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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
The Observer

A Catholic university is a refuge of hospitality

Fr. Hesburgh used to point out that many American colleges were founded by religious denominations but have lost their religious affiliation over time. Notre Dame strives to maintain its Catholic identity, convinced that a Catholic university can also be a great university. Many of our students come here looking for a strong Catholic education, including some who feel their pre-college Catholic formation was not all it should have been.

Many professors identify teaching at Notre Dame as part of their apostolate as Catholics. Some non-Catholic students appreciate the fact that, because our University takes religious faith seriously, it also takes religious freedom seriously. However, as we grow bigger and better, taking on a larger role as an international research university, inevitably new questions will emerge about our Catholic character.

More and more students will come here because of the excellence of our academic programs, rather than because we are Catholic. As we work to hire the best faculty we can get, often the most highly qualified applicants will not be Catholic or Christian. What will happen to our Catholic University?

This concern should remind us of the Catholic virtue of hospitality. As Pope Benedict XVI said shortly after his election, “The virtue of hospitality ... has almost disappeared and should be renewed.” His namesake, who wrote the Benedictine Rule in the sixth century, summed up the virtue this way: “All guests who arrive should be received as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’ Proper respect should be shown to all.” In St. Benedict’s time, a monastery would often be located in the wilderness—  the only place for miles around where a traveler could find rest, food and medical care, the only refuge from the bad weather, wild beasts, outlaws and other dangers that roamed the landscape outside.

According to Pope St. Leo the Great, practicing hospitality teaches us to be more like God, who loves everybody. “Humanity was made in God’s image. … God, by loving us, restores us to his image … inflaming us with the fire of his love, so that we may love not only himself, but also whatever he loves … absolutely all people. … For one maker fashioned us. … We all enjoy the same sky and air, the same days and nights, and, though some are good, others bad, some righteous, others unrighteous, yet God is bountiful to all, kind to all.”

The Bible tells us that, when we welcome guests, we benefit from the gifts they carry. “Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another (1 Peter 4:9).” “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).”

Today, a great research university is a much more complicated place than a medieval monastery. But a great university can be a Catholic university when, in the words of Pope John Paul II, it “pursues its objectives through its formation of an authentic human community ... animated by a spirit of freedom and charity; it is characterized by mutual respect, sincere dialogue and protection of the rights of individuals. It assists each of its members to achieve wholeness as human persons; in turn, everyone in the community helps in promoting unity.” A great Catholic university must be many things, but among them it must be a place of hospitality — a refuge from the ignorance, irrationality, madness and violence that roam the wilderness outside.

Peter Jeffery is the Grace Professor of Medieval Studies, Associate Director of Sacred Music and a Benedictine Oblate. Contact him at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.