University president speaks about his vocation in exclusive interview
Many people know Fr. Jenkins in his capacity as president of the University of Notre Dame, a position he has held since 2005. But few know the story of his vocation as a priest. Mary Frances Myler, editor-in-chief of the Irish Rover, sat down with Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. for a conversation about vocation, seeking to share a side of the president seldom seen by students.
Myler: What led you to the priesthood? How would you describe your vocation story?
Fr. Jenkins: I was a lay student at Notre Dame—I graduated in 1976—and, as many students experience come senior year, you kind of think, “What am I going to do with my life?” Now I had a great undergraduate time, so that sort of led me to think about things, and what occurred to me is that I wanted to live a meaningful life, that’s how I said it to myself. You can get into a routine, you can just get a job and go on the “track” but without deeper purpose. I felt a needed to have some deeper purpose.
I talked to a priest—Fr. Tom McNally, who’s still with us—about this. He recommended good praying, going to daily Mass, which I started [doing]. And you know what that did for me? It created this period of quiet and prayer in my day. That was a positive thing because it drew me closer to God’s presence on a regular basis. Not that it was some mystical experience in some exalted way, but it started a period of a prayerful reflection. It grew from that—that desire to do something meaningful, along with prayer, drew me to explore the priesthood and religious life. And that’s how I ended up where I am.
Myler: What led you to the Congregation of Holy Cross?
Fr. Jenkins: Well, I actually went to a Jesuit high school and had people I knew there, so I considered that. I was interested in the opportunities for educational work and intellectual life that Holy Cross and the Jesuits could offer, so that’s what led me there.
At the time, I was at Notre Dame, and I knew many of the Holy Cross priests, and I thought highly of them. I probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I think after being in [the Congregation] for a long time, I found a certain authenticity. I liked the fact that the Holy Cross priests and brothers lived with the students, that there wasn’t a kind of aloofness there. They were just there in an unpretentious way, and I like that.
I’ve found a kind of zeal for the work. I see that in the history of this institution, but also, my friends who went to Bangladesh. It’s quite remarkable to go around the world to this overwhelmingly Muslim country and create great educational institutions and serve the people just because that’s the call. To see that “100% in” attracted me.
The third thing I’d say is that across the occupations that people have—some may be a president or somebody helping out in less obvious ways—there’s a quest for sanctity. I felt that that was always present.
All those things drew me to [the Congregation and] made me feel, “Okay, this is what I’m called to do.”
Myler: You mentioned Fr. McNally; are there any other role models or saints who have been particularly inspirational or formative throughout your years as a priest?
Fr. Jenkins: I think it’s a wonderful tradition in the Catholic tradition that we have the saints, and it’s something that I think about a lot. You can almost feel like you personally know someone through their writings. This may seem like an odd choice, but not too long ago, I reread Story Of a Soul by Therese of Lisieux. A lot of it, I have to say, is kind of a saccharine piety. But once you keep reading, there’s just this wonderfully genuine desire to follow the Lord. I think that’s the power of her writing; it’s utterly unpretentious. But there’s a real depth of reflection on what it means to live a life as a disciple and what it means to live in religious life. So that’s an example.
There have also been, as I mentioned, people who most may not have heard of, but who are just very holy. There was a brother here, and I couldn’t say I knew him well, but Brother Cosmos—he’s passed now—was the sacristan at the Basilica and at Corby Hall. He was a remarkably holy guy. He prayed all the time, and he was joyful and peaceful. You just felt that there was this holiness about him, and seeing that in the flesh has been an inspiration to me to try to follow that path.
Myler: Has your understanding of your vocation shifted? I’d imagine that what you thought of as a senior at Notre Dame has developed and been shaped over time. In what ways has your understanding deepened?
Fr. Jenkins: This may sound odd, but it’s a lot harder than I thought. I thought, “Well, you just kind of do these things, and you’re kind of nice to people.” But [the call] is to live the [religious] life with integrity. People have high expectations, and [you seek] to live up to those, knowing you fall short in many ways. So that’s one thing, but that’s a kind of negative thing.
But there’s depth to [the vocation]. The wonderful thing about being a priest is that you can enter into people’s lives at the most important moments—the birth of a child, when you baptize a baby, at a wedding, at people’s deaths. You have this immediate entry into the most important moments of people’s lives. That’s very rewarding. That’s a wonderful thing to be able to do that. As I said, I wanted a life that was meaningful, that meant something, and it’s always very meaningful to do all those things. I didn’t at the time realize the depth of that and how powerful that would be. It really is a walk with God, and you just learn about that as you continue walking.
Myler: You mentioned the ability to enter into people’s lives. What’s been the greatest joy you’ve found in the priesthood?
Fr. Jenkins: This may sound strange, but you have this freedom to give yourself to the work and to the people who come into your lives. That’s the special thing about celibacy, isn’t it? I don’t have kids, and I don’t have a spouse—if I did, that would be my absolute number one priority, but I don’t have that. So I’m able to give myself to whatever comes into my life.
There was a Holy Cross priest, John Dunne, and he told a story of traveling in the Middle East where he met a Muslim family. They chatted, and he got to know them, and they asked, “How many children do you have?” They had no conception of priestly celibacy. Fr. Dunne thought for a moment, and he said, “Thousands!” He meant by that all the Notre Dame students that he taught, all these kids in his life. That ability to do this work and get to know students and work with them through the hard things, through the joyful things—that’s a wonderful gift.
Myler: How do you see your position as the president of the university intersecting with your identity as a priest?
Fr. Jenkins: In some ways, a lot of my time is spent on administrative stuff. A lot of it is ceremonial stuff that, you know, anybody else would do. But I also see this bigger purpose of education, sanctification, and service in its purpose—that’s my role. So there’s a sort of pastoral quality about all of it, and I try to remind myself of that so [the role] doesn’t become just a routine.
Myler: What advice would you give to students who are discerning a call to the priesthood or to religious life?
Fr. Jenkins: Sometimes there are really wonderful people who respect the priesthood and religious life, and they want to be that, but it’s just not them. Part of [discernment] is being in touch with who you are, what you feel, and what’s going on. There’s a certain authenticity. I use that word not because they’re being hypocritical, but [the vocation] has got to be you. It’s got to come from you. That attentiveness to what your inclinations are, what your hopes are, what your dreams are, and what you want to do—that would be the first thing. Be authentic. You’re not putting on a role that’s not you.
The second thing is the same advice I got when I was discerning, and that is: pray. That sounds very pious, but it is true. I don’t mean just saying our prayers, but also being quiet before God, finding a space in our busy lives or noisy lives to let God speak to us. I think that’s very important.
The third thing is blocking out the noise. I think it’s tough. People will say a lot of things to you like, “This is really great!” or “This is really awful, really stupid.” I got that when I was thinking about the priesthood. You’ve got to listen to it, but don’t let that noise influence you. It really is God who’s leading you down the path, so you’ve got to find that center to respond to that call.
Mary Frances Myler is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in theology and constitutional studies. She compulsively interrupts conversation to point out beautiful trees while walking across campus. Send questions, comments, or pictures of autumn leaves to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: University of Notre Dame, Office of the President