A man in full: University of Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins gets his Irish up

11/06/2009 08:56 AM

As speeches go, it was one of the finest ever delivered at the American Irish Historical Society annual banquet, now over 100 years old and thriving. It was held Thursday night at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Fr. John Jenkins stood up as gold medalist and delivered a speech that reclaimed the Irish roots of Notre Dame in a way no other president of Notre Dame has.

He spoke movingly of his own heritage, his family roots on his mother's side, who were Condons from Cork, and the deep resources of faith, family and friendship that his Irish background bequeathed to him.

In the audience was Donald R. Keough, the man who created the Keough Naughton Institute of Irish studies, which has restored an Irish awareness to the campus that was absent too long. It must have been a proud night for him to see this heritage reclaimed.

Jenkins is quickly becoming a great college president, one to perhaps rival even Fr. Ted Hesburgh, the legendary leader of the college for 35 years from 1952 to 1987.

The baptism of fire for Jenkins was his invitation to President Barack Obama to be commencement speaker. Jenkins was assailed on every side by conservative alumni and angry bishops, who wanted him to cancel the invitation.

"You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade, and if you cannot persuade them … show respect for them and listen to them," he said at the time. As a Catholic leader, it was a fearless statement in the face of so much criticism

He faced the critics down, and Obama appeared to a rapturous welcome from the students and faculty. Those who really mattered most — the students themselves — perfectly understood what Jenkins wanted to do, to open up a dialog in the best Aquinas Catholic tradition. It is no coincidence that Jenkins is an expert on Aquinas.

On Thursday night, he took on another issue that has often been overlooked, some would say conveniently — and that is the deep Irish roots of the university. In this multicultural world, it has been fashionable to downplay those roots, to confine it to football fighting songs and the leprechaun who struts his stuff at games.

Jenkins, however, took a deep look at those important roots, talked about the four Irish brothers who helped Fr. Edward Sorin establish the school, and then of the initial term of derision, the Fighting Irish label attached to Notre Dame in a Michigan newspaper in the early 1920s.

He noted that turning that term of derision into the mission statement of a Catholic university at a time of deep anti-Catholic sentiment was the greatest achievement of the college in those troubled times.

He parsed and analyzed what the term fighting Irish stood for, and quoted Irish President Mary McAleese when she was commencement speaker at Notre Dame in 2006.

"By the Fighting Irish, we don't mean fighting in the sense of argumentative, though we might occasionally mean argumentative, but what we actually mean mostly when we talk about it is an indomitable spirit, a commitment, never tentative, always fully committed, to use the words that I got ... this morning, total commitment to life itself. No matter what life threw at them, and it threw quite a few wobblies at the Irish from time to time, that indomitable spirit that always sought to dig deep to find the courage to transcend, to keep going..."

That trumps a fighting leprechaun or a chant at a football game. What Jenkins was saying was that all of the Note Dame family, from whatever ethnic background, had made or were making the same journey Irish immigrants and their descendants did to keep the hope alive, to dream the dream.

He spoke movingly of his own mother, now 80 years old and the mother of 12 children, whose own mother faced desperate odds after her young husband was killed in a tragic accident that left her widowed with three children to raise in the Great Depression. Her tale of struggle and success was a quintessential American immigrant story, which is being repeated all over America today in Hispanic and Asian families, and in whatever ethnic group that is new to these shores.

Jenkins was using the Irish experience as the benchmark, as the example that others follow. We are all Fighting Irish, fighting for the same opportunity, faith and freedoms. That's why his university has become the symbol of freedom for so many millions of Americans.

In a strange way, his speech brought Notre Dame home. It was inspirational.

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