visit during the March for Life in Washington, D.C., and last month when the Notre Dame community officially welcomed him during Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

“I think the relationship is going well,” said Father Jenkins. “I had a good conversation with him when he visited and I’ve had a number of good conversations with him. As I said, he’s very personal and very pastoral, and I think very interested in having a good dialogue, so I feel very positive about that and I think he feels the same. I hope he does.”
Some wonder how Notre Dame’s relationship with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend might change after that relationship became further strained when Bishop John D’Arcy decided to boycott last spring’s commencement.
“We tried to be welcoming to Bishop D’Arcy … we will be welcoming to Bishop Rhoades,” stated Father Jenkins. “I don’t see it as a big change, but the only thing I’d say is as we look ahead to visits with him, we’ll be welcoming toward the bishop and we consider him a part of the university and we’ll continue to work on that.”

Father Jenkins continued, “As a Catholic university I think it’s clear that the bishop is an extrinsic participant in the life of a university, but part of the university, as the pastor of the diocese, as the leader of the Church in this diocese, and that’s how we see him and that’s how we welcomed him and that’s how I’ll look forward to working with him.”
Father Jenkins took part in the March for Life this past January, as did Bishop Rhoades. This was Father Jenkins’ first experience at the Washington, D.C. march, while Bishop Rhoades attended the first march as a high school student and only missed a few years while he was studying abroad. Today’s Catholic asked Father Jenkins why he decided to attend the March for Life this year.

“As you probably know,” replied Father Jenkins, “ I started initiatives to deepen the culture of life and the witness to life here on campus … faculty and students gave me recommendations, and we’ve done a number of things in that regard. This was one suggestion I was happy to do, to go to the March … and I think it should be seen in that larger effort, to deepen the culture of life and witness to life here on campus.”

When asked about his impressions of the March for Life, Father Jenkins echoed many of the thoughts shared by Bishop D’Arcy last year when he participated himself for the first time, reflecting on the dedication of the young people in attendance.

“It was great,” recalled Father Jenkins. “I spent my time mainly with the Notre Dame group. We had a Mass that morning at a parish nearby, and then traveled to the march. I marched with them. I think the best thing for me was to be with those young people who were so enthusiastic, prayerful. They just have a spirit — a witness — about life and I really enjoyed that … I interacted with Bishop Rhoades just briefly. I just saw him … and took him over to the Notre Dame students. It was great to be there with him as well.”

While Father Jenkins took steps, literally and figuratively, to support Notre Dame’s culture of life, he continues to take criticism from those who disagree. Some faculty, students and alumni believe he is not doing enough to promote Catholic identity at a place many see as the preeminent Catholic university. Others say Notre Dame has no business getting involved in controversial issues like abortion, with one theology professor going so far as to publicly express her disagreement in the local newspaper. Father Jenkins believes these wide-ranging campus opinions are part of Catholic university life and still serve the Church.

“What is a university? It is a forum. It is a place where a lot of different views get expressed. And you hope,” said Father Jenkins, “it’s a place, particularly at Notre Dame, where you’re committed to the highest level of reason and inquiry, and committed to faith. And if you look at the history of the Church, there’s always been disagreement. There’s always been strong feelings about issues. But what we try to do is, in a way informed by the faith, provide a forum where there can be serious reason and discussion at the highest level … If there are different views, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we go, ‘Oh, this is terrible to disagree.’ Well, people disagree about a lot of things. A university should be a place where there can be serious, responsible, reasoned disagreement, again, informed by faith.”

“Ex Corde Ecclesiae” is the papal document, authored by Pope John Paul II in 1990, that provides clear guidelines on the nature of Catholic universities. Earlier, Bishop Rhoades told Today’s Catholic why he believes the document is so important.

“It has to do with what is a Catholic university and what are the essential characteristics of a Catholic university,” explained Bishop Rhoades. “So, only a small part of it deals with the bishop’s relationship with a Catholic university. But it has to do with what it means to be a Catholic university in the world today, what is required in having the name ‘Catholic.’ It’s very beautiful and it looks at various issues and I think the four essential characteristics are very important. That’s what truly makes a university Catholic, and that’s how to implement that and make sure those four characteristics are prominent in the life of the university.”

Those characteristics are:
1. Christian inspiration in individuals and the university community;
2. Reflection and research on human knowledge in the light of the Catholic faith;
3. Fidelity to the Christian message in conformity with the magisterium of the Church;
4. Institutional commitment to the service of others

Bishop Rhoades said “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” is fully embraced at the last school he served, Mount Saint Mary’s University. He said “it strengthened the university as Catholic, but also strengthened it as a university by being faithful to both the spirit and the letter of that document.”

Father Jenkins called it “an excellent document” and said it is something he talks about, and something that is often quoted. Today’s Catholic asked him if it would be helpful if more faculty, more than half of whom are Catholic, were familiar with the contents of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”

“Oh, perhaps,” replied Father Jenkins. “I hope the themes of that are present in the life of the university, whether it’s of service to the Church, or whether it’s to reflect on the Gospel message or whether it’s being open to the truth in engagement with the culture. All those things are touched on in that document … and we try to do that in a lot of different ways.”

Last spring’s decision to honor a politician whose actions oppose Catholic teaching on abortion divided the Notre Dame family, and Catholics everywhere. Today’s Catholic asked Father Jenkins if there is anything he would have done differently.

“I’ve said everything I have to say about that,” he responded quickly. “I’m comfortable with my decision to invite the president, to bestow on him an honorary degree as has been done with many presidents before. I actually think the presentation of the president showed a movement toward the respect for life that I was encouraged by. I think statements by the president since that time have been encouraging. The president visited the pope last July. The pope welcomed him and had good things to say … some good things to say about his leadership. So I think it was positive. I’m most interested in looking ahead, but I think I’ve explained as clearly as I possibly could why we did that, I’m comfortable with that decision and I’d do it again.”

Father Jenkins said he does not know if the student opposition group “NDResponse” has had any further comment or requests of him. He acknowledged receiving “many letters from many people,” including alumni groups like Sycamore, who say they are concerned about Notre Dame losing its Catholic identity. Father Jenkins said he is “not in any particular dialogue with that group.”

Today’s Catholic concluded the interview by asking Father Jenkins about Catholic identity, and why Catholic parents should be assured that Notre Dame is the right place. Father Jenkins paused before answering.

“The education we offer our students is as good as they can receive anywhere, in any subject,” began Father Jenkins. “It is a Catholic university, and rich with liturgical life … rich with opportunities to reflect on our faith … rich with a superb theology department, a great campus ministry department. On any given day, I think there are over 50 Masses said on campus, and our students attend those in quite large numbers.”

Father Jenkins continued, “The main thing I’d say to anybody who has a question is, look at our graduates. Our graduates have positions of leadership in many different professions. They are also leaders, quite often, in their parish and their diocese and the wider Church. Anybody who wonders about the value of a Notre Dame education should probably look at them because they’re the product of our education. They are what I am most proud of and I think their lives speak most powerfully to the value of a Notre Dame education.”

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.