Fr. John I. Jenkins Inaugural Address

Author: Fr. John I. Jenkins



This college will be one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country.

So wrote Edward Sorin to his religious superior Fr. Basile Moreau in France, just nine days after arriving at the snow-covered site that would become Notre Dame.

For 163 years, it has fallen to the men and women of Notre Dame to fulfill this commitment.Today, we renew it, and we expand it.

Its a great honor to be named the 17th President of the University of Notre Dame. It is an awesome responsibility. Notre Dame has been blessed with brilliant leaders from its beginning. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to match the vision, the wisdom, and the perseverance of the pioneers and scholars who have held this post in the past. I accept this honor and its obligations with humility. I thank you for your trust. I ask for your help. And I will count on your prayers.

We are privileged to have my two immediate predecessors here today, Fr. Hesburgh and Fr. Malloy, whose combined leadership of the University stretches back more than half a century.

Fr. Hesburgh did more than any other President to make Notre Dame a highly-regarded institution. He also became a moral voice for the country and the world – in fighting hunger and starvation, slowing the spread of nuclear weapons, promoting world peace, and becoming a champion of racial equality. If ever knowledge and faith, wisdom and reason, met their fusion in one man, it is in this man, Fr. Hesburgh. Thank you, Fr. Ted.

One other point to note about Fr. Ted: Years ago, with a legendary eye for talent, he offered Professor Joseph Ratzinger a position in our theology department. Unfortunately, Professor Ratzinger turned down his offer. There’s just no telling what he might have made of himself if he had come to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s identity as a leading research university emerged under Fr. Hesburgh; it was brought to full flower under Fr. Malloy. In his inaugural address 18 years ago, Fr. Malloy said, “We must enthusiastically embrace our potential as a major research institution, and we must define those areas of scholarly pursuit where we at Notre Dame are especially well suited to make a lasting contribution.” Fr. Malloy set himself a difficult mission, and he accomplished it. We have today an endowment of nearly $4 billion. Several of our departments and programs are among the best in the nation – including both theology and nuclear physics. We are among the top 20 universities in the nation, and moving up. Notre Dames rising standing in the world today is a testament to the vision and determination of Fr. Malloy. Thank you, Monk.

There is one more acknowledgement I must make this afternoon. I am here today because of the lifelong support of my family – my father, who passed away a year ago; my sisters and my brothers; and my mother, who is here in the hall and somehow managed to get a very good seat for today’s event.

As I accept responsibility as head of the Notre Dame family, I look to my mother for inspiration. She raised 12 children…. As you may have guessed, she’s Catholic.… Twelve is a nice biblical number. I remember the day we all visited the Grand Canyon, and then drove to a park for lunch. Mom was handing out the sandwiches when a look of horror came across her face. She had one sandwich too many. She was no mathematician, but she knew that if she had one sandwich too many …she had one child too few.

In contrast to the good shepherd who would leave all her sheep to go off in search of the one, Mom herded us all into the car and Dad stomped on the gas. We found Rick safe and sound. But after Mom declared that your brother was lost and now is found, we were disappointed not to get the fatted calf.

My mother has always shown a supernatural talent for making 12 people all feel important and loved to the same degree at the same time. If ever I display any of that talent in the future, as I hope I do, you can be sure it did not originate with me.


Notre Dame is a distinctively Catholic university that strives to be among the pre-eminent universities in the world.

What is the role of a Catholic university? Pope John Paul II wrote that our proper activity is (and I quote): Learning to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better.

The duty is timeless, yet its challenge is new in each age, and particularly pressing in this age. The struggle to be a great Catholic university in a world that has become both increasingly secular and more radically religious has placed Notre Dame in a unique position at the heart of the most complex issues facing our society. We have not just an opportunity, but a duty to think and speak and act in ways that will guide, inspire, and heal – not just for followers of the Catholic faith, but for all our neighbors in the nation and the world.

The world needs a great university that can address issues of faith with reverence and respect while still subjecting religion to intellectually rigorous, critical discussion.

The world needs a university that not only contributes to scientific breakthroughs, but can address the ethical implications of scientific advances by drawing on an ancient moral and spiritual tradition.

The world needs a university – grounded in a commitment to love one’s neighbor – to debate how we in prosperous societies will respond to the grinding and dehumanizing poverty in which so much of the world lives.

The world needs a university that graduates men and women who are not only capable and knowledgeable, but who accept their responsibility to serve others – especially those in greatest need.

The Catholic Church needs a university whose scholars can help pass on its intellectual tradition, even as they address the challenges and the opportunities the Church faces in this century.

There are certainly many other truly great universities in this country. Many of them began as religious, faith-inspired institutions, but nearly all have left that founding character behind. One finds among them a disconnect between the academic enterprise and an over-arching religious and moral framework that orients academic activity and defines a good human life.

My presidency will be driven by a whole-hearted commitment to uniting and integrating these two indispensable and wholly compatible strands of higher learning: academic excellence and religious faith.

Building on our tradition as a Catholic university, and determined to be counted among the preeminent universities in this country, Notre Dame will provide an alternative for the 21st century – a place of higher learning that plays host to world-changing teaching and research, but where technical knowledge does not outrun moral wisdom, where the goal of education is to help students live a good human life, where our restless quest to understand the world not only lives in harmony with faith but is strengthened by it.

We seek worldly knowledge, confident that the world exhibits coherence that reflects a Creator. We will train the intellects of our students, cultivate their faith and instill the virtues necessary for living a good life. We will strive to build a community generous to those in need and responsive to the demands of justice – strengthened by grace and guided by the command to love God and neighbor.

This is no easy mission. But its difficulty is not our concern; we did not create the mission, and we cannot change it. The word mission derives from the Latin root missus – which means sent. We have been sent- to seek God, study the world, and serve humanity.

If we are clear in our purpose, we will excel in our ideals.

This will be my priority and my passion as President of Notre Dame.


A Catholic university has a distinctive identity today. But in the beginning, all universities were Catholic universities. The first university was founded in Bologna, Italy, in 1088, as a place for Church officials to study canon law. After that came the University of Paris, developed out of the school at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Next was Oxford, which grew up out of the remains of an Augustinian monastery.

These universities were, as Pope John Paul II later described them: ex corde ecclesiae – from the heart of the church. Their emergence was stimulated by deep principles in the Catholic tradition. These Catholic principles that inspired the founding of universities still define Notre Dames character and describe her mission today. One could name many, but I will highlight just three.

The first principle: Knowledge is good in itself and should be pursued for its own sake.

All men by nature desire to know, Aristotle wrote. St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, and strengthened the point by his interpretation of the book of Genesis. We are made in God’s image and likeness, in that we have an intellect, by which we know and understand; and a will, by which we choose. The pursuit of knowledge is not only part of a good human; it is the human activity in which we are most like God. Seeking knowledge is, therefore, good in itself.

Moreover, the Catholic tradition insists on the unity of all knowledge. Truth is one. Knowledge in every branch of inquiry is intrinsically valuable, and scholars in diverse disciplines pursue the same truth. Truths found in physics and biology do relate to those found in art, literature, and philosophy, and our common pursuit of truth must include conversations across disciplines. The Catholic tradition resists the fragmentation of knowledge; it insists on the essential unity of a university.

This is the Catholic vision, but not exclusively so. Scholars throughout history have affirmed by their lives that knowledge is valuable for its own sake, and their commitment to a common, respectful conversation has revealed a belief that truth is one.

The second principle: There is a deep harmony between faith and reason.

Our faith inspires our use of reason, and our reason sharpens our understanding of faith. Together, they both serve in the search for truth.

We cannot legitimately claim to be a Catholic university if we do not affirm the central truths of divine revelation from Scripture and tradition. As Augustine put it, “We see by the radiance of a light that’s not our own.”

Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that revealed truths provide us with a synthetic understanding of the world. For this reason, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, said there is no Catholic philosophy – no philosophy the Church canonizes as its own. Similarly, there is no Catholic biology, or psychology, or political science.

A Catholic university rejects a faith that trumps all claims of reason, and rejects a rationalism that pre-empts all claims of faith. Instead, a Catholic university is a place where scholarly inquiry based on reason engages a theological tradition grounded in revelation. Such a conversation between reason and revelation may challenge some assertions of reasoned inquiry, but it just as well challenge a complacent and false understanding of faith. The presence of such a conversation enriches the university, and advances the search for truth.

The third principle: The role of community and the call to service is central to Christian life.

As Paul reminded the Corinthians in his first epistle, “You are the body of Christ. . . . If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” In a Catholic university, members are knitted together in an intellectual community, and also, more broadly, in a human community providing support and sustenance to each member.

Yet a university community cannot be genuinely Catholic if it seeks to serve only itself. Catholic social teaching insists that we embrace the whole human family, especially those in greatest need. Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.” (Mt. 20:26) A Catholic university must be committed to service – and to form its students in the desire for service – so that it can bring the fruits of faith and knowledge to a world beyond its borders.


At Notre Dame, we have much to be proud of in our embrace of these principles, but complacency has never characterized this university, and it must not now.

During my presidency, we will give fresh emphasis to the distinctive strengths of Notre Dame, and we will build on these strengths as we move toward a pre-eminent position among the worlds universities.

We are rightly proud of our undergraduate program, a program that educates the whole person – intellectual, spiritual, and moral. This is the hallmark of a Notre Dame education. Generations of Notre Dame students have enjoyed here the most profound experience of community they will ever know. Yet given the quality of our students and faculty, the intellectual engagement and achievement of our undergraduates can be still better.

Currently one in 10 of our students participate in a significant research effort. In coming years that number must double, and double again. We must review our curricula to ensure that they lead students to become fellow inquirers with the faculty. Students should stand at the edge of what is known and push forward into the unknown – forming their own views, testing their own theories, and standing their ground in open debate.

We must send forth graduates who will be intellectual and moral leaders for our time. This means that the lively intellectual exchange in our classrooms must not be confined to the classrooms. The conversations that begin there must be carried on in the dormitories, the dining halls, on the quads, and on long walks around the lakes. The life of the mind must not be an isolated part of the student experience at Notre Dame; it must pervade all of it.

We must continue to advance in research and become a more significant leader in expanding knowledge and understanding. No department should be in the bottom tier of its rankings; and the number of top tier departments must increase; and in some programs and departments, we must be the best in the world.

Our research must not be separate from our Catholic mission, but must draw strength from it and contribute to it. In areas where we have attained excellence, there is often a connection with that mission. Every department, college, and institute must, wherever possible, find dimensions of their research agenda that reflect our Catholic character and values.

At a time when a national debate on the relationship between science and religion has emerged, when were pressed for an answer to poverty and hopelessness in so many lands, when our environment is threatened, and technology is changing our lives in complex ways, Notre Dame must be the university that combines the highest level of disciplinary expertise with the resources of its moral and religious tradition. We step onto controversial ground here. Yet if we at Notre Dame do not address these issues, whose voice will fill the void? We must take on the social, moral, and economic issues where we can make a distinctive contribution.

We must enhance racial, ethnic, gender, socio-economic, and geographical diversity on this campus. We have at Notre Dame a profound rationale for embracing diversity: we believe that every human being possesses the dignity of being made in God’s image, and every culture reflects Gods grandeur. As we strive to make Notre Dame more diverse, we must remember that the mere gathering of a diverse group has no value unless the group is a community in which the gifts of each individual enrich the lives of every individual.

We must also recognize and affirm the value of religious diversity at Notre Dame. Within our community are Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and those of other religious traditions and no religious tradition. As we affirm the Catholic identity of Notre Dame, we acknowledge and embrace the many non-Catholics who are deeply committed to this university and its principles, and who labor so hard on its behalf. If we were exclusively Catholic, we would be less catholic – less broad, less universal, with fewer opportunities to enrich our dialogue and test our ideas with those who share many of our values, but not all of our views.

Notre Dame is different. Combining religious faith and academic excellence is not widely emulated or even admired among the opinion-makers in higher education. Yet, in this age especially, we at Notre Dame must have the courage to be who we are. If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world?

As we stand at the start of the 21st century, there are no footprints ahead to show us the way.Yet our difference is not a detriment. It is an asset that will make our contribution more distinctive, more exemplary, more valuable. We welcome the challenge.


Since its founding, Notre Dame has thrived on challenge. The Congregation of Holy Cross was originally established under the name The Brothers of St. Joseph, by a fearless priest named Jacques Dujarie – who would say Mass during the French Revolution in the cellar of a farmhouse while neighbors stood guard, watching for police.

In 1835, the leadership of the order passed to Fr. Moreau, who named it the Congregation of Holy Cross. One of its first members was a 26-year-old named Edward Sorin.

Father Sorin was a vibrant and dynamic man who longed to face hardship for the service of souls. When he was 27, he was chosen to lead a group of six religious brothers on a mission to Indiana, on the American frontier.

Fr. Sorin and his companions traveled for two months to reach the town of Vincennes, in southern Indiana. They asked the bishop there for permission to build a college. The bishop refused. Fr. Sorin persisted. And they struck a deal. The bishop agreed to loan Fr. Sorin a piece of property that the Church owned 250 miles to the north, in a remote part of the state. (Some say it is still rather remote.) If Fr. Sorin and his brothers could build a college in two years time, the Congregation of Holy Cross would receive title to the land. Otherwise, they would lose the land and lose their dream.

So, in late 1842, Fr. Sorin and his company arrived in the woods of Northern Indiana with 300 dollars, and 24 months to build Notre Dame.

Immediately they began clearing the land and making bricks for the schoolhouse. That spring, the first building was completed, and that fall, the first students arrived. Fr. Sorin met the test. He received a university charter from the state and the land from the Church.

That was not perhaps the greatest challenge to face Notre Dame. There were others. On the morning of April 23, 1879, the worst fire ever to strike the campus broke out on the roof of the east wing of the main building and burned it to the ground. In those days, the main building contained classrooms, dorm rooms, the dining hall, the library, the laboratory, museum, and administrative offices. It really was the whole college plant.

It seemed to some that Notre Dame was finished.

The story of what happened next has been passed down through the generations of the Notre Dame family – and has helped shape our aspirations and our sense of who we are. Fr. Sorin walked through the ruins, felt the devastation of the community, and signaled to everyone to enter the Church, where he stood on the altar steps and spoke.

“I came here as a young man and dreamed of building a great university in honor of Our Lady,” he said. But I built it too small, and she had to burn it to the ground to make the point. So, tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever . Later that same day, the students saw Father Sorin, then 65 years old, stepping slowly through the ruins of his life’s work, bent slightly forward, pushing a wheelbarrow full of bricks, getting ready to rebuild.

Three hundred laborers worked 16 hours a day to rebuild the main building in time for classes that fall. They rebuilt it from the ground up, and when they got to the top, and came to the place where the dome had been, they built one taller and wider than the one before, and this time – for the first time – they covered it with gold.

With respect and gratitude for all who embraced Notre Dame’s mission in earlier times, let us rise up and embrace the mission for our time: to build a Notre Dame that is bigger and better than ever – a great Catholic university for the 21st century, one of the pre-eminent research institutions in the world, a center for learning whose intellectual and religious traditions converge to make it a healing, unifying, enlightening force for a world deeply in need. This is our goal. Let no one ever again say that we dreamed too small.

Thank you.