NOTRE DAME, Ind. (CNS) — A standing ovation in a packed Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame greeted the Little Sisters of the Poor who were on campus April 9 to receive the Evangelium Vitae Award for outstanding service to human life.

The Little Sisters operate 30 homes in the United States that offer health care and assisted living for more than 13,000 low-income seniors.

The medal has been presented annually since 2011 by the university’s Center for Ethics and Culture. Awardees are announced on Respect Life Sunday in October, with the honor being conferred the following spring.

The 2016 award event took place about two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the lawsuit brought by the Little Sisters, Catholic dioceses and other entities, and other faith-based groups against the federal mandate that requires most employers, including religious employers, to offer employee health insurance that covers contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs — even if the employer is morally opposed to such coverage.

The unusual standing ovation erupted early in the homily of Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend at the Mass preceding the award banquet. He alluded to the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, comparing the sisters’ witness to that of the apostles who were called before the Sanhedrin, a religious court, and told to stop teaching in the name of Jesus.

“At this Mass, there is a community of sisters with us who, in the face of a terribly unjust mandate of our federal government, have stood up, and by their actions have said what St. Peter and the apostles said to their government in the earliest years of the church: ‘We must obey God rather than men,’” the bishop said.

He added: “I wish to say to the Little Sisters of the Poor who will receive the Evangelium Vitae medal this evening, thank you for your courageous witness!”

The enthusiastic ovation then erupted in the congregation heavy with Notre Dame students. The response reflected some of the high emotions that have swirled on campus since Notre Dame’s administration announced March 5 that the university’s 2016 Laetare Medal would be given at the May 15 graduation ceremony to Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner.

The Democrat and Republican, respectively, are both Catholic.

The Laetare Medal, inaugurated in 1883, is the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics in recognition of outstanding service to the church and society. Past recipients have included people such as President John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Some members of the Notre Dame community strongly object to the 2016 choice because Biden has a record of disagreeing with Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage. The Notre Dame Chapter of University Faculty for Life unanimously approved a statement opposing the decision to give Biden the award, and a student petition with the same sentiment has been circulating.

Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, has said the two men are not being honored for policy positions but for their public service and dedication to civility in public discourse.

However, Rhoades, in whose diocese Notre Dame is located, had a different reaction. In a March 14 statement, he noted that when Jenkins discussed with him the consideration of the two men for the medal, he told Jenkins it is wrong to honor any “pro-choice” public official, even if that person has positive accomplishments in public service.

“The Church has continually urged public officials, especially Catholics, of the grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that supports or facilitates abortion or that undermines the authentic meaning of marriage,” the bishop wrote in his March statement. “I disagree with awarding someone for ‘outstanding service to the church and society’ who has not been faithful to this obligation.”

Rhoades did not refer to the controversy in his homily at the April 9 Evangelium Vitae Mass, but people who had been following Notre Dame news recognized that the bishop alluded to the situation, particularly in a section of the homily where he said: “Preaching with our life, with our witness, is necessary, and it takes courage.”

“The church’s credibility is undermined, Pope Francis says, when there is an inconsistency on the part of pastors and the faithful between what we say and what we do, between word and manner of life,” said the bishop.

“There must be a consistency between what we profess and the way we live, and this includes not only our personal lives,” he continued, “but also the lives of our communities, in our dioceses and parishes, our Catholic schools and universities, our Catholic health care facilities and other institutions.”

At the banquet after the Mass, the Evangelium Vitae medal was conferred on Little Sister of the Poor Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, who as U.S. mother provincial of the international order, represented the sisters. Over a dozen Little Sisters of the Poor and some residents from several of the sisters’ homes also attended.

Conferring the medal was Notre Dame law professor Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and Culture. Recently, he was named to the Pontifical Academy for Life, which advises the pope on life issues.

Maguire said the Little Sisters were “honored beyond words” to receive the award, and she thanked the sisters’ residents for making the sisters’ ministry — and the award — possible.

She related that the sisters had faced many challenges in their legal battle, but also had “received many graces and an outpouring of love and support” and had come to “a new level of faith and trust in God’s Divine Providence over us.”

Maguire credited the power of prayer for helping the Little Sisters through the recent difficult months, saying that prayer is essential for being able to show acceptance and respect for others with a different belief system, while also witnessing to the truth.

She urged supporters at the banquet to consider “our common commitment to the Gospel of life in this ‘Year of Mercy’” by following Pope Francis’s encouragement to “gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.”

The Evangelium Vitae Award is accompanied by a $10,000 prize. Past winners include the Knights of Columbus and the Sisters of Life.

Carey writes for Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.