The Laetare Medal was conceived by University of Notre Dame professor James Edwards as an American version of the papal award the Golden Rose. It was approved of by the university's founder Father Edward Sorin. The Golden Rose has existed since the 11th century, and was customarily awarded to a royal person on Laetare Sunday, although this was rarely done during the 20th century. The university adapted this tradition — awarding a gold medal, instead of a rose — to a distinguished American Catholic on Laetare Sunday. The medal has the Latin inscription "Magna est veritas et prevalebit," meaning "Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.
A candidate for the award must be a practising American Catholic who has made a distinctively Catholic contribution in their professional of intellectual life. A committee generally takes names of potential recipients from faculty and staff at the University of Notre Dame. They select two or three candidates from this group, which are voted on by the Officers of the University.
The recipients of the Laetare Medal come from varied fields. They include jazz musician Dave Brubeck, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement Dorothy Day, ambassador and author Clare Boothe Luce, US President John F. Kennedy, operatic tenor John McCormack, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, surgeon Joseph Murray, novelist Walker Percy, death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean, and American Civil War General William Rosecrans. In 1965, the thermodynamicist Frederick Rossini became the first faculty member of the University of Notre Dame to receive the medal. The 2008 recipient was Martin Sheen, a noted actor and political activist.