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Notre Dame

May 11, 2009

Dear Members of the Notre Dame Graduating Class of 2009:

This Sunday, as you receive your degrees at Commencement, your joy – and that of your families – will be shared by the faculty, staff, and administration of the University. We have had the privilege of laboring with each of you to inquire and discover, to teach and to learn, and we will send you off with affectionate and fond hopes for the future.

During your years here we have endeavored to train you in the various disciplines and urged you to ask the larger questions – discussing not only the technical and practical but also the ethical and spiritual dimensions of pressing issues ….grappled with intellectual, political, and spiritual questions. ….The decision to invite President Obama to Notre Dame to receive an honorary degree and deliver the Commencement address….Yet, there has been an extra dimension to your debate….You engaged each other with passion, intelligence and respect…..At the same time, and born of the same duty, a Catholic university has a special obligation not just to honor the leader but to engage the culture. Carrying out this role of the Catholic university ….we must be a place where people of good will are received with charity, are able to speak, be heard, and engage in responsible and reasoned dialogue.

The President’s visit to Notre Dame can help lead to broader engagement ….on matters of human life and human dignity…..Remember, though, that this day is your day.

In Notre Dame,

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

In Search of An Audience



Identity theft. In the European Union.  A nation without a language is a nation without a soul.  The EU seemed to be simply an idea about the Americanization of Europe.  It was just the way the world was becoming.  What was it that had changed over a period of time in the culture in the age of television, with the generation formed by television?  But Europe had never been a pluralist community.  When all across Europe attitudes are stiffening toward immigration, does this all sound like a replay of the 1930s?  With a vanishing Christianity in Europe.  


When stock markets soar, people think they are geniuses, making money because of their own great thinking.  In down markets, in great depressions, people look for villains.  The expectations changed.   The politicians are likely villains.  And there will be others when fear is growing.  Social formation has changed the people.   


Identity, national, religious, was an idea that was being eroded.  In Ireland the best seller was a book titled Vanishing Ireland.  The Celtic Tiger had eroded a way of life.  Or something had changed.   


There were people there who had dedicated their live to Celtic music.  To traditional Irish music and the culture that had produced it.  the music was not about just notes drawn on paper.  It was about a sense of mystery.  Of people coming together to express something.  It was geography, language, religion, art, and all the classes assigned to young people to learn expressed in music.  Traditional music.  And the music and this identity was a civilization in a particular place and time.  Identity was a proper noun that was no longer being capitalized.   


Sugar in the diets and the affects on memory, according to a study published in the December issue of Annals of Neurology, spikes in blood sugar can take a toll on memory by affecting the dentate gyrus, an area of the brain within the hippocampus that helps form memories.  Since glucose regulation worsens with age, the study may help explain normal age-related cognitive decline.  Or the study may help explain why the sugar-coated media age was having an affect on the way people in a democratic society elected representatives, in the way people reacted to religion.  What would the effect be on memory, history and civilization?   “If we conclude this is underlying normal age-related cognitive decline, then it affects all of us,” said lead investigator Dr. Scott Small, associate professor of neurology at Columbia University Medical Center.


To lose an identity, the “idea” of a Catholic identity, was to lose a sense of significance, to become anonymous.  In the age of television, we were all forgetting who we were.  And that in a secular world was the concern about identity theft. 


Georgetown is a Catholic Jesuit university that promotes a concept of religious pluralism.  Its student population is 51% Roman Catholic.  Georgetown does not keep statistics on its faculty.  Institutions that did not want to be sued had human resource departments that would not make such information available.  In a 2003 book “A People Adrift,” Peter Steinfels states that 55% of the faculty at Notre Dame was Catholic.  So what makes it a Catholic university?  Even of the 51% of the students, of the 55% of the faculty?  In a nation where 20% of the population was Catholic, how many actually attended there because of the Catholic idenitty?  Or just to get ahead?  To make money?  Was there a mysterious power about the institution because of Catholic identity?  What did it mean intellectually to be Catholic?  What contributes to a Catholic identity when the student population of Catholics is close to a minority?  What did it mean to be baptized anyway, in going about a job?  What did it mean to be Catholic?  Either at Macy’s or in Congress?  Or what makes Notre Dame a Catholic university?  Was it only what went on in the theology departments?  At a Catholic hospital did all of the physicians need to be Catholic?  At a Catholic hospital were only Catholic patients treated?  Identity: What did it mean to be Catholic? 


Why Catholic schools?  Why did Catholics need their own place to learn how to read?  What is the purpose of the institution?  Or how to remain a Catholic school in these times without priests and nuns?  Why a religious dimension to any institution?  Catholic identity, for the best and the brightest.  For a few good men.  For a few good women.  Basic training?  If the purpose was to train leaders for the future, what happens when a Catholic instituion becomes so enamored with the financial, political, and academic sucess of its students in the secular world that it forgets its initial mission and identity?  Is there a concern about the ideals of John Carroll, S.J.?  How can you expect these leaders to continue the mission, to pass on its tradition if its board of directors lose sight of its purpose.  How can you ask young people to carry on the tradition, to give their life unconditionally to others, to truly set the world on fire? 


Because as Gordon S. Woodsome writes, there is a need for some kind of an audience as an essential necessary part if a historian, if God, is “going to influence the consciousness of our times.”  And public schools in a secular world were no longer going to pass on the religious dimension.  And that was the threat in the modern age.  Vanishing Christianity, whatever the denomination, was faced with a shortage of clergy for the next generation.  It had happened and was continuing to happen.  But why?


Sugar-frosted flakes. Sugar Pops are tops?  The ability to regulate glucose starts deteriorating by the third or fourth decade of life.  That was about the same affect television had on politics, starting in the 1990s.  Cognitive decline was affecting civilization.  In a sense, I think the reaction in the Muslim world was a gigantic scream against what television had done to their history, to their world.  Before Alzheimers afflicted their culture.   


To lose an identity was to become anonymous.  And an inability to cope, those with an undirected spiritual nature, in a secular world

When fear is growing, amidst cognitive decline, in the search for villains, as violence grew more rapidly.  My goodness.  The threat to my goodness.     


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