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Notre Dame ties to Vatican strengthened

Maddie Hanna | Friday, February 3, 2006

ROME – Like millions of people around the world every year, University President Father John Jenkins and the Board of Trustees climbed the marble steps to St. Peter’s Basilica this week.

Steps into a gorgeous and almost mystical religious experience – and toward a more deeply cemented relationship with the Vatican.

St. Peter’s, with its white and beige grandeur, delicate yet strong cupola and immense bronze and gold sculptures, dwarfs Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart a thousand-fold.

But the relationship between Notre Dame and the Vatican is less lopsided.

The event marks Jenkins’ first big trip as University President and a new era in Notre Dame-Vatican relations.

But the relationship between the University and the Vatican doesn’t only go one way. It’s also essential for Notre Dame to show the Church what it has to offer, Campus Ministry Director Father Richard Warner said Wednesday.

“It’s important for us to be familiar with the Church and for them to know us … it’s mutual respect,” Warner said.

Trips like this, he said, help the Vatican “to see Notre Dame as the treasure it is for the Church.”

While the connection between Notre Dame and the Vatican has been strong and stable for a long time, Warner said there are two periods in modern time that define the relationship between Notre Dame and the Vatican – University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh’s personal relationship, and University President Emeritus Father Edward Malloy’s institutional relationship.

The Hesburgh years

It was a personal relationship that largely set the tone for the University’s interaction with the Vatican during the last few decades.

In 1960, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini joined President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Notre Dame’s commencement ceremonies to receive an honorary degree from the University – and also happened to meet a lifelong confidante.

“We spent three or four days just touring the campus and we became very good friends,” Hesburgh said Tuesday about the man who in June 1963 would be elected Pope Paul VI. “In future years, every time I went to Rome he asked me to lunch or dinner with him, and he asked me about Catholic higher education, which he was very interested in.”

A few years later, Paul VI’s interest in universities and his trust for Hesburgh led the pope to ask the Notre Dame president for an important favor. The pope decided it was time to revitalize the International Federation of Catholic Universities – an organization Hesburgh called “the only official representation of all of the Catholic universities in the world [to] the Church” – and knew just the man to do it.

“Universities were not very visible at that time, because they were really not heard very much in the Vatican,” Hesburgh said.

But Paul VI believed they should have a voice, and instructed Hesburgh and the Federation to rewrite the organization’s constitution to make universities more independent.

“[Rewriting the constitution] gave us much more freedom of action,” Hesburgh said. “It was Notre Dame that helped get [the Federation] brought back to life when it was rather dead … [and] from that time on we’ve had a very helpful and fruitful relationship with the Vatican through that organization.”

The Malloy years

Warner visited the Vatican with Malloy once a year for 15 years. They met with the late Pope John Paul II every other year.

While Paul VI often invited Hesburgh to spend weekends with him, “there was a need seen to also [have] an institutional relationship,” Warner said.

Establishing one involved four specific tasks, Warner said – paying regular visits to the Vatican, familiarizing Vatican offices with Notre Dame, awarding one honorary degree a year to a member of the Vatican and introducing the degree recipient to Notre Dame students and faculty during Commencement Weekend.

It’s very important for Vatican officials “to get exposed to who we are in a day-to-day world,” Warner said.

Malloy also dealt with John Paul II on matters of higher education. He was one of three U.S. educators to serve on a 15-member commission to help revise the papal Apostolic Constitution, a draft document released by the World Congress on Catholic higher education in November 1989.

He described several of his experiences with John Paul II to The Observer in March 2005.

“I’ve been with him in his chapel in the Vatican a couple of times, and that’s a very moving experience,” Malloy said. “He’s clearly a man of deep prayer.”

Malloy also visited the church where John Paul II was baptized and the late pope’s home.

During one of their visits to the Vatican, Malloy and Warner met the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who they invited to speak at Notre Dame and receive an honorary degree.

While Ratzinger declined the invitation, it meant nothing negative about the current pope’s regard of Notre Dame.

“He was knowledgeable about the University of Notre Dame and committed to the Catholic Church’s mission of higher education,” Warner told The Observer in April 2005, calling the pope a “truly holy man” and a “man of deep faith.”

The Jenkins years

It’s a little early to say if the relationship between the world’s most prominent Catholic university and the center of the Church will take a different turn under Jenkins.

But judging by this week’s trip and administrative statements – including Jenkins’ own – it appears the ties can only grow stronger.

“We’re part of a common mission,” Jenkins told The Observer Tuesday.

He referred to “a sense of mutual understanding” and “a common purpose,” explaining that the Church must be aware of Notre Dame’s importance in confronting the complex issues of the time.

“I believe as we face the challenges of the 21st century, a Catholic university like Notre Dame is absolutely critical,” Jenkins said. “I think those in the curia kind of see that, and 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.”

Francis Rooney III, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See who received an honorary degree from Notre Dame Wednesday, said that as the premiere Catholic institution in the United States, Notre Dame has an important leadership role to play.

“Notre Dame is creating the next generation of leaders in the Church,” Rooney told The Observer Wednesday.

To give an example of Notre Dame’s role, he referred to director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies R. Scott Appleby’s presence at a recent one-day seminar held by the U.S. Mission to the Holy See on the recent papal encyclical on religious freedom, “Dignitatis Humanae.”

“Scott was fantastic,” Rooney said. “He represented Notre Dame well and the Church well … We love to engage Notre Dame in every possible opportunity.”

Hesburgh also mentioned Notre Dame’s prominence and said that unique role makes the relationship between Notre Dame and the Vatican so important.

“If you look at the Naval Academy, or West Point, or the Air Force Academy, it’s important that they have a relationship with the U.S. government because they’re training officers for all three services,” Hesburgh said. “And we are training and educating some of the most intelligent Catholics in America, and I’m assuming our graduates will have an impact on the future of the most powerful nation on earth.

“So it’s a good relationship and I’m sure this meeting in Rome will benefit it.”