On Thursday, a group of leaders from the University of Notre Dame met with Pope Francis during a trip to Vatican City.
Members of school President John Jenkins' leadership team and the Notre Dame Board of Trustees exchanged messages of support with the Pope during a private audience in the Apostolic Palace.
In the hour-long meeting, Pope Francis displayed flashes of his trademark humor and humility, and he also spoke seriously about the importance of defending Catholic identity and religious liberty.
He said it is essential for Catholic universities to bear "uncompromising witness to the Church's moral teaching and the defense of her freedom."
"It is my hope," Pope Francis said, "that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness."
Father Jenkins began the meeting with a few words about Notre Dame. He told Pope Francis that he hoped the opening of a new Notre Dame Center in Rome will allow the University to expand its service to the Holy See.
"Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, said education is 'the art of helping young people to completeness,'" Father Jenkins said. "And we're proud to educate people, to serve humanity and to serve the Church with deep faith."
Father Jenkins offered as a gift to Pope Francis a small statue of the Visitation because it depicts "the joyful greeting of Mary and Elizabeth, in whose embrace the Church was born." The statue is a smaller replica of one on Notre Dame's campus by the late Rev. Anthony Lauck, C.S.C., a Notre Dame professor, priest and sculptor.
Pope Francis thanked Father Jenkins and said, "I am confident that the new Center (in Rome) will contribute to the University's mission by exposing students to the unique historical, cultural and spiritual riches of the Eternal City."
Pope Francis also urged the Notre Dame community to continue its commitment to the "missionary discipleship" that inspired Rev. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C., to found the University in 1842.
"From its founding, the University of Notre Dame has made an outstanding contribution to the Church in your country through its commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason and in the pursuit of truth and virtue."
After his remarks, Pope Francis shook hands with each person in the Notre Dame group.
When Father Jenkins accidentally went to sit for a photo in a chair meant for a cardinal, Pope Francis joked, "Oh, you're very ambitious."
Then Pope Francis noticed that his own white chair had been placed slightly in front of the row of Notre Dame leaders. He immediately pushed it back himself so that he was at the same level with everyone else, drawing an appreciative laugh from the Notre Dame delegation.
The Vatican visit capped a week of meetings in Rome by the University Board of Trustees that included Masses in ancient churches, visits to cultural and historical sites in Rome, a tour of the Sistine Chapel and receptions at the homes of the U.S. ambassadors to Italy and to the Holy See. Father Jenkins and other University officials also met with Vatican leaders in papal congregational offices and pontifical councils related to Notre Dame's mission as a leader in Catholic higher education.