Pope Francis encouraged Notre Dame University to continue honoring its Catholic identity in the future, through a strong commitment to education and witness to Church moral teaching.

"It is my hope 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," Pope Francis said in a Jan. 30 address.

His words were directed to a delegation of 140 trustees and administrators from the University of Notre Dame – including University President Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. – who had traveled from Indiana to Italy in order to inaugurate the school's new Rome Center.

The pope welcomed the new center with hope that it would expose students "to the unique historical, cultural and spiritual riches" of Rome and that it would open "their minds and hearts to the impressive continuity between the faith of Saints Peter and Paul, and the confessors and martyrs of every age" of the Catholic Church, including in the world today.

The Holy Father asked the trustees to "defend," "preserve" and "advance" the Catholic identity of the school "as it was intended from the beginning."

He said that from its founding by Father Edward Sorin, "Notre Dame University has made an outstanding contribution to the Church" in the United States through its commitment to religious education as well as its "serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and virtue."

Pope Francis voiced appreciation for Notre Dame's role in improving Catholic education at all levels, particularly in light of the "critical importance" of education in the New Evangelization.

He emphasized that this vision of Catholic education remains central to Notre Dame's "distinctive identity and its service to the Church and American society," even "in the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century."

Essential to the testimony of Catholic universities, the pontiff continued, "is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church's moral teaching" as well as the "defense of her freedom."

This defense, both "in and through her institutions," he added, must "uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors."

Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which monitors and supports faithful identity in Catholic education, told CNA that Pope Francis seems to be calling Notre Dame to a path of fidelity, which begins with an institutional commitment to the faith and the Church's vision for Catholic universities.  

While Reilly said that the school has experienced problems with Catholic identity in the past, he added that "there is a faithful cohort of students and faculty present on campus."

In 2009, the university came under pressure for inviting U.S. President Barack Obama to speak at the school's commencement and awarding him an honorary degree, despite his vocal support for legal abortion.

The university has also drawn criticism for its announcement earlier this month that it will comply with provisions of the federal contraception mandate that will result in free contraception, sterilization and early abortion drugs being given to those under university health insurance policies.

Notre Dame has filed a lawsuit over the mandate and had unsuccessfully sought a court order to block the mandate's enforcement while its case worked its way through the court system. The lawsuit will continue, but the university is cooperating with the mandate pending a ruling. Failure to comply could have resulted in massive fines.

In a Jan. 30 statement, Reilly described the university as being "at a crossroads," where it must choose between compromise and fidelity.

"The Holy Father has clearly called Notre Dame to the better path," he said, "as have hundreds of thousands of American Catholics who treasure faithful Catholic education."