October 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill SItzmann

On a seasonably pleasant Friday evening last July, members of the Jenkins and Wessling families gathered at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church for a wedding. The bride’s uncle had traveled back to his hometown to officiate. Dr. Erin Jenkins and her dozens of cousins know the priest simply as Uncle John. You know him more formally as the Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. (Congregation of Holy Cross), president of the University of Notre Dame.

As leader of the most renowned Catholic school in the country—perhaps in the world—Jenkins’ responsibilities and schedule leave little room to breathe. Yet he found time to honor a twin daughter of his older brother, Tom, and to squeeze in another opportunity to visit with his beloved 86-year old mother, Helen.

“My father, Harry Jenkins, was a gastroenterologist who taught at Creighton Medical School and mother went to nursing school,” says the Rev. Jenkins.  “Dad died in 2004,” shortly after his son’s election as Notre Dame’s president. “Our parish was St. Pius X and then St. Leo’s. My mother still lives in the family home.”

“Omaha is still very important to him,” says Tom Jenkins. “Even though he has another family [the priests], he’s very interested in coming back here and spending time with Mom and our family. He’s humble that way. Genuine.”

Returning to the city that formed his Catholic faith and to the family that molded him as a man seems to agree with Jenkins. Laughter and a relaxed mood punctuated the wedding weekend.

“John has always been kind of quiet and calm,” Tom says. “People don’t realize he’s also a lot of fun and quick to laugh. He’ll be the first one to share a joke or a story.”

The Holy Cross priest’s sense of humor has served him well since assuming the helm of the 12,000-student campus near South Bend, Indiana, a decade ago. Under his leadership, Notre Dame’s reputation as an academically elite undergraduate program and a top research school has ballooned, its endowment has tripled to $10 billion, and the Fighting Irish football team has fought its way back into the conversation.

As president, how does he balance the decidedly secular issues of academics and research with the school’s Catholic identity?

“Notre Dame is a place of faith,” Jenkins says. “That gives it a distinctive role in being a place of conversation, of inquiry that can take up issues of faith and morality in ways that are powerful. We have a set of Catholic principles that guide our educational efforts as well as our work in the world.”

Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, some would argue, has hit turbulent times.

Like many Catholic institutions, including Creighton University, Notre Dame has recently drawn fire for its response to hot-button social issues—granting employee marriage benefits to same sex couples, for example. Jenkins has absorbed the blows with grace, for beneath his quiet, thoughtful demeanor lies the steeliness of a man with a keen sense of identity and mission. As Creighton theology professor Dr. Eileen Burke-Sullivan points out, “Anyone who actually operates on behalf of the kingdom of God knows that you draw criticism on yourself. I don’t think any religious leader can have thin skin.”

Jenkins2Jenkins’ quick wit, his seeming ease with everyone he meets, and his ability to listen and compromise no doubt spring from a childhood surrounded by what can politely be described as controlled chaos.

“We had 12 kids in our family, six boys and six girls,” says Jenkins, who checks in at number three in the lineup. “I’m very close to my brothers and sisters.”

In 1966, when Jenkins was 12, the family moved from 75th and Blondo to a new, seven-bedroom home in a lively Catholic neighborhood on 100th Street, then the western edge of the city.

“I would say on our block alone, there were about 50 kids,” says Tom, an attorney. “We never had any trouble getting baseball teams together. We usually had 11 to a side.”

The Kizers lived next door and contributed nine children to the mayhem.

“There was something different about John, something special, even when we were young,” muses John Kizer, the Rev. Jenkins’ best friend growing up. “He was a big thinker and was always looking for a place to get quiet time, which was tough in a household of 12 kids.”

The friendship between the two Johns extended all through St. Pius X grade school and Creighton Prep, where Jenkins ranked high on the popularity meter. His classmates voted him Prom King senior year.

“I got a lot from Creighton Prep,” says Jenkins, whose middle name, Ignatius, honors the founder of the Jesuit order. “I’m very grateful to my Jesuit friends.”

Jenkins’ popularity at Prep benefited from his athletic abilities. He was one of the top swimmers in the state and played on the school’s inaugural soccer team, following his parents’ example of mental discipline and physical activity.

“Our dad entered the Hawaii Ironman contest when he was 58,” Tom marvels. “And his triathlon buddies dedicated a steel-sculpted bench with depictions of bike riders along [Omaha’s] Keystone Trail to him.”

Harry and Helen Jenkins also encouraged each child to follow their heart, opening the door for the third oldest to explore his desire to contribute to society. That desire became evident during a backpacking trip through Europe with Kizer the summer between their freshman and sophomore years in college.

“We had two different sets of interests,” laughs Kizer, president and chairman of Central States Indemnity Co. of Omaha. “I had the beaches of Saint-Tropez and [golf’s] Old Course at Saint Andrews on my list. John was more interested in Dachau [Concentration Camp] outside Munich, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We spent lots of time in Rome.”

Following his continental adventure, Jenkins decided to join Tom at Notre Dame. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1976, followed by a master’s degree in the same subject.

“Notre Dame gave me a superb education, a very vibrant and robust intellectual life, and an ability to combine that with a serious faith,” Jenkins says. “I had questions about my life and what I should do with it. That eventually led me to prayer and to the seminary about a year after I graduated.”

“It didn’t surprise me he became a priest and rose through the ranks,” says Kizer. “There are certain people that, when you meet them, you know they’re a cut above.”

Jenkins’ decision to join Notre Dame’s founding community of priests necessitated a separation from his Omaha family and, according to a 2005 Chicago Tribune article, “a difficult breakup with his [Omaha] girlfriend.” After receiving his doctorate from Oxford, Jenkins returned to his alma mater in 1990 as a professor of philosophy.

Since he first stepped onto what is called the campus “God Quad” in 1973 as a sophomore transfer student from Creighton University, Jenkins’ goal has been to serve the school he loves in whatever capacity it needs. That he would reach the highest level of service makes for an impressive Omaha success story, but not an isolated one.

Jenkins joins several current, high-profile priests with doctorate degrees who call the Omaha area home. William Leahy, S.J., 67, the president of Boston College, was born in Omaha and raised across the Missouri in Imogene, Iowa. Leahy still has family here. Daniel Hendrickson, S.J., 45, is Creighton University’s new president. He calls Fremont home and attended Mount Michael Benedictine High School in Elkhorn. His identical twin, the Rev. Scott Hendrickson, also a Jesuit, teaches at Loyola Chicago. Archbishop Blase Cupich (pronounced SOO-pitch), 66, was recently appointed by Pope Francis to head Chicago’s archdiocese. He grew up in ethnically rich South Omaha. He and Jenkins first met in Rome during the aforementioned backpacking trip and remain friends.

Omaha produces not only heavy hitters in the Catholic Church, but heady intellects as well.

“Omaha has always had an excellent system of Catholic schools,” Jenkins says. “It had a big impact on me, and I’m sure it had a big impact on Bishop Cupich. It’s a vibrant Catholic community.”

“Historically, we have had an unusually high Catholic population,” explains Dr. Burke-Sullivan. Much of that can be traced to the European and Eastern European immigrants who came to work in South Omaha’s meat packing plants. “They brought with them a rich, progressive Catholicism, plus the belief that hard work and cooperation with others is the norm.” She says Omaha’s Jesuit and Benedictine communities influence intellectual pursuit. “And I would not discount the importance of the excellently educated orders of religious women who set up the lower school system.”

The belief in civil, open discourse characterizes much of President Jenkins’ response to a seismic shift in this country’s social thinking. Unlike many of their brethren, neither Archbishop Cupich nor Jenkins condemned the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Cupich, in a letter, pointed out the high court had redefined civil marriage, with no bearing on the Catholic sacrament. He cautioned against discrimination—a sentiment echoed by Jenkins.

“It’s incumbent on us to articulate our views clearly and in a persuasive way, but at the same time to respect those who disagree,” he says. “That’s one of the great challenges: to nurture a more healthy exchange of ideas.”

That “exchange of ideas” turned testy in 2009 when Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to speak at graduation. Because of Obama’s stance on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, his presence at the school caused a furor. Some Catholic bloggers and newsletter editors hurled verbal vitriol at Jenkins. More than 70 bishops condemned the Obama appearance, calling it a “scandalous decision,” as did many faculty members, students, alums, and activists. The emails, letters, and phone calls piled up and piled on.

“The backlash was greater than I expected,” admits Jenkins, who went on to explain the tradition behind the invitation. “From the very beginning, Notre Dame has always invited newly elected presidents to come and receive an honorary degree; just about every one, except for Johnson and Nixon in the ‘60s,” which corresponds to campus unrest during the Vietnam War. “I thought it was particularly important to invite the first African American president, but for a number of reasons it created a tense controversy in the Catholic community and the wider world,” he says in a calm, measured manner.

Through tough times and good, Jenkins “relies on his faith to get him through and uses it for guidance,” says his brother, Tom.

Jenkins’ quiet time, once found in the corner of a basement on 100th Street in Omaha, has moved to a chapel on the Notre Dame campus. His apartment in the Graduate Student Residence also provides solitude.

Known on campus as “Father John” or simply “JJ,” Jenkins, who’ll turn 62 in December, looks fit, lean, and youthful. He works out in the gym and takes daily walks. Exercise, he says, continues to be “an effective stress reliever.”

The recent success of the school’s storied football team also helps relieve stress. When asked if he has gotten over last season’s offensive pass interference call that cost the Fighting Irish the game against Florida State, the priest chuckles and—ever the tactful diplomat— refuses to criticize “the higher power” that is a referee.

“We were kind of thin and had some injuries, but that’s football, as anyone from Nebraska knows.” Jenkins takes pride in a great football team and in the fact the players are also serious students. “The most important thing I tell them is, ‘national championships are great, but get a degree.’”

Amen to that.

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