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The cocaine was in the back bedroom. Not my scene. I have always been more of a shot and beer and a shot and a beer and a shot and a beer and a shot and a beer man, myself. I wasn’t in the market for a new habit that evening, so I declined my share of Colombia’s finest, comfortable in the knowledge that my comparatively abstemious nature would mean a healthier portion for someone with a better traveled nose than my own.
At Notre Dame, we are not above trafficking in portents (or narcotics…), so I was especially averse to dabbling in the illicit that particular evening. One ought not tempt the wrath of the Almighty by taking up law-breaking on one’s first night in law school. At least, that was what I believed. But looking around the room at my new classmates, it was clear there was a healthy diversity of opinion as to what constituted impermissible taunting of He under whose sign we had come to study. But what was never in dispute that evening or any other was the sign itself. Pablo Escobar may cater the mixers, but we all knew and would never deny that Christ Crucified quietly watched over even the snowiest noses at Notre Dame.
If that doesn’t make sense to you, if you find our discordant cocktail of sanctity and depravity difficult to understand, then you don’t know Notre Dame. But that’s alright; allow me to explain her to you.
If you want to understand Notre Dame, you need look no further than its relationship to Holy Mass. The celebration of Mass is taken very seriously at Notre Dame. Mass is celebrated twice daily at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the great church that, together with the Golden Dome, stands as architectural testimony to the inseparability of mind and spirit on the Notre Dame campus. But well-attended Masses are also celebrated in the residence halls, the business school, and the law school chapel. There are Latin Masses, Greek Masses, Spanish Masses. There are fellowship Masses, African-American Masses, outdoor Masses. There is even the ersatz communion of televised Masses for the Notre Dame faithful who would kneel among the Fighting Irish if they could, but sadly can be on campus only in spirit.
Lovely though all these services may be, the sheer number of Masses doesn’t tell you much about Notre Dame. After all, there are other colleges and universities that take religious services seriously. Rather, what sets Notre Dame apart from the rest, what captures its essence so completely, is not all the many masses, but just one. If you want to know Notre Dame, you must know the Football Mass.
I know what you’re thinking. This miserable hack is about to spend 2,000 words comparing a crisp autumn day in Notre Dame Stadium to the experience of the Real Presence felt by true believers on bended knee before the altar of Almighty God. He’s going to try to tell me that watching a pack of dim-witted meatheads slam into each other for three hours is as spiritually resonant as Holy Communion. Not only am I done reading this crap, but there is a special place in Hell for…
Let me stop you right there. First, Notre Dame Stadium is a terrible place to watch a football game. The seats are uncomfortable, the concession stands are lousy, and South Bend weather is positively God-forsaken. On more than one occasion, I have sat in a warm pub with Notre Dame tickets in my pocket, watching the team freeze to death on icy turf not a mile from my warm bar stool, without even a hint of remorse at not being there in person, cheering them on to victory like some feverish yahoo with no sense of proportion.
No, when I say Notre Dame is defined by its Football Mass, I am being in no way figurative. At the end of every home football game, the assembled host of pigskin enthusiasts celebrates the victory (for it is always, always a victory) by going immediately to church. Exactly 30 minutes after the final gun sounds, Notre Dame students, alumni, and anyone else who wants to come along, gather in the Basilica, the performing arts center, and seven of the residence halls to simultaneously partake of Holy Eucharist as one family, united together in Christ Jesus. Really.
But it is not the existence of the Football Mass that defines Notre Dame; it’s the reason for it. If the Notre Dame student body was so fantastically religious and its joy at beating, say, Purdue, was so ineffably sublime that it felt called to celebrate its glorious triumph with Bread and Wine, then Notre Dame would, indeed, be a very special place. But that’s not why Notre Dame adjourns from bleacher to pew one half hour after every football game. No, we go to Mass together after the game so we can get blind drunk without consequences.
Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on Sundays. If a Catholic fails to attend Sunday Mass, he violates one of the five Sacred Precepts of the Catholic Church and thereby slips below the bare minimum of devotion required of every good Catholic. Knowing that there are perfectly practical and appropriate reasons why even the most dedicated Catholic might be unavailable for Holy Mass on a given Sunday, Section 1248 of the Code of Canon Law dictates that a Catholic can meet his sacred obligation by attending a Mass of Anticipation on Saturday night in lieu of a proper Sunday service.
Notre Dame football games typically start at 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays; college football games last approximately three hours. That puts the start of the post-game Mass at around 7:00 p.m. This is late enough in the day for it to be considered a Mass of Anticipation, absolving all who attend of any obligation to rise early the next morning and file into the pews like good Catholics. When the Football Mass ends at 8:00 p.m., the debauchery begins, with no power in Heaven or on Earth prepared to stand between the Notre Dame student body and the very heights of depravity. By assembling the Notre Dame faithful for Mass immediately following the football game, the Holy Cross Fathers facilitate and thereby extend their tacit approval to a post-game bacchanal of biblical proportion that can last all night and well into Sunday morning with no spiritual consequences whatsoever for we good Catholics.
This is Notre Dame.
William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale is the spiritual urtext of the modern American conservative movement. Where the sophisticated set in 1940s America had grown used to the “irritable mental gestures” of conservatism bubbling up from the miasmatic swamps of the temperamental American hinterland, here was the very quintessence of the coastal elite — Bill Buckley was a harpsichord enthusiast who spoke French before he could speak English — publishing a scathing attack on one of the temples of establishment liberalism from an insider’s perspective. This wasn’t another rant by a backwoods hayseed, the dim ramblings of some Vaishya who had forgotten his place. This was internecine. This was cannibalism. This was … scary.
To hear Buckley tell it, Yale was a malevolent force in the lives of its students. Facilitated by an administration willfully out of step with the wishes of Yale alumni, the professoriate peddled cold borscht to a student body too young and impressionable to realize their minds were being laundered. Buckley’s Yale was systematically educating American values out of their students and delivering up to the world class after class of graduates unfit to lead a nation they no longer understood.
Buckley wrote that Yale had embraced what he would later call “ideological equalitarianism.” At Yale, there were no higher truths, no ancient wisdom. The learned professors were not keepers of a sacred flame or guides on a journey to a deeper understanding, but empty shills for a secular humanist collectivism. Buckley exposed the inherent dissonance of preaching academic freedom while teaching a single, ahistorical perspective, and he called upon the alumni and trustees of Yale to put an end to this treason against wisdom and reclaim their own beloved institution before it was lost forever.
But, of course, Bill Buckley was a horrible failure. If his goal in writing God and Man at Yale was to use the petulance of youth to launch a revolution in American conservatism, then he was a roaring success. Certainly that is what happened, both in the pages of his National Review and elsewhere. But if his goal was to affect change at Yale itself, much less the wider ambit of academe, a quick look around at the modern state of things reveals that Buckley’s rant achieved precisely nothing. The academic current, at Yale and beyond, proved too strong for Buckley and simply yelling at it to “Stop!” was a waste of his time.
Or maybe he just went to the wrong college.
Here is the entire Mission Statement of Buckley’s Yale:
Like all great research universities, Yale has a tripartite mission: to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. Yale aims to carry out each part of its mission at the highest level of excellence, on par with the best institutions in the world. Yale seeks to attract a diverse group of exceptionally talented men and women from across the nation and around the world and to educate them for leadership in scholarship, the professions, and society.
Ready for a contrast? Try on just a part of Notre Dame’s Mission Statement:
The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity … What the University asks of all its scholars and students, however, is not a particular creedal affiliation, but a respect for the objectives of Notre Dame and a willingness to enter into the conversation that gives it life and character. Therefore, the University insists upon academic freedom that makes open discussion and inquiry possible … Only thus can Catholic intellectual life in all disciplines be animated and fostered and a proper community of scholarly religious discourse be established.
Buckley’s Yale values excellence. Its mission is to educate students and mold them into future leaders. Yale imparts knowledge and believes that knowledge is transformative. Yale exists to inculcate; its students are its product. It is how Yale thinks of itself, it is Yale’s mission, and it is Yale’s unquestioned achievement.
Notre Dame pursues truth. It discusses lines of thought and engages in inquiry. Notre Dame is a community of scholarly discourse. Notre Dame does not conceive of itself as acting upon its students. Rather, Notre Dame’s mission statement makes it clear that in its own mind, Notre Dame is a context, a world within which students seek after what is true, both individually and as members of a broader scholastic community.
Yale’s attitude toward itself, but above all its attitude toward its students, makes the world against which Bill Buckley railed not only possible, but certain. If the goal is excellence and the means is Yale, then Yale continuously works toward whatever it understands excellence to be. Yale presupposes a conclusion and orients its every action, impulse, and thought toward a predetermined end.
But where Yale presupposes an end, Notre Dame presupposes a beginning. If Notre Dame’s mission is to pursue truth, then Notre Dame does not yet possess it. It can make no promises to its students; it will not impart to them the keys to Yale’s treasured “excellence” because Notre Dame, as an institution, seeks still. Instead, Notre Dame demands as part of its mission that its students respect this quest and that they engage in the great dialogue, the great search, whereby Notre Dame itself approaches ever closer to real understanding.
Where God and Man may have been inescapable at Buckley’s Yale, as a community of students in a perpetual state of becoming, God and Man is impossible at Notre Dame.
Through the eyes of a student, wise just a month or two beyond his years, the Football Mass is a sacrilege that indwells in a convenient lie. Alumni and parents like to imagine that the Fighting Irish are possessed of such mystical holiness that even the students see the transcendent rectitude of ending the football festivities in solemn prayer. Mom and dad prefer to think of Notre Dame less as a college, than as a convent, and the theater of the Football Mass keeps them believing that Junior is on the short-list for sainthood. As King Henry IV of France said when he was an undergraduate at Notre Dame, “Corby’s is worth a Mass.”
But I’ll bet you, wise reader, can now see the salient truth behind the Football Mass. It is a truth that eluded me as a student and is undoubtedly lost on most of Notre Dame as it files out of church and into the bars on football Saturday nights. But when you put the commingling of the sacred and profane at Football Mass and the dissonance of the Cocaine Cowboys for Christ in the context of the Notre Dame mission statement, all becomes as clear as the -20˚F South Bend sky.
The Football Mass is not a sacrilege, but a sacred reminder that Notre Dame — the truth it seeks and the God it serves — goes with you into the cold night. It is a hug and a whispered warning on the way out the door; it is how the Holy Cross Fathers send their students out into the world of sin and error to find a little veritas in an ocean of vino.
And go those students must, because to seek after an elusive truth, even at the bottom of a can of warm Natty Ice you bought for five bucks at The Linebacker, is the very essence of Notre Dame. The Holy Cross Fathers must send their charges out into the world to seek the truth beyond the Quad, because otherwise, this isn’t Notre Dame; this is Yale. This isn’t a shared quest after something sacred that eludes us, but a regimented diet of sterile indoctrination.
So go they must, if this is to still be Notre Dame. But they won’t be sent forth into the dark without a Mass; not without one last reminder that Notre Dame is both context and touchstone for whatever share of God’s own truth a Notre Dame man may find out there when he thinks he walks alone, but never truly does and never truly can. After all, this is Notre Dame; please kneel.
Vita, Dulcedo, Spes.Published in