WASHINGTON, D.C. – When Notre Dames president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., first met Pope Benedict XVI two years ago, it was a friendly but brief greeting at the Vatican following a public papal address.
The two men did not personally meet here on Thursday (April 17), but there was far more dialogue this time as the pope provided words of encouragement, appreciation and guidance to Father Jenkins and more than 300 other Catholic education leaders on the campus of The Catholic University of America.
It was a warm and gracious address that emphasized the value of Catholic education,Father Jenkins said.It was a very positive experience. There was an expression of gratitude and appreciation for everyone in the room involved in Catholic education. He spoke of education as being central to the life of the Church, and, of course, that is what Notre Dame is all about. It was a great affirmation of our central mission.
The pope was interrupted by applause on several occasions and at the end there was a very buoyant feeling about the talk and about our work. What may not have been obvious on TV was the warmth of the pope. He had a smile on his face and seemed to be enjoying himself. When he expressed gratitude, there was a genuineness to it.
Benedict reaffirmed thegreat value of academic freedomwhile also saying thatany appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the universitys identity and mission.
Father Jenkins said he appreciated the pope, himself a former university professor, drawing the distinction betweenproviding a forum where various views can be expressed and promoting views.
Father Jenkins said that rather than focus on specifics, Benedict spoke at a higher level about the importance of truth and the dangers of moral relativism in our society.
The talk was about the harmony of faith and reason and how faith that leads to truth can even reinforce a commitment to reason and its pursuit of truth,Father Jenkins said.He spoke at that kind of high level.
He seemed to be worried about the challenges in society: of secularization; of putting religious belief on the margins; of a moral relativism that denies any objective reality. Those seemed to be the deep worries he has, and it is the deep role of Catholic institutions to be a beacon to proclaim the truth and the objectivity to moral claims. That was the thrust of his speech, and its our role to uphold those at Catholic institutions.
Father Jenkins added:To have someone as pope who is such a serious intellectual – a serious theologian – theres no doubt that he appreciates the life of the mind and appreciates the importance of what universities contribute to the world and to the Church.
While there are obvious differences in his two up-close interactions with Pope Benedict XVI, Father Jenkins said he had the same impression of the pontiff on both occasions.
The depth of his conviction about the importance of Catholic higher education is apparent,Father Jenkins said.His emotional conviction today was striking, and it was similar when he shook my hand in Rome and called Notre Dame a great Catholic university.I could feel the same conviction, just in different ways.
The Holy Father concluded his stay in the nations capital on Thursday and will spend the final three days of his first trip to the United States in New York City.