My Love for the Place


Author: Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC

Senior week—those days between the last exam and graduation, when seniors have the run of campus—is an odd time. It is a much anticipated interval of leisure and celebration, but it is shadowed by melancholy. One’s undergraduate days are over, never to return.

One day during my senior week, in 1976, I passed up the day’s organized activity and went for a final, solitary walk around campus. I ended up on a bench on the “God quad,” outside LaFortune. It was a beautiful summer day, and the campus was quiet. As I rested, I asked myself: How had it happened that I had fallen so in love with Notre Dame?

I had not been raised for this. Neither my father nor mother, nor my grandparents, aunt or uncle had attended Notre Dame. I had a Jesuit pedigree. My father graduated from a Jesuit high school, university and medical school; my mother graduated from Creighton Nursing School. They gave me the middle name Ignatius, recognizing the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola. My five brothers and I went to the Jesuit high school from which my father had graduated, and I have always valued and appreciated the education that the Jesuits gave us. We were very much a Catholic family, so we rooted for Notre Dame, but with nowhere near the intensity that we rooted for the Big Red of Nebraska.

As I sat there on the bench, looking at the Dome, at the spires of Sacred Heart and the statue of Jesus, I continued to wonder: How had Notre Dame gotten such a hold on my heart?

It began when my oldest brother, Tom ‘74, decided to transfer to Notre Dame after one year at Creighton University. My dad taught at Creighton’s medical school and could get tuition remission for all 12 of his children if they attended Creighton. It was also a family rule that we kids could go anywhere else we wanted, but we would have to earn half our tuition. Tom spent the first year at Creighton, saved his money and then transferred to Notre Dame.

I followed his lead and transferred there my sophomore year as well. Notre Dame was a very good school, I reasoned; it was Catholic, as was I, and I was very interested in books and ideas —philosophy, theology, literature—and Notre Dame could provide an excellent education. But that was all. As I sat on that bench I realized it had become so much more. Why?

First, there was Father Tom McNally, CSC. I had been put in Flanner Hall when I transferred in and lived with likeable guys with whom I was not particularly close. I wanted to move over to Grace, where my high school friend Dan Hartigan lived. I had come to know the group that made up his circle of friends. I discovered that this was bureaucratically difficult and despaired of being able to move to Grace. But Dan told me to speak to the rector there, Father McNally, which I did. He could not have been warmer and more considerate. As a transfer student, in a new place, intimidated by the bureaucracy, I was touched by his kind, caring help.

It was not solely that incident. In a dorm of 550 men, Father McNally not only knew everyone’s name, but he also remembered what town you were from, where you went to high school, how many brothers and sisters you had. C.S. Lewis titled the story of his conversion to Christianity “Surprised by Joy.” I would title this chapter of my conversion to a love for Notre Dame “Surprised by Kindness.”

Even then I loved ideas and books. I was extremely fortunate to find my way to the philosophy department and end up as a philosophy major. At that time the department held a group of young, iconoclastic faculty members—Mike Loux, David Solomon, Neil Delaney, Karl Ameriks and Gary Gutting—who are now distinguished veteran philosophers. They were first-rate scholars and superb teachers. I particularly remember a small metaphysics seminar during my junior year taught by Gary Gutting. Gary was and is a great dialectician, and in class and in papers he would challenge us to come up with our own arguments for whatever claim we were defending or challenging. It was there I began to understand what philosophy is and to believe I was capable of doing it.

As an undergraduate, I loved my courses and the books to which they introduced me. At the end of summers and Christmas breaks I could not wait to get back to a new set classes. Notre Dame gave that to me.

The life of faith

And then there was the life of faith. To be Catholic is not simply to hold certain beliefs, though it is that. It is to take on, in the famous phrase of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, a “form of life.” It is to speak a certain language—about sin, forgiveness, redemption, grace, charity, the real presence. It is to engage in ritual—Mass, confession, the Easter triduum. It is to appreciate an aesthetic—the stained glass, Mestrovic’s Pieta, the hymns at Mass. You could live this form of life at Notre Dame. In fact, it was hard not to live it.

As a philosophy major, who worried about the reasons we have for what we believe, I on occasion questioned my faith. At those times the Masses, the music, the religious iconography carried me in ways I could not then have articulated. And through my theology classes and conversations with classmates, I learned that theology is a discipline as sophisticated, subtle and difficult as any other.

And there were and are the ubiquitous Masses. At Notre Dame, we celebrate Mass to mark beginnings, such as Freshman Orientation, and to mark endings, such as graduation. We celebrate it in time of tragedy and loss, and at times of joy. Mass can be an expression of protest, as during the Vietnam war when students burned their draft cards at the offertory, and of support, as for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and for U.S. troops abroad. Masses can be celebrated with two or three people sitting cross-legged on a chapel floor, or at the “smells and bells” Mass at Sacred Heart, with everyone dressed to the nines, with the organ playing and the choir singing Bach.

The Mass’s structure is that of Notre Dame: We gather; we are enlightened by God’s word applied to our situation; we offer our gifts, such as they are; we pray the eucharistic prayer, the prayer of thanksgiving; we are fed by God’s presence; and then we go forth to meet life’s challenges, with the charge to “love and serve.” It shapes our lives individually and collectively.

That day in 1976 I also recalled and reflected on the friends and companions of my time at Notre Dame. Mike Pollard was an English major—whom I envied for the beautiful prose he could write —and with whom I discussed literature, philosophy and theology. My friend Grace Murgia, a theology major, was and is a great conversation partner on any topic, intellectual or personal. Betsy Fallon introduced me to Tim Scully, a classmate and now a fellow Holy Cross priest. My section held many pre-meds—Mike Nagel, Frank Cosiano, Jim Talamo, Dan Hartigan—who studied hard and later became successful doctors. Rich Hanpeter, my roommate, was a government major who became an architect. And then there were the many people with whom I shared classes or conversations in the dorm. All of them struck me as remarkably gifted and interesting people They taught me a great deal.

I recalled a student who graduated ahead of me, Al Sondej. Al had a profound sense of the hunger and starvation suffered by the world’s poor, and of our responsibility toward the poor. So he worked in the dining hall and ate the leftovers. Every day for years he stood outside the dining hall at mealtime, collecting change from students to help feed the hungry of the world. He was never judgmental; he never took on an air of moral superiority. He was always jovial and grateful for the quarters you might drop in his jug. I did not know him personally and only exchanged a few words with him. But seeing him every day taught me what it was to have a vocation and not simply a career.

There were, of course, the football games, the national championship of 1973, the basketball team breaking UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, and Rudy Ruettiger. And there were the parties, Senior Bar, Nickie’s, Corby’s and the Library. Although I was not a leader among my classmates in attendance at social events, these gatherings for a party or a football game meant more because we shared so much more at many other levels.

And there were the places on campus. The Grotto, Sacred Heart Basilica, the lakes, the quads, the walk down Notre Dame Avenue or toward Saint Mary’s past the Holy Cross cemetery. For me there was a particular carrel on the fourth floor of the library where I spent hours and hours studying. These places were special because of what went on there. They were places for prayer, for reflection, for gathering, for thinking and study. And each of those activities changed me.

It was all this that captured my heart. There was not a significant part of my life—intellectual, spiritual, moral, social—that Notre Dame did not touch and transform in some way. My time there changed and elevated me.

An awesome responsibility

Now I sit on the same bench nearly 30 years later with the awesome responsibility of serving as president of this institution. And I feel today like the husband for whom the initial intensity of falling in love with his partner has long worn off but who realizes that he loves her much more than he ever did. Those traits with which I first fell in love persist today—the pastoral care of students; a lively engagement of the intellect; the pursuit of knowledge and truth; an abiding faith life and vital Catholicism; a strong sense of place, of community, friendship and service. These elements that I knew well as an undergraduate remain the hallmarks of a university called to serve the world today, a place fully committed to its leadership role as an institution whose intellectual and scholarly vigor is matched by its ethical, moral and spiritual disposition.

Notre Dame has certainly established itself among the world’s foremost universities. But I also believe there is a pressing and profound need for Notre Dame not only within the academy but far beyond any national borders. This country has numerous truly great universities, many of which began as faith-inspired institutions. But in the current landscape of American higher education one finds a severing of educational and scholarly initiatives from a moral framework that orients the enterprise and informs the individual with a sense of proper purpose and surpassing aspirations. What’s often left is an official agnosticism about this element so central to Notre Dame education. As an admissions officer at one very distinguished university put it: “We tell our students that it is important to develop a moral character; we just don’t tell them what particular character that should be.”

Our society faces unresolved questions about the nature and sanctity of human life. We must address urgent questions of how we in more prosperous societies are to respond to the grinding and dehumanizing poverty in which much of the world lives. We must respond to man-made threats to our environment and to the depletion of the world’s resources. And yet we live at a time when corruption has been exposed at the highest levels of respected corporations. Sadly and painfully—particularly for those of us who are Catholic—the Church in this country has seen behaviors and failures of leadership that have scandalized the faithful and left many disillusioned and alienated. Religious faith in our world has become for some a motive for virulent attacks on innocent people, and religious differences have created some of the most intractable and bloodiest divisions among people.

In such circumstances, the world needs a great university that, because it is grounded in faith, can address issues of faith with reverence, respect and sympathetic understanding while engaging in intellectually serious, critical dialogue. The world needs a university that draws upon an ancient moral and spiritual tradition to address moral questions. The world needs a university that graduates men and women who are not only talented, skilled and knowledgeable but who also possess the virtues which will enable them to live a good life and to be leaders who recognize that their first responsibility is to serve all, and particularly those in need. The Catholic Church, the church of over a billion people, needs a university whose scholars can help pass on its intellectual tradition and engage the questions and challenges of this century.

The mission of Notre Dame is to provide an alternative for the 21st century: a place of higher learning that plays host to world-changing research but where technical knowledge does not outrun moral wisdom; a place which recognizes that education should help students live a good human life; and a place where our restless quest to understand the world not only lives in harmony with faith but is also inspired and advanced by it.

One challenge we have at Notre Dame today is, ironically, the fact that many, like me, have such deep affection for the place. It can lead us to want it to remain precisely the place it was when we were students. But if there is a theme throughout Notre Dame’s history, it is that it has never been content to remain the place it was.

Father Edward Sorin, CSC, may have dreamed of a university when he founded Notre Dame in 1842, but when he died the place was still operating a grade school, a high school and a manual labor school in addition to rudimentary college offerings. Later, Holy Cross priests John A. Zahm, James Burns and Thomas Walsh wanted it to be a university and began the long process of making that happen. When Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, took office in 1952, Notre Dame was a fine undergraduate college. He set the course for it to become one of the best universities in the nation by enhancing graduate studies and scholarly research activities. In all these changes, it maintained and enhanced its distinctive character. Throughout its history, Notre Dame has sought to become what many called impossible, even a contradiction in terms—a great Catholic university.

At one time all the great universities in Western culture were Catholic, having been started by the Church in Europe. The emergence of such institutions was not a historical coincidence but the result of values deeply embedded in the Catholic tradition, which are still fundamental to our work at Notre Dame.

Whatever universities might do, they are essentially communities inspired by a simple, profound truth: It is good to know and understand. That is why we teach and why we inquire and conduct research. Contemporary universities are afflicted with a fragmentation of their efforts because of the variety of disciplines, specialties and methods of inquiry. Notre Dame must resist this fragmentation. Our work is unified—we are a _uni_versity. We are all engaged in a common pursuit of truth that is coherent, intelligible and one because it comes from one creator.

University principles

So a first principle is that knowledge is a good that is to be pursued for its own sake, and the truth we seek to know is one.

A second principle that inspired Catholic universities and continues to guide us here is a belief in the deep harmony of faith and reason.

We cannot legitimately claim to be a Catholic university if we do not affirm the central truths of divine revelation from Scripture and Tradition. At the same time, our work at this university is the work of reason, to follow the principles of our respective disciplines to understand the world. This effort of reasoned inquiry and discovery is a continual process in which all proposals are subject to relentless criticism and questioning, then revised and reformulated in pursuit of an understanding that we grasp more fully, but never finally. Insights may be brilliant, but they are always tentative and fallible.

Notre Dame is richer intellectually for being a place where reasoned inquiry and human creativity, conducted at the highest levels, engage a theological tradition grounded in divine revelation. Among the various conversations that go on at Notre Dame, this conversation between discoveries of human reason and this theological tradition—between reason and revelation—must remain central. Such a conversation may challenge some assertions of reasoned inquiry, but they may also challenge a settled, complacent and false understanding of faith. Such conversations, if faithful to the demands of reason and revelation, will always lead us more deeply into the inexhaustible mystery of God.

While these principles go to the heart of our character as a Catholic university, it is certainly not only Catholics who constitute this community and labor to realize these high ambitions. Among us are those of many faiths and of none. All are valuable members of this community; they are critical to helping us achieve what we have and will achieve. The presence of such an array of members makes us more welcoming and hence more catholic in its fullest sense.

A third principle that animates our university is a belief in the centrality of community and the call of service to the community.

Notre Dame is and has always been a place of community. Our students arrive and quickly feel a part of a community. The bonds formed here remain strong long after graduation. Faculty, staff and visitors frequently comment on the sense of community here. It is evidenced in large dinners and informal gatherings, in attendance at funerals and weddings, in the concern for new members and respect for elder members. As the University grows in size and complexity, we must always retain that sense of community. We must also remember that the fabric of this community is strengthened primarily by the way we treat each other, the personal, human relations. I like to think that Father McNally’s caring and individual handling of my move to Grace Hall was not an isolated example but a singular incidence of a way of life here.

Notre Dame is also a place of service. The communities we aspire to serve include not only those at Notre Dame but also our local community, our nation, the Church and the whole world. And we seek particularly to be of service to those in greatest need. And so nearly nine out of 10 students participate in service projects. Our theology, sociology and psychology departments work closely with our Center for Social Concerns. Our biologists conduct research to combat mosquito-borne diseases that primarily afflict poorer nations. Our business school assists Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services. Our engineering college focuses on the environment and issues of energy conservation. The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies seeks ways to advance nonviolent resolution of conflict. And the Kellogg Institute for International Studies is a leader on issues of democratization and development of poorer nations.

At Notre Dame we aspire to leadership in research, teaching and in the lives of our graduates who go forth from here. Yet our leadership is modeled on Christ’s, who said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be a servant, and whoever wants to be first must be a slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26). Notre Dame must remain a place of generous service.

We are a university that seeks knowledge for its own sake, that believes in the harmony of faith and reason, and is committed to generous service. We must retain these characteristics as we strive to be a pre-eminent university, to be what Father Sorin founded Notre Dame to be: a “powerful means for good in this country.”

The path to building a university that is Catholic and pre-eminent is certainly the one less traveled today. As we stand at the start of the 21st century, no footprints ahead show us the way. Yet our difference is not a detriment. It is an asset that will make our contributions more distinctive and more valuable. The challenges that plague the world today demand such a place, such a response —the marshaling of world-class scholarship, research and intellectual commitment with a conscience guided by moral and spiritual imperatives.

I could never have anticipated that I would someday be president of Notre Dame on that day in 1976 when I looked back over my undergraduate years and looked ahead toward my future. And I doubt my experience of the place—the life of the mind, the friendships and faith life, the sense of care and community—was not unlike that of generations of Notre Dame students who also found something here to fall in love with and for whom that affection has abided through the years. But I come to this calling, this mission with a humility and an understanding.

This word “mission” is popular today. Investment bankers, utilities, waste management companies all have mission statements. But the word “mission” derives from the Latin root _missus_—one sent. A mission is never a personal invention. No one designs his or her own mission. A mission does not advance personal aims. A mission comes from being called and sent. “You did not choose me,” Jesus told his disciples in his last discourse in John’s Gospel, “but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.”

These days I am mindful that we continue a work that is very old. We are not doing something new but continuing work on an ancient mission, to bear fruit that will last.

Father John Jenkins, CSC, is the 17th president of the University of Notre Dame.

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