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Founder’s Day Mass remembers Fr. Zahm, discusses tradition

| Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The University celebrated its founders Tuesday evening with Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Maggie Eastland | The Observer
Students and members of the Notre Dame community filtered into the Basilica as bells tolled in announcement of the 5:15 p.m. mass.

University President Fr. John Jenkins presided over the Mass and gave the homily, accompanied by a framed image of Fr. Edward Sorin, the French-born priest who founded Notre Dame in 1842.

“We learn who we are as the Notre Dame community by looking at those who went before us,” Jenkins said.

Founder’s Day activities will continue Wednesday with a series of lectures focusing on Fr. John Zahm, a Notre Dame alumnus and professor who sought to show that Catholicism was compatible with the scientific theory of evolution.

The University typically celebrates Founder’s Day on the Feast of St. Edward, Fr. Sorin’s namesake. The Feast of St. Edward falls on Wednesday this year, so Jenkins and those who attended the opening Founder’s Mass began the festivities a day earlier than usual.

Jenkins recognized Fr. Zahm’s achievements during the homily, and Sister Damien Marie Savino, dean of science and sustainability at Aquinas College, offered a keynote speech later Tuesday evening, speaking about the relationship between science and faith in light of Fr. Zahm’s work and more recent church doctrine.

Jenkins described Fr. Zahm as “undaunted by taking on the most challenging question of the day,” and said he believes Notre Dame’s scholars continue to display the same courage and pursuit of truth.

In his homily, Jenkins also shared the story of the four Holy Cross sisters who joined Sorin in 1843, the year after he founded the University, enduring a difficult voyage from France to North America and the trying first years of Notre Dame.

Jenkins called the women, one of whom was only 19 years old, “integral to founding the University.”

“Notre Dame could not have survived without them,” he added.

Jenkins also addressed “presentism,” or the tendency to critically interpret past events in terms of modern ideas and values. He said “presentism” is a threat to tradition and the University should honor its founders while acknowledging their mistakes.

“We recognize the limitations and mistakes of those who have gone before us, and we should not hesitate to acknowledge them, but we also learn about virtue and action [through past leaders],” he said.

The University’s founding values continue to permeate Notre Dame today, especially during the trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jenkins said. 

“I believe that courage and confidence is present in our scholars today,” Jenkins said. “Perseverance was present in 1879 when the Great Fire happened. We know it was present also in the COVID years of 2020 and 2021.”

Jenkins also said honoring the University’s founders is part of Notre Dame’s Catholic character and adherence to tradition.

“In the Catholic Church, the good news of salvation and the Gospel of Jesus is intrinsic not only through scripture but also through the lived reality of the Christian community,” Jenkins said.

Students, faculty and members of the Notre Dame community can discover their full calling and sense of identity by studying founders like Fr. Zahm and the four Holy Cross sisters, he said.

“We learn who we are as we look to the lives of those who have gone before us,” Jenkins said. “We should strive to present the same courage and confidence and dedication and perseverance that they showed.”

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