“The Former Altar Boy: An Interview with Joe Donnelly ‘77, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See

Author: Coffman, Samuel


Double Domer Joe Donnelly (class of 1977 and law school class of 1981) still doesn’t know the prayers of the Catholic Mass in Latin. He didn’t know them when he was an altar boy at age nine in Massapequa, New York, and he doesn’t know them now as the United States Ambassador to the Holy See. “They expected nine-year-olds to have paragraphs of Latin memorized,” he jokes. Instead, they just mumbled words and no one really knew the difference.

Donnelly has a few talking points he likes to stick to. On podcasts, in Senate floor speeches, or in interviews, Donnelly always talks about his family. His grandmother came to America from Ireland with only ten dollars in assets when she arrived at Ellis Island. In his farewell speech on the floor of the Senate on Dec. 11, 2018, Donnelly said, “I am the grandson of immigrants. Immigrants who come here with nothing except the dream of America — that any opportunity can come true, that if you work hard, you can accomplish anything.”

That dream, which the Ambassador still believes in, is how he translates the United States foreign policy priorities to the seat of the Catholic faith in his current role. For Donnelly, there are shared values between Catholicism and America in the idea that everybody has a shot.

Donnelly is no stranger to the bridge between public life in America and Catholicism. He once served on the Marian School Board (a Roman Catholic school in Mishawaka). He’s one of a handful of Catholic Senators from Indiana. However, his current job isn’t necessarily to speak out on the topics of faith but instead to advocate directly to the Pope the foreign policy priorities of the United States. He gets asked about theological topics from time to time, but he never

comments — that’s not his job..

Ambassador Donnelly was confirmed by the Senate 25 days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I tried to speak clearly on Ukraine and Russia from the start,” he says.

When the Vatican wasn’t saying enough, it was incumbent on the U.S. to make sure they understood the stakes. Everyone hears when the Pope speaks, Donnelly says. From the leaders of the world to the smallest villages, the words of the Holy See are powerful. In Donnelly’s mind, Vladimir Putin is the “corner bully” of the world right now. He feels it is his job to stand up for what is right.


“To be a Senator from Indiana was an incredible honor,” Donnelly tells me. He came to Indiana from New York to attend Notre Dame, where he received his degree in Government, going on to graduate with his Juris Doctor from Notre Dame Law School in 1981. His wife, Jill, is from South Bend, so it’s where he ended up. Donnelly unsuccessfully ran for State Attorney General in 1988 and Indiana’s Second Congressional District in 2004. But in 2006, increasingly concerned about the policies of President George W. Bush, who was waning in popularity, Donnelly successfully beat incumbent Chris Chocola. He launched his candidacy for Senate in the 2012 election, winning against Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. In a leaning red state, (which has gone crimson since), “Hoosiers put a lot of faith in me to do what’s right” said Donnelly, a member of the Democratic Party

We’re actually both Hoosier men. I mentioned that I was from Muncie in Delaware County. He turned to his staffer in the interview and quipped, “Ahh, I always did well there.” He did; the county leans Democratic. But his support wasn’t enough to win him reelection. In 2018, he lost his seat to Republican businessman Mike Braun. On election night, he gave a concession speech surrounded by his family, whom he said, “put up with all of this for years.” I asked him about why he quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in the speech when he said, “We all came here in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat together.” The tone of the speech is warm and pushing for unity for the state, he names staff and advisors he’s grateful for, but he was thinking something more, he tells me. “I was concerned with what was happening, and it’s

only gotten worse.” Cruelty has become more popular than helping people in his mind. He talked to me for a minute about cruelty in our political discourse and we go to the changing morals in America. But if the morals are changing from the “American Dream” story he believes in, isn’t it difficult to represent those here in Rome?

“Well, President Biden is rock solid,” he assures me. And the work that Donnelly and his staff are doing reflects the morals of America he hopes to represent to the Holy See. But, he acknowledges that we’re in a different time in today’s politics. Even when he was concerned in 2018, Donnelly says, “I never thought on our worst day that our Capitol would be attacked.” He shifts to sit up straight in his seat before he continues. He had gotten to know the workers of the Capitol complex in his time in Congress and he reminds me that it’s not just legislators there but lunch ladies, police officers and congressional staffers. Donnelly is visibly upset when talking about January 6. “Anybody who was a part of something like that,” he says, “it’s beyond me how they can look at themselves in the mirror.”

When Fr. Theodore Hesburgh died in 2015, Donnelly honored him on the floor of the Senate. Donnelly was set to travel to Selma, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of the start of the Civil Rights marches, and said he would “take Fr. Ted’s example with me on that journey.” Donnelly was accepted to the university as an undergraduate during Hesburgh’s presidency and credits Hesburgh as the one who gave him a chance at the university. At both his Senate floor speech and his memorial service speech honoring Hesburgh, he closed by talking about the “God, Country, Notre Dame” inscription that’s above the door of Sacred Heart Basilica.

Donnelly says Hesburgh’s legacy and the words of the inscription fuel the values he puts in his work. In 2014, on a livestream event with the Notre Dame Alumni Association, Donnelly said, “I have a Notre Dame degree, so if I get voted out for doing what’s right, I can find another job.” When he lost his Senate seat four years later, he found one. Now as the Eternal City, and billions of Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the Easter holiday, Donnelly will

celebrate, too, with his family. Even amid the difficult conflicts that the U.S. is attempting to solve, the altar boy turned Ambassador to the Holy See, is still trying to make a difference.