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Rome trip brings clarity

Observer Editorial Board | Friday, February 3, 2006

It was a lasting image, one that will endure throughout University President Father John Jenkins’ tenure at the helm of Notre Dame. Hands clasped with Pope Benedict XVI in front of the Vatican auditorium Wednesday, surrounded by the historic backdrop of Rome, Jenkins accepted a welcome compliment from the Holy Father on behalf of the University community.

“A great Catholic university,” the pope called Notre Dame.

Coming at what many inside and outside the University have called a critical juncture for Notre Dame’s identity – Jenkins’ impending decision on the balance between academic freedom and Catholic character – the 30-second encounter between the first-year pope and first-year president was not merely symbolic. It was a reminder, amidst exaggerated rhetoric to the contrary, that the University’s core Catholicism is nowhere near at risk.

Since 2001, Notre Dame entertained the idea of arranging for its Board of Trustees to hold one of its triannual meetings in Rome. With both the Vatican and University administrations changing hands within the past year, this winter was Notre Dame’s choice – and, intentional or not, the trip’s timing on the heels of Jenkins’ addresses revealed plenty about where the University stands.

Arguments can be made that Notre Dame’s Catholic character is evolving, for better or for worse. But it is not eroding, and those who claim it is should instead take the pope at his word.

Notre Dame’s institutional link with the Vatican – nurtured over the decades by personal and professional relationships between presidents, popes and those close to both – dates to the University’s founding in 1842. That link informs the University’s present goals, as Jenkins reaffirmed when he said Notre Dame and the Church share “a common purpose” and “a common mission” as both advance in the 21st century. And while trustees flooding St. Peter’s Square and Jenkins kissing Benedict’s ring aren’t necessary steps to maintain that relationship, such gestures certainly enrich and renew it.

Staying on the Vatican’s radar as the premiere Catholic university in the world is important to Notre Dame, and the trustees’ and officers’ pilgrimage this week helped accomplish that goal.

Now, Jenkins and his circle return to campus, spiritually enriched and likely with a renewed sense of purpose. Their pilgrimage wasn’t cheap. But the moments of clarity it brought will be invaluable to the ongoing debate about the destiny of Notre Dame.