Saturday, March 21, 2009

Madame Ambassador, Laetare Laureate

Amid controversy over its chosen commencement speaker, it's now emerged that President Obama will share the Notre Dame stage with the "first lady" of American Catholicism.

At this hour, as the bells of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart toll in Laetare Sunday, the university has announced Mary Ann Glendon -- the Harvard Law star, pro-life force, Vatican A-lister and, until January, former President Bush's ambassador to the Holy See -- as its 2009 recipient of the Stateside church's oldest and most prestigious honor, the Laetare Medal.

Established by Notre Dame in 1883, the annual award was envisioned as the American counterpart to the Golden Rose -- the ancient gift bestowed by the Popes on Catholic queens and, more frequently in today's world, Marian shrines. Along the way, its winners have included artists, academics, politicians... and even journalists. In 1961, the Laetare was given to John F. Kennedy weeks into the lone Catholic occupancy of the White House.

This year's Laetare is the first time the medal has been awarded outright to a woman since 1996, when it was given to the "death-row nun" Sister Helen Prejean CSJ. Last year, the actor Martin Sheen took the nod.

The decisions involving the Laetare and Obama's invitation to speak were understood to be taken independently of each other -- the Laetare winner is customarily notified of their selection sometime before Christmas, while word from South Bend says that the President had not been confirmed as commencement speaker until recent days.

As the Laetare laureate, the woman once dubbed "God's Lawyer" -- a human rights specialist by trade -- will share the dais and speak alongside Barack Obama at Notre Dame's graduation exercises on 17 May.