A woman prays inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
Notre Dame: Signs of faith on campus
Michael C. Barber, SJ
A few weeks ago I was invited by the University of Notre Dame to join a conference composed of bishops and directors of campus ministry programs from across the United States. The goal of our meeting was how can we better reach out to youth and bring them to Christ and His Church.
I had been a university chaplain, which is the "Queen's English" for a campus minister, at Oxford University in England, for a few years in the mid-1990s. It was an assignment I loved, and I am still in touch with many of the former students, who are now professionals with families.
But I want to tell you about my impressions of the University of Notre Dame. I've heard about it all these years, ever since I saw the famous movie, "Knute Rockne, All-American," filmed in 1940 with Pat O'Brien and a very young Ronald Reagan.
I was picked up at the South Bend train station by a retired gentleman who knew all about Notre Dame's history and the Fathers of the Holy Cross Order, who were its founders. He was an extremely loyal fan and a wonderful representative. He drove me to the University of Notre Dame hotel. It's a college that has its own hotel smack in the middle of campus.
The hotel is amazing. You walk in and there's a golden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the end of the corridor. You go in the elevator to go up to your room and there in the elevator in a giant poster are the Mass times of all the Masses offered on campus. They have 140 Masses a week offered in different chapels around the campus. I go to my room in the hotel, open the door and there's a big crucifix right on the wall. I look at the bed and there's a blanket with the crest of Notre Dame on it. I open the dresser drawer near the bed and there, in addition to the Gideon Bible, is the Notre Dame prayer book. Everywhere, I saw little elements and reminders of our Catholic faith.
Since we had so many meetings at this conference, I had very little time to tour the campus. As soon as I got there, before our conference started, I ran down to the university church, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. From the outside, it looks like a French cathedral. The Holy Cross Fathers who founded the University of Notre Dame were from France. I went in and was so moved by the spectacular beauty. The ceilings are all frescoed in gold and blue. On the high altar, there's a giant golden tabernacle. But what impressed me the most: It was 4 o'clock on a Monday afternoon and two priests were in the confessional, hearing confessions. Students were lined up on both sides going to confession. It was amazing … on a Monday afternoon!
We were told that our group was going to have Mass the next morning at 7 in the chapel of the physics building across the street. I said out loud in amazement, "The Physics Building has a chapel?" They said to me, "Oh yes, almost all the buildings on campus have a chapel in them, including all the dormitories."
We walked over just before 7 a.m. and it was still dark outside. However, we could not get into the chapel where we were going to have Mass because there were eight professors saying a public rosary in the chapel. Physics professors, praying the rosary, in public! I've never seen such a thing!
One of the things I did while I was there was have lunch with a student who attends Notre Dame who is from Oakland. He served at my Mass a year or two ago at St. Joseph's Old Mission. I told him if I ever went to Notre Dame I would look him up. I invited him to lunch and asked him what he was studying. "Philosophy and theology," he said.
So, I asked him, "What do you do for fun?" He said, "I am in the Schola, the choir for the weekly Latin Mass." I asked, "You have Latin Mass on this campus?" "Oh, yes" he replied, "and it has a good attendance. I have also been elected president of my dorm and I arrange the weekly dorm Mass that we have and a lot of students come. It's on a weekday night and we have a pizza party after Mass. It's less formal, but a lot of kids come."
On my last night there, I was invited to the Jesuit Community for a dinner. The Holy Cross Order run Notre Dame but the Society of Jesus, my order, has a house of studies there because so many young Jesuit priests are doing masters and doctoral degrees at Notre Dame.
At the end of our dinner they asked me if I had seen the Notre Dame Grotto yet? I said, "no." They quickly said, "OK, we are going right now." It was 9:30 at night! So we all piled in the car and drove around campus. They took me to this absolutely wonderful place.
In 1896, a priest alumnus of Notre Dame donated the construction of a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes, France. It's slightly reduced in size, but they even have a stone from the original Lourdes Grotto.
They also have a statue of Mary in the cave. It's in a beautiful part of campus near the lake, surrounded by trees. But what's most amazing is that at 9:30 at night, on a school night, the Grotto was illuminated with hundreds of candles. And there were students there. Some were sitting, some kneeling, praying. Some were out jogging and would stop, kneel down for a minute, say a prayer and continue their jogging around the lake.
It was an absolutely wonderful, beautiful, mystical place to pray and to be there with Mary. And the young Jesuit who took me there said, "Oh yes, this in a sense is the heart of campus. When they had the recent shooting in Las Vegas, hundreds of students showed up that night here at the Grotto for a spontaneous rosary."
We say, and I have said for a long time, that the purpose of the Catholic Church is to make a place where people can experience Jesus and Jesus can be with His people. I really saw that at Notre Dame, even in my very short visit, just from these few small things. I'm sure there's much more to it, when it comes to their curriculum, instruction and coursework. But even for an outsider like me to see this, I was very impressed.
Before I left, the Jesuits who were with me said to me, "next time you come you have to see the second most important temple on this campus." And I said, "Oh, what is that?" "The football stadium!"
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