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Posted October 21, 2014

MSW Visits Notre Dame

Michael Sean Winters | Oct. 9, 2014 Distinctly Catholic
National Catholic Reporter

By reputation, I had long been aware that the University of Notre Dame is a great Catholic university. This past weekend, for the very first time, I made the trek to South Bend and was able to assess that reputation first hand and, in the event, to confirm it. I have many impressions of my whirlwind three days on campus. Here are some of them.

Sunday night, about 10:15 p.m., I went out for a last cigarette before bedtime. (One complaint about the school - there is a dearth of ashtrays!) The campus was eerily quiet in front of my hotel so I kept walking, across the street to the academic quad, and there was no one heading to Legends, the Irish pub at the far end. I walked north to a residential quad but there was no one out and about there. On the way back to my hotel room, I passed four students walking along a path. The man who valet parks the cars at the hotel was standing idle. I wondered: How remote is this place? Is there really nothing to do on a weekend night? The next morning, I learned the reason for this strange quietude in the middle of a campus of some 12,000 students. Every residence hall has its own chapel and all the residence halls hold their Mass at 10 p.m. The quietude was not spiritual quiet. The place was simply at prayer. The next time I read some conservative critic challenge Notre Dame for being insufficiently Catholic, I will not even bother to argue, and just ask them if they have been on campus on a Sunday night around 10:15. Or I will simply laugh at the charge.

Saturday, we went to the Notre Dame-Stanford game. There is no excitement like the excitement of a college football game, 80,000 people crammed into the place, many of them much older than I had anticipated, people who have probably been attending games since before I was born. I had not checked the weather the day before and a sudden cold and wet front came in. It was miserable and, fearing I would catch cold on the first day of my visit, we went to the hotel room for the second half. Everett Golson obliged us with a last minute touchdown pass that won the game. But, what stands out from that day for me is not the band, although they were great, nor the tailgating before the game, although the Center on Ethics and Culture served up some great brats and pulled pork, nor the singing of the alma mater at game's end. (Does anyone else, except Domers, even remember their school's alma mater?) At the after party, I was welcomed into the home of someone I did not know, introduced to many people I had never met, and after five minutes conversation about the thrilling finish to the game, and an explanation from our hostess about what all the food was, I was treated to about three hours of one of the most intellectually voracious conversations I have ever been party to. You could feel the intellectual energy in the room as sociologists, law professors, and theologians weighed in on a variety of topics. We discussed Catholic higher ed, we discussed the incoming Archbishop of Chicago, we discussed the First Amendment, we discussed the upcoming elections, we discussed President Obama, we discussed advances in some kind of medical technology they are working on at campus (actually I just listened to that part because I know next to nothing about science). A great university, committed to academic excellence, produces such synergy of mind as I encountered at the after-game party. I drank a lot, but not just the wine. The hospitality of spirit matched the hospitality of food and drink and I left there wondering if I should reconsider my largely hermetic lifestyle back in DC.

Sunday morning Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart was very beautiful. The church building itself is as acute an expression of Victorian Gothic revival architecture as you are likely to encounter, and that is not my cup of tea. But, like the rococo churches of Austria which similarly leave no space unadorned, the basilica at Notre Dame speaks to the piety of those who built it. Those murals and finials and the elaborate tabernacle were expressions of religious faith by the people who built the church. And, I should add, that faith did not die with the Victorians. The 10 a.m. Mass was more than standing room only and there is nothing quite like worshipping in a jam-packed church. The presider Father Bill Lies, CSC, Vice President for Mission Engagement and Church Affairs at the school, gave a fine homily to boot. And the 1950s Holtkamp organ did its best but will next year be replaced, as it should be, by a more magnificent Fritts organ. The acoustics in the room will have an instrument worthy of their sonority and the experience of worship will be even more refined by this important addition. The organ building industry had struggled more than most during the economic downturn in 2008 and it is good that some institutions with the resources to keep these highly skilled craftsmen employed have stepped up to the plate.

That afternoon I had coffee or drinks with some of the professors whose work I have long admired. Nothing was on the record, but let me just say that the communion of conversation was as edifying in its way as the communion of faith at Mass, except that the disagreements in the conversation are often the best part and there is no such corollary for the communion of faith. Some of my intellectual heroes teach at Notre Dame and getting to meet some of them for the first time, and re-engage others whom I have met here in DC, was enormously satisfying.

The purpose of my trip was to speak to a journalism class. The students were not only attentive but inquisitive and the questions they asked were both good and difficult. Some of the questions addressed issues I had thought about vaguely, but required me to think about precisely: It was as if the students were being professor to me. The sense of intellectual energy I had perceived on Saturday night in a room full of professors is clearly bleeding into the student body as it should. I hope to encounter some of those bright young students some day as colleagues.

Yesterday, I was on the phone with a friend who is not a Domer, not a Catholic, not even a believer. And she commented on the fact that here in DC, there is a greater sense of attachment to Notre Dame among its alumni than any other school she can think of - and she grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts a few blocks from Harvard. "Really, I see sixty year-olds putting Notre Dame collars on their dogs. Who else does that?" she asked. The culture of Notre Dame is unlike that of any other school I can think of and it is a culture that not only values academic excellence and Catholic identity in equal measure, it lives those commitments in just about everything it does. "Quite a place you got here," I told Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, when I stopped by to thank him for his hospitality. I have never experienced anything like it; It was like having all my Catholic intellectual batteries re-charged.

Tomorrow, I will discuss Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education program.