SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In just one year of his pontificate, Pope Francis has managed to inspire and invigorate the Church and those who meet him with renewed energy and joy for the Church’s Gospel mandate.
And a Jan. 30 meeting with Pope Francis seems to have left a strong impression on the trustees at the University of Notre Dame, the United States’ flagship Catholic university, which faces cultural and governmental challenges to its Catholic identity.
Notre Dame is suing the federal government over the federal mandate that requires all employers to provide their employees with health plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if it violates their religious beliefs. The university’s lawyers are back in court to renew Notre Dame’s bid for the injunction they were denied in December.
Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, shared with the Register how meeting with Pope Francis and hearing his special message for Our Lady’s university both inspired and encouraged members of the university’s delegation in their mission, but also challenged them to a deeper commitment to the missionary discipleship that Pope Francis has called the Church to embrace in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
Father Jenkins, what was it like to encounter Pope Francis in that personal meeting with Notre Dame’s delegation? What was that experience like?
Well, it was a truly memorable moment. It certainly is one that I will remember the rest of my life, and I’m sure that’s true of everyone in our party. I had a chance to meet Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and any time you meet the Holy Father it is a truly memorable and inspiring experience.
What most impressed you about Pope Francis in the way he treated you all?
The Clementine Hall where we met is a very beautiful, very regal, awe-inspiring place, and in that context, his warmth, his smile, his disarming friendliness had a particular power to draw you in and engage him. He did not speak English. I don’t understand much Italian, but the communication was very powerful: just through his facial expressions, his warmth, his ease. That’s what made the greatest impression on me.
Any funny stories from meeting him that you can share with us?
At one point — and this reflects the Pope’s humor — I went to the wrong chair. Cardinal [Donald] Wuerl [of Washington] was with us. I was directed to sit down for a picture, and I went to Cardinal Wuerl’s chair accidentally. I didn’t know that, and as expected, red-faced, I went to the place I was supposed to sit. But the Holy Father said in Italian, with a smile on his face, “Oh, you’re very ambitious!” That banter and easy humor does put you at ease and makes for a very human encounter.
What most inspired you in what Pope Francis said to the delegation?
He said very complimentary things, which I deeply appreciated, but I took it as simply [encouragement] to continue our work in a way that he phrased as “missionary discipleship,” which is also from his recent apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” He said just to continue that in that kind of determined but cheerful way that communicates the message of the Gospel to the world in a way appropriate to the university.
What does Pope Francis mean when he talks about “missionary discipleship” ?
To live in a way and to act in a way that witnesses to the message of the Gospel. I know that’s very general, but that’s what I think it is: to invite people into the joy of the Gospel by the way we live and the way we act.
Obviously, we are a university, so we act as a university. We have this week, Feb. 12-14, a very interesting symposium on pastoral issues, science and human dignity. We have for that [speakers] Cardinal [Marc] Ouellet, the prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, as well as Cardinal Wuerl, to talk about this issue of science and faith and their claimed conflict, to dispel that mistaken understanding. I think that is a way where we can kind of address those issues and show the harmony of faith and reason.
Again, it’s a way we can invite people into the joy of the Gospel and overcome intellectual issues there. That’s one way we can do it, and as a university, there’s probably many, many ways we can do it.
What are your thoughts on the way Pope Francis has stressed not only the need for dialogue but also to truly encounter other people — not to look at them as abstractions — but discovering the good things we have in common and making that the common ground for further dialogue?
I think that’s true about what he says, and it resonates with the kind of person he is. He’s a very personal, very warm, very welcoming person. In a way, his very way of being accords with what he says in writing. I think if we can listen to that, if we can hear that, then we can be more effective evangelizers, because people want to be welcomed; they want to be encountered. God is guiding them to faith, so if we can kind of follow the Pope in that joyfulness I think that will be one of the most powerful evangelical tools.
Pope Francis said in his message, “It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.” What is your reflection here?
The threats to dilute our witness are manifold. Obviously, there is the current issue of the HHS mandate for contraceptive coverage that we’re fighting diligently in the courts; that’s part of it. But it’s also the kind of general secular culture that makes religious faith perhaps marginal, perhaps makes it less acceptable in some quarters, and the kind of intellectual attacks on our religious faith. That’s all part of it, and that’s the context where I think he was saying, “Just live your mission.” I think he was just encouraging us to continue, not only what we’re already doing, but to renew our efforts in the face of these manifold challenges, so that we can be missionary disciples.
Do you think there’s more opportunity here for professors to dialogue with Notre Dame about what the Church teaches and why? I’d like to get your thoughts on this, since, a week before this meeting, a Notre Dame professor openly suggested in a New York Times op-ed the Pope should change his teaching on abortion. Then, of course, in your meeting, the Pope encouraged Notre Dame to continue to offer unambiguous testimony to its Catholic identity.
Well, let’s first put this in perspective: That was one professor. We have almost 1,000 faculty. That was one who wrote an article. And any professor at any university has a right to say what he thinks — but he wasn’t speaking for Notre Dame. I do find it unreasonable for some to suggest that this particular professor had the attention of the Pope. That just gives him far too much prestige, far too much than he deserves. But it is important that the university, not every individual — I can’t control what every individual says, thinks or does — but that the university is clear. That’s what we’ve done, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.
How do Pope Francis’ words affect Notre Dame’s resolve to fight the HHS mandate? What are your thoughts on the present situation as you continue toward the future?
We challenged this mandate in court, and it’s working its way through the legal process. We have a hearing Wednesday about an injunction. I have to check, but as far as I know, we were the only case denied an injunction for whatever reason — I don’t quite understand the judicial reasoning — but we’ll continue to fight that.
As far as continuing, I take what the Pope said as not that we need to be doing something different, but that we all need to be renewed in our faith and our commitment, and we’ll do that.
The university had originally filed its legal challenge to the HHS mandate in 2012, but the U.S. district court dismissed the lawsuit as premature because of the one-year extension. Why did Notre Dame wait so long to file a second time, on Dec. 3, 2013, one month before it was required to comply with the mandate? The judge seemed to use this as an excuse to deny the second petition. Are you able to shed some light on that?
Yes, I can shed light on it. The regulations were still being developed, even up into November, and the role of our third-party administrator (its obligations under the regulations and relationship to us) was still unclear. And so, until they [the regulations] were clear, we weren’t going to make the decision. When they became clear, we proceeded.
As a final thought, how has this meeting with Pope Francis affected you personally and your ministry leading Notre Dame into the future?
What I take from the Pope’s remarks are those [pastoral] things where he reminded us of our mission, which he should do — that’s something we welcome and need. He affirmed us in saying we’re making an outstanding contribution to the Church in America in the important role we have and urged us to continue and renew our efforts — and to do even better. I think that combination gave us both the satisfaction that we’re doing something well, the challenge that we can do it better and the reminder to make our calling as a Catholic university [primary]. That’s really at the heart of our mission, and we’ll continue doing that. That’s what I take from the visit with the Pope, and that’s what we’ll continue to reflect on and work on.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.