Embracing anonymous sainthood

Like most students, I have learned many invaluable and unexpected lessons during my time at Notre Dame. Perhaps the strangest lesson I have learned at Notre Dame, however, has been the not-so-fine art of learning to dodge the nighttime sprinklers. Each night they cascade, seemingly without regard for whether or not there was a deluge earlier in the day or if the primary recipients of this ritual sprinkling are sometimes sidewalks rather than lawns or flower beds. A considerable amount of attention is given to carefully keeping the grounds of Our Lady’s University in immaculate condition. The sprinklers are but one sign of the tensions of being both a Catholic and an acclaimed university, tensions with which its students must wrestle. How can students at this Catholic university, itself prestigious and well-endowed, learn to live the social and financial humility the gospel commends?

While few would deny the privilege that typically accompanies attendance at a highly selective school, it is human to minimize this reality in our own lives. The results of a study reported on by the New York Times in 2017 makes this denial more difficult. Out of Notre Dame’s Class of 2013, 15.4% came from “the 1 percent,” meaning that their family incomes were over $630,000 per year. In contrast, only 10.0% of 2013 graduates came from the bottom 60 percent of U.S. household incomes, earning less than $65,000 per year. Between these extremes remains the fact that a full 90% of our students are from the top 40% of family incomes. We cannot avoid the fact that many of those who attend Notre Dame do have significant financial privilege.

It is from this baseline of material affluence that the University must educate the students it has in accord with its Mission Statement

“The University seeks to cultivate…a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” 

And yet Jesus offers us a more radical call in the gospel. A rich young man, believing himself to have observed all the commandments, asks Jesus: “What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:20) Jesus replies, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (Matt. 19:21-22). While this degree of poverty is not what the vast majority of Notre Dame’s students will be called to, it nonetheless instructs us what we should strive for, both in terms of accumulating wealth and social prestige. As Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” (Matthew 19:24). This is a tough message for anybody, especially in a socio-economic setting like Notre Dame that’s dominated by cultural expectations of success.

Fortunately, where the gospels make radical demands, the Church routinely offers practical guidance for concupiscent souls such as ours, who must still be formed to practice poverty as a spiritual virtue. Rerum Novarum explains that possessing riches alone, though a great and dangerous temptation, is not immoral so long as we exercise proper stewardship over them:

“No one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life…But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains” (Rerum Novarum #22).

We also cannot forget that, though we may maintain a standard of living in keeping with our social norms without committing a sin, those norms themselves deserve reassessment. Within a global context, the wealth and waste of the average American look extraordinarily lavish. Changing all of American society is a tall order, but we can only begin to amend this by examining ourselves and then our local communities. 

Laudato Si offers encouragement for this large-looming task: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning” (#205). And again, if a pope’s recommendation is not enough, we can listen to Jesus Himself in his praise for the widow who gave her last mite. She freely gave more than was socially expected of her, something the rich young man’s natural attachment to his possessions made, for him, impossible. 

As Rerum Novarum suggests, and as Christ says more emphatically when he commends the widow, we ought to sacrifice some social status symbols as well. This is uniquely true here at Notre Dame, where Catholic identity and prestige can go hand in hand. What does it profit a man to drink La Croix, if this distracts from the way of the Cross? Blessed Basil Moreau may have been French, but he foremost a Catholic, and if only for his sake, we should strive for a little more of the crux and less of the La Croix mentality.

Of course, drinking La Croix is not a sin. Nonetheless, it would be better to be able to retain those Catholic elements while surrendering the elitist tendencies the La Croix represents, such as the unironic use of “bougie” with a positive connotation. How do we participate in this self-consciously elite university culture while practicing spiritual poverty? 

The key is to reorder our desires towards their proper end. Take the sprinklers, where the intent to beautify campus is well-ordered, but practically speaking ought to be informed, and thus lessened, by a more conservative usage of natural and financial resources. In campus Catholic culture, this means advancing the excellent work of Notre Dame’s many initiatives, such as the McGrath Institute, the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture, or the Alliance for Catholic Education, without concern for their incidental or professionally useful reputation. The prestige associated with these groups is not a bad thing; however, this must always be a means rather than an end. 

We must engage with our culture desiring to grow in holiness rather than glory. All are called to sainthood, and for most of us that should involve a degree of intentional, virtuous social and material poverty. Can you be a quiet saint? An anonymous saint? That may very well be what we are called to, and we should be prepared to embrace it.

Julia McKeon is a senior majoring in theology and political science. Much as she hates on the sprinklers and La Croix, she loves flowers like those watered by the former and has never tasted the latter. Feel free to arrange a delivery of either by emailing jmckeon1@nd.edu