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Steeped in respect

Author: Arts and Letters

Notre Dame’s new president understands the importance of recognizing other people and faiths. NOTRE DAME, Ind. — When the Rev. John Jenkins is inaugurated Friday as president of the University of Notre Dame, the proceedings will be marked by the involvement of four religiously diverse world leaders and the influence of one person whom Jenkins wishes could be there.The individual that Jenkins will miss the most at the ceremony is one of the key people in his life and his faith — his father, Dr. Harry Jenkins, who died last year.“I worked in a hospital, so I observed him in his work,” Jenkins recalls as he sits in his fourth-floor office beneath the Golden Dome of the Main Building.“I always noticed that (other) doctors would come in with their assistants and interns. They’d have a chart, they’d ask a few brusque questions and leave. My dad would always come in, sit down frequently and spend time with the patients. He was always a great listener. A lot of times, people just want to talk and feel listened to. My dad always did that.”Jenkins’ mother and 11 siblings will attend his inauguration.So will Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, former U. S. ambassador to the United Nations John C. Danforth and Naomi Chazan, a former member of Israel’s parliament and a professor of political science and African studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.Those four people will take part Thursday in a forum, initiated by Jenkins, to discuss the topic, “Why God? Understanding Religion and Enacting Faith in a Plural World.”“On our faculty, we have Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, a variety of people,” Jenkins says. “This is clearly a Catholic place — we’re explicit about that — but we want all to feel a sense of respect for their beliefs here. My hope for the forum is that these people . . . can have a freedom to discuss things openly and honestly.”Here are other excerpts from an interview with the 17th president in Notre Dame’s 163-year history. Question: Faith is an important element of higher education at Notre Dame and other colleges with religious connections. What role does faith have in higher education in the 21st century? Jenkins: If you look at the world today, religion has a tremendous power for good and ill. Anybody who even reads the newspapers knows that. But if you look at higher education in the United States, there is a tendency to separate off faith commitments or any overarching moral framework."I believe that Notre Dame’s role is to bring those together so that in our institutional lives and our individual lives, faith plays an important role, but it’s brought together with an academic enterprise of serious study and reflection and inquiry. If we can do that, we can help address some of the major issues that we are facing in society in the 21st century. Q. What do you see as some of those major issues? Jenkins: Obviously, the clash of faith and understanding that you see manifest in terrorist activities, or religious divisions in various parts of the world or the moral issues that divide this country in many ways. Those issues will not go away. We have to find a way to discuss those in a way that is respectful of the religious commitments and moral commitments of people, but find a way in which we can live together and work together and have a healthy society. Q. You are not part of the forum panel but how would you address the question, “Why God? Understanding Religion and Enacting Faith in a Plural World”? Jenkins: We face tremendous challenges in our century. Violent conflict is present around the world. The terrible poverty that a large part of the world lives in. The struggle of certain societies to form a cohesive, civil society.There are tremendous challenges we’ve faced throughout human history, yet religious faith has been a powerful force for bringing people together, for providing common meaning, for actions that help others in dramatic ways. And that will continue. We just have to find a way to make that force positive in the 21st century. Q. Two of your sisters have married men of the Jewish faith, and you officiated at both weddings. Talk about religious diversity from a family standpoint. Jenkins: It’s a blessing for my family. We have two Jewish in-laws, several Protestant in-laws — people of genuine faith, people of moral goodness. We’re still a very Catholic family in many ways, as I’m sure my in-laws will tell you. But I think and I hope they find a respectful and accepting presence there. They strengthen our faith in many ways. Q. After your freshman year in college, you left school for a while to tour Europe, visiting such places as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the Dachau concentration camp. What impact did that trip have on your life? Jenkins: It was a good experience. Those things are maturing because you’re off on your own. When you’re backpacking and you meet all those unique people from different parts of the world, it just broadens your world in wonderful ways. It’s part of what we try to emphasize here now. We’re thought of as a Catholic university. Well, we’re a worldwide university. We have to be embracive of all cultures. Q. Was there a defining moment that led you to become a priest? Jenkins: I graduated from Notre Dame in 1976. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at that time. I did go on to graduate school in philosophy. Got a master’s degree. At that time, my thinking about what I wanted to do with my life became more prominent. The question came to me, ‘What would be a meaningful thing to do?’ As that question developed, the question became, ‘What is so important to me that I would die for it?’I felt that if I could find something that’s that meaningful, that would be a worthwhile life to live. It gradually led me to become a priest. It has been very meaningful. Q. When you look around your office or your residence, what’s the one thing you value the most? Jenkins: There’s a few things in competition. There are some books that have a certain importance in my life, and I have copies I’ve kept for a very long time. I write on the “Summa Theologiae,” by Thomas Aquinas, and that’s all marked up. That’s very valuable to me.When I first came back to Notre Dame, I had more time to teach. There were occasionally times after a class you’ll get a note from a student when it’s over. They’ll write, ‘I really appreciated your class. Thanks for the insight or the time you helped me.’ I keep those in a file. That’s always been tremendously meaningful to me. Teaching is about touching people’s minds and hearts. Q. Who are the people or the person you’ll most be seeking to share your inauguration with? Jenkins: My mother (Helen), and my brothers and sisters. They’ve always been a great support to me. My mom had a lot of kids. She had a great ability to make everyone feel important, special, loved. She still does. Obviously, they (his parents) expected us all to work hard and take responsibility for our lives. They really taught us to believe in ourselves and expect great things of ourselves. Q. What’s the best advice you’ve received about leading your life? Jenkins: The best advice has to be in the Gospels: The one who holds onto his life will lose it. The one who loses his life will find it. That human happiness does lie in finding the way to give yourself, to serve, to be generous in ways that help others and make your own life richer.
Call Star reporter John Shaughnessy at (317) 444-6175.

Originally published by John J. Shaughnessy, The Indianapolis Star at on September 17, 2005.