Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Love Thee, Notre Dame

At the end of October my husband and I traveled from our home in New England out to Colorado, for a visit with our oldest son and his family.  While we were at it, we thought we’d kill two birds with one stone and watch one of Notre Dame’s contests on the road (after making it out to South Bend three times already this season to see the Irish play on their home turf).

About a half-hour after Notre Dame’s 45-10 victory over the United States Air Force Academy that Saturday afternoon, we attended an anticipated Mass.  It was held in a large heated tent on the academy’s grounds, not far from the Falcons’ football stadium.  We are generally not fans of either outdoor Masses or anticipated ones, preferring to attend Sunday morning Masses inside churches.  Especially churches as beautiful as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Notre Dame campus, when we’re lucky enough to make that happen.
This cell phone photo can't begin to do the Basilica's breathtaking ceiling justice.

But since my husband had to catch a couple of connecting flights the next day to get home in time for work on Monday, we decided that we should take advantage of this conveniently-timed Mass that the Notre Dame Club of Colorado Springs had taken pains to provide for any Catholic football fans who might be in the same boat we were that Saturday.  We would never fall back on the “traveler’s dispensation,” except in the most dire and extreme of circumstances, and had been working on finding a church that would offer the earliest possible Mass the next morning; but there was no doubt that this Mass that took place a stone’s throw from the stadium right after the game ended made things a whole lot easier for us that weekend, Mass planning-wise.

The tent was jam-packed with mostly Notre Dame folks, all sporting navy blue, gold, and Kelly green garb.  Just about every article of clothing I saw in that tent—t-shirts, hoodies, parkas, baseball caps, knit hats, gloves, scarves, pants, and even sneakers—was embroidered or silk-screened with leprechauns, shamrocks, or the familiar interlocking N and D.  If you’re a lover of Notre Dame (which our family most definitely is, and then some!), then the Irish-themed congregation that was huddled against the cold under a tent that night was a sight for sore eyes.

A table draped with a dark green damask tablecloth served as an altar, and upon it stood a large golden crucifix.  The priest was very holy and reverent.  The Notre Dame Club members who assisted him were obviously very faith-filled and dedicated.  A young man served as cantor, leading the rest of us in traditional hymns near and dear to any Catholic’s heart.  It was all very beautiful, and I was moved more than I ever thought I would be—surprisingly so.
We arrived early, as they were setting up for Mass.

I was sitting in a tent that had been set up on packed dirt and grass, not in a glorious church with light streaming through its stained-glass windows; yet that night, that tent felt like a cathedral.  And not once, but two or three times—as I sat in my metal folding chair next to my husband, surrounded by faithful Catholics who obviously know that Notre Dame is about so much more than just football, listening to the familiar words of the liturgy—my eyes filled with tears.  My heart was bursting with such warmth and love, contemplating the dedication of those hundreds of fans, who could have rushed out to eat a restaurant dinner or continued the tailgate cook-outs they’d begun before the game…but instead, had rushed to a huge white tent, a temporary House of the Lord, to participate in the un-bloody re-enactment of Christ’s great Sacrifice on the Cross.

This experience, in a nutshell, tells the story of how Notre Dame gets so much right.  The school has been chastised, and rightly so, for some of the mistakes she has made.  When the administration invited the most pro-abortion president in the history of the United States to be the keynote speaker at the 2009 commencement ceremony (and conferred an honorary degree from the university upon him to boot), many of Notre Dame’s most dyed-in-the-wool supporters felt betrayed.  My husband and I were affected by that poor choice in a deeply personal way, because our third oldest son graduated that year.  We were watching the whole scandal unfold, up-close.  We were there in the Joyce Center when the president gave his speech, and our hearts were heavy indeed.  We would have skipped out on it altogether, but our beloved middle son—of whom we were very proud—had worked hard for four years to earn the right to wear a cap and gown that day, and for his sake we weren’t going to miss that.  But for a while afterward, we wondered if Notre Dame was heading in a direction that would lead us to cancel our support of an institution that has been so special to so many members of the Pearl family.

Few earthly institutions are perfect, however, because the human beings who run them are inherently flawed, born as they are with the stain of Original Sin.  And I’ll tell you, that Mass on the USAFA campus reminded me of why I love Notre Dame as much as I do, even though I was never a student there myself.  That Mass was just one example of how Notre Dame gets it right more often than not.  The weekend would not have been complete for Catholic Irish fans solely due to a resounding win on the gridiron; it would only be complete if it also included the opportunity to fulfill our Sunday obligation and receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  It did not surprise my husband and me at all when our son told us that the local chapter of the Notre Dame Club had scheduled this Mass.  That’s the sort of thing you come to expect when you’ve spent any time at all on the Notre Dame campus, or with Notre Dame alumni and fans.

If you are a Catholic parent and you want your child to attend a college where he will have absolutely no problem finding a convenient time or place to attend Sunday Mass (and plenty of like-minded students who will attend with him), there is no better place on God’s green earth than the Notre Dame campus.  Every single dorm holds a Sunday Mass in its chapel--some of them as late as 10:00 p.m., for those students who may have been traveling that day or who sleep through their alarms in the morning.  The Basilica has a full schedule of Masses, including anticipated Masses planned around football games on fall Saturdays.  Everywhere you look as you walk around that beautiful slice of Heaven in Indiana, there are many reminders of its Catholicity.  My goodness, have you been to the Grotto, a faithful replica of the original one at Lourdes?  Your soul can’t help but be touched there.  And of course the most iconic image of all is the statue of Mary, Notre Dame (which of course means “Our Lady,” in French), standing there on top of that gleaming dome, right in the heart of the campus named for Her.  That’s what it’s all about, people: it’s about providing an education that is not only academically challenging, but informed by and irrevocably tied to the Catholic Faith.  Football is only a small part of Notre Dame’s raison d’etre.  And national championships are certainly not the most important items on the list of things she’ll fight for.
Football weekend in 2002, when our oldest son was a freshman at ND.

My husband’s youngest brother (ND Class of 1992) has a good friend who didn’t grow up in South Bend, but settled there after graduation and still calls it home.  We saw this family friend earlier in the season at a football weekend get-together, and he described living in close proximity to his alma mater in this way: “It’s like living in a Catholic Disneyland.”  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty ideal to my hubby and me.

Not that long ago, our New England town boasted three thriving Catholic parishes; but due to decreased vocations and a shortage of available priests to serve as pastors, these have now been combined into one large parish.  We wonder what will happen if this newly-formed parish ever has to close its doors.  And then we think about the one place we know of that always seems to have not just enough, but more than enough, priests to serve the needs of its faithful: our dear Notre Dame (a.k.a.—“Catholic Disneyland”).  Every time we attend a special Mass there, whether for a freshman orientation, a Junior Parents Weekend, or a graduation, the altar is filled with concelebrating priests.  One day, we just might have to relocate to South Bend, if only to be assured that we will never have to worry about priest shortages.  Yes indeed, we just might have to retire near that special place where Our Lady watches over all from Her perch atop a dome of gold.
My soon-to-be second daughter-in-law snapped this photo.  I think it's exquisite.
There was a bit of a brouhaha not long ago, when Coach Brian Kelly announced that his team would no longer stand facing the student section of the stadium—after losses, that is—to join their friends and classmates in singing the school’s Alma Mater, “Notre Dame, Our Mother.”  The practice of having the team head over to sing the Alma Mater along with their most ardent supporters—those ever-faithful student-fans--after every home game, win or lose, was begun under former Coach Charlie Weis.  Many students and alumni were understandably upset by Kelly’s change in policy, because the Alma Mater is not just a run-of-the-mill secular fight song.  It is in fact a prayer to Our Lady, who watches over the university named for Her, and whom we should invoke in good times and in bad…not only when celebrating our victories, but maybe even more importantly when striving to deal graciously and bravely with our defeats.  The song that the students sing (along with so many other loyal fans in the stands) at the end of each game, as they sway back and forth with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders, is not sung in praise of a mere academic institution or a popular football program, no matter how storied; it is sung in praise of and with love for the most holy Mother of God.

Notre Dame, Our Mother [Alma Mater]

Notre Dame, our Mother
Tender, strong and true
Proudly in the heavens,
Gleams thy gold and blue.

Glory's mantle cloaks thee
Golden is thy fame,
And our hearts forever,
Praise thee, Notre Dame.

And our hearts forever,
Love thee, Notre Dame.

Every time my husband hears this song, he gets choked up and his eyes fill with tears.  And trust me, you don’t need to have graduated from Notre Dame to experience that very same reaction.

Love thee, Notre Dame.  Forever and ever.  Amen.
Sporting blue and gold--of course!--during one of our recent trips to one of my favorite places.
Written by the wife of an alumnus (Class of 1980), as well as the mother of three alumni sons (2006, 2009, and 2010), one son who spent two of his undergraduate years matriculating at Our Lady's university, and another son who is slated to graduate in 2015.

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