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from issue no. 06 - 2003

Anniversaries. The seven hundredth anniversary of La Sapienza University, 1303-2003

Pope Wojtyla Doctor of Law

La Sapienza University of Rome, on the occasion of its seventh hundred anniversary, conferred on the Pope a Doctorate in jurisprudence. Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, a former student of the University, speaks about the event. Interview.

by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe Prefect of Propaganda Fide

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe Prefect of Propaganda Fide

On 17 May, the eve of his eighty-third birthday, John Paul II received an honoris causa Doctorate in jurisprudence from La Sapienza University in Rome. The solemn academic event was celebrated in the Aula of Paul VI in the Vatican. The honorary Doctorate was bestowed on the Pope because “he has contributed and contributes to the universal affirmation of human rights, of justice and of peace and to the relationship between persons and peoples”.
After the speeches by the Rector of the University, Giuseppe D’Ascenzo, and of the Dean of the Faculty of Jurisprudence, Carlo Angelici, and the Laudatio by Professor Pietro Rescigno, Lecturer in Civil Law, John Paul II delivered the Lectio magistralis. L’Osservatore Romano (18 May) dedicated four pages to the event, also printing the speeches of Professors D’Ascenzo, Angelici and Rescigno word for word.
Various state authorities attended the event (the President of the Cabinet, Silvio Berlusconi, the President of the Constitutional Court, Riccardo Chieppa, and the Governor of the Bank of Italy, Antonio Fazio), and also ecclesiastical figures including Cardinal Dean Joseph Ratzinger. Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of Propaganda Fidei, 60 years old on 2 June, the youngest of the Department Heads of the Roman Curia also participated in the academic event. The Cardinal from Campania was in the Aula of Paul VI in the double role of close collaborator of the Pontiff and of former student of the Sapienza, where he had studied between 1968 and 1971, taking a degree in philosophy. It was precisely because of this double role that 30Days asked the Cardinal about the historic honoris causa Doctorate conferred on the Pope by the Sapienza. The “red Pope” – so the Head of the Department of the Missions is traditionally called, because of the vastness of his jurisdiction – received us in Piazza di Spagna, in the historic center of Rome. He was just back from a journey to tormented Africa - it was there that he celebrated his birthday – where among other things he consecrated the Marian sanctuary of Kibeho in Ruanda and celebrated mass in the sanctuary of the Ugandan martyrs of Namugongo, on the outskirts of Kampala, in the presence of hundreds of thousands of faithful.

Your Eminence, as a former student of the Sapienza, what impression did the Doctorate that the First University of the City conferred on John Paul II make on you?
CRESCENZIO SEPE: For me it was a little like returning to when I was a young student and attending the lectures of Professor Gregory in the History of Philosophy, of Professor Guerra in Moral Philosophy, but especially those of Professor Castelli in the Philosophy of Religion and of Professor Biscione in the Philosophy of History. In fact I took my degree in the latter subject with a thesis on the concept of expectation, going from the ancient Greek writers down to the Christian conception of expectation in relation to the concept of hope. I attended the Sapienza in particular and somewhat difficult years:it was ’68 ....
Would you ever have imagined one day seeing a Pope honored with an honoris causa Doctorate?
SEPE: It would have been absolutely unthinkable then. The climate was not very favorable to the Church. On the contrary. It was not that we priests were looked on too well either....
La Sapienza is the eleventh university in the world, and the first in Italy, to confer on Karol Wojtyla a Doctorate honoris causa. Here is the complete list of the Universities that have “graduated”him: 23 June 1977 Johannes Gutenburg University of Mainz (Germany) 6 May 1982 University of Cambridge (Great Britain) 15 May 1982 University of Coimbra (Portugal) 17 June 1983 Catholic University of Lublin (Poland) 22 June 1983 Jagellonica University of Cracow (Poland) 30 October 1986 The Franciscan University of Steubinville (USA) 8 February 2000 The Stanislaw Staszic Academy of Mineralogy and Metallurgy of Cracow (Poland) 26 March 2001 University of Poznan (Poland) 16 October 2001 The Warsaw Advanced Institute of Agriculture (Poland) 15 December 2001 The Cardinal Wyszynski University of Warsaw (Poland) 17 May 2003 La Sapienza University of Rome (Italy)
And yet today it has happened....
SEPE: Yes, and it’s something to be happy about. On the one hand the gigantic figure of this Pope has contributed to it, and on the other the whole evolution within the University, with greater openness and sensitivity to different values, and a weakening of those currents among non-credents that were still strong not too many years ago.
As far as you know was there any opposition to the decision to confer the Doctorate on the Pope?
SEPE: From what I can make out there was opposition from nobody.
What does it mean that a secular, non-ecclesiastical university, confers a Doctorate on a Pope?
SEPE: One should remember that La Sapienza was founded by the Bull In supremae proclaimed by Boniface VIII on 20 April 1303. It seems natural to me that to celebrate its 700 years of existence La Sapienza should honor a living Pope with a Doctorate. Added to which there is the stature of this Pope, one who has made himself felt through a whole series of teachings not only in the ecclesiastical and theological spheres, but also in the philosophical, social and civil spheres. It was rightly decided to confer a Doctorate in jurisprudence on the Pope, thus highlighting his commitment to human rights, to the dignity of man in all its varied aspects.
Even if not all of the Pope’s teachings on these subjects are then accepted....
SEPE: It’s true that not everyone accepts certain determined forms of behavior which these rights involve. For example, not everyone agrees that, as the Pope stated in his Lectio magistralis, “human life is sacred and inviolable from its conception up to its natural ending”. But when one refers to human dignity, to the value of the human person, the respect which every man must have towards every other man as a human being, one is referring to matters accepted by everyone and in every age.
In the Doctorate certificate it is suggested that the title “Great” should be bestowed on John Paul II, a title which according to the Pontifical Annual has until now only been conceded to three pontiff saints of the first millennium (Leo I, Gregory I and Nicholas I). Was it only a gesture of courtesy?
SEPE: It’s not the first time that I have heard it said that the title “Great” should be attributed to this Pope. Others have already suggested it and not only from within the Catholic Church. It has to do with the recognition of his greatness at the international level also. Non-Catholics and non-Christians also recognize the moral grandeur of this Pope, who has in fact become a point of reference for all. Even if the message that he proclaims is not always listened to.
Your Eminence, a question about the activity of the Congregation you head. Can you give us some idea of how the World Missionary Day, programmed for Sunday 19 October, will be celebrated this year?
SEPE: The World Missionary Day coincides this year with two great events: the twenty-fifth anniversary of this pontificate, which occurs on Thursday 16 October, and the ceremony of the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, planned for the same Sunday 19. We thought therefore of a prayer vigil which will take place on the afternoon and the evening of Saturday 18. There will be representatives from the five continents and it will focus on the missionary aspect of the Church which today sees in lay people and catechists especially a drive towards implantatio Ecclesiae in the lands first evangelized.

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