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Jenkins calls pilgrimage part of ND mission

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

ROME – For University President Father John Jenkins, his trip to Rome this week is about much more than attending official meetings or even cementing relationships with Vatican officials – it’s a connection to the Catholic Church so profound it can hardly be described in words.

“You can’t walk around Rome without being struck by the layers of history,” Jenkins said Tuesday. “To be Catholic, as someone said, is to be Catholic in space – that means you’re connected with people throughout the world – but also in time, a tradition that runs through centuries. I think at a personal and spiritual level, to become more deeply aware of that, is beneficial to us.”

Jenkins, the University Officers and the Board of Trustees arrived in Rome Sunday night and will leave Friday morning. Official Board of Trustees conferences began Tuesday and will culminate today in an academic conference, where Provost Thomas Burish will award two honorary degrees.

Meetings with Vatican leaders – including Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prefect Archbishop William Levada, Pontifical Council for Justice and the Peace president Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino and Congregation for Divine Worship prefect Cardinal Francis Arinze – are dispersed throughout the week.

Those meetings, Jenkins said, are one of Notre Dame’s main reasons for the trip.

“To build relationships [with the Vatican] as we would with people in the government in the U.S., or any organization we interact with – that’s one dimension,” Jenkins said.

But not the only dimension. Jenkins said he views the trip as a spiritual encounter for himself, the Officers and Trustees.

“It is a pilgrimage for us, which means that it’s a journey to a place that has importance for Catholics because it was the place to which St. Peter came to preach the Gospel, and his successor – the successor of St. Peter is the bishop of Rome – is always seen as a relative to unite the Church, to bring it together, to serve the whole Church,” Jenkins said. “I see our trip here as connecting each of us with the mission of the universal Church … [and] we have become conscious of that, we understand our role in the universal Church.”

But Jenkins will not meet privately with the pope during the trip. The reason, both Senior Executive Assistant Father James McDonald and Vice President for Public Affairs and Communication Hilary Crnkovich said, is that Pope Benedict XVI does not feel “comfortable” with addressing private audiences.

Jenkins said while the Pope “understands English very well,” he is “not as comfortable in speaking it” and often uses a translator.

Jenkins met the former Cardinal Ratzsinger during a 2001 trip with then-University President Father Edward Malloy.

“It was interesting,” Jenkins said. “He is a somewhat quiet person. He doesn’t come on strong. He is very thoughtful in his responses … He’s very interested in universities and very interested in Notre Dame and its work.”

Jenkins said he hoped Notre Dame would work together with the Vatican during his presidency on what he described as “a common mission.”

There’s a “sense of mutual understanding,” he said, that allows collaboration on complex, challenging issues.

“And a university, [with] its intellectual resources, its inquiry, its research – it has to be at the center of confronting those questions and giving good answers to them,” Jenkins said. “So I think those in the curia see that we need to work together so the Church can be enriched by Notre Dame’s work and Notre Dame can be enriched by its connection to the universal Church.”

That connection, Jenkins said, is rooted in the Church’s physical history – history that can be discovered in Rome.

“The Catholic Church has its origins in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that meant. To be Catholic is to be connected with that,” Jenkins said. “In the Catholic Church, that connection is made in particular … through what’s called the visible Church, that succession of bishops that trace their origin back to St. Peter and the apostles, through the offices of the Church.”

While he stressed the physical presence of the Church in Rome, Jenkins did not undermine the importance of the intangible aspect of Catholicism, “because what really unites us is the faith each of us have, and have together.”

The title of today’s academic conference, “Contribution of Catholic Universities to the Church and Culture,” seems to resemble the topic of Jenkins’ series of addresses last week – academic freedom and Notre Dame’s Catholic character.

But Jenkins said the trip to Rome was planned more than a year ago and called any correlation between his addresses last week and today’s discussion purely coincidental.

“The reason I gave that address at that time was simply because certain performances were coming up, we had discussions behind the scenes, and I felt it was an appropriate time to bring those discussions into the open and in fact [into] the whole community to participate,” Jenkins said. “It made sense to do that at the start of the semester, but there was no calculation [related to Rome].”

Jenkins said while he would discuss academic freedom broadly with the Vatican officials he meets, he would not focus on the details of Notre Dame’s situation or the campus controversy surrounding the Queer Film Festival and “The Vagina Monologues.”

“I don’t expect those [specific issues] to come up, but certainly to talk about our mission,” he said. “We see our mission connected to the Church, and so obviously it makes sense to discuss that and to help them understand what we’re doing, help us connect with that broader mission.”

Jenkins has studied Pope John Paul II’s writings on issues of academic freedom, specifically the 1998 Ex Corde Ecclesiae document on Catholic universities.

“I think that has to be a part of reflection on who we are,” Jenkins said. “It’s a constant item of reflection for us. What does it mean to be a Catholic university in the 21st century? All of our reflection on that must be informed by all richnesses of this tradition that goes back two millennia, part of which is what John Paul wrote, but also what other people said. I think [from] the extent of this whole tradition, our reflection will be better, and we’ll be a better University.”