Preserving our Catholic mission in global efforts
“Father Ted Hesburgh knew back then—as we do now—that no university can be a great university unless it is a global university,” remarked Provost Burish once on a visit to China. While I can’t say I am altogether convinced that that is true, it is true that Notre Dame places great emphasis on its global presence, both by making the world more accessible to Notre Dame—think study abroad programs, fellowships, and global gateways—and by making Notre Dame more accessible to the world—through growing recruitment of international students and partnerships with foreign universities.
We don’t often consider this commitment to international education as in tension with our Catholic mission, as well we shouldn’t, seeing as there is nothing more international than the Church. However, like any good thing, this international view of Notre Dame’s mission can be warped. In this case the danger is a globalism that forgets our Catholic vocation, and focuses only on whatever secular priorities the most recent societal trends set.
This risk became tangible just a few years ago, when Notre Dame revealed a proposal to establish a joint campus with the Chinese Zhejiang University. Naturally, the proposal raised important concerns about how such a partnership might compromise our commitment to academic freedom and to Catholic education, particularly as the line between Chinese Comunist Party control and Chinese universities is essentially nonexistent. After two years of discussion and debate, Notre Dame wisely decided not to go through with the proposal, citing its Catholic mission as a central factor.
Among other things, that incident served to show that as a Catholic university, Notre Dame’s commitment to international education and research is and should be different from that of secular institutions.
With regards to China in particular, Notre Dame should embrace its unique opportunity to be a means for Christ’s message in a place where that message has been politically suppressed. In short, apostolate – not status, power, or profit – should be the lens through which Notre Dame approaches its international programs.
This call, I recently discovered, might well have been the true meaning of Fr. Ted’s view for Notre Dame as a global university. Having spent six years of my upbringing in China, I returned to Beijing this past summer through Notre Dame’s summer language abroad program at Peking University. Embracing the challenge of speaking only in Mandarin for the summer, I opted to attend Mass in Chinese as opposed to at one of the English-speaking international parishes. The decision ended up being one of the highlights of my summer.
As I arrived for my first Mass in Beitang 北堂 (the Church of the Saviour), I sat towards the back of a packed church, and sat quite amazed at the quantity and piety of Chinese faithful, many of whom had arrived early to pray the rosary before Mass. Of course, the liturgy was celebrated with touching reverence (the Chinese know a thing or two about ceremony, as we all discovered during the 2008 Olympic Opening).
Just before lining up for Communion, a Chinese friend of mine pointed out a fellow sitting a few rows up from us wearing a bright green shirt — a Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Shirt, to be precise. I chuckled and thought it an interesting coincidence. This Notre-Dame-shirt-wearing Chinese stranger caught my attention for another reason: right as he reached the front of the communion line, he knelt down on both knees, and received Our Lord on the tongue.
Coming from Notre Dame and its ambitious Catholicism, from the West and its cherished religious freedom, I must admit I had entered this Chinese church with some sense of privilege over the local Catholics, who I assumed had only received a faith regulated by government CCTV cameras and political priestly ordinations. I was humbled by this stranger’s piety, by his love for the Eucharist. Indeed, I found myself also kneeling to receive Communion, inspired by his example in love.
I had to talk to this guy, so after Mass ended, and in my broken Chinese, I introduced myself to him, asked him what his name was, and asked if he knew what his shirt said. “Of course I know,” he said with a smile.“It’s the shirt of my favorite football team in the world: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.”
I laughed, and was very intrigued: Why in the world does this Chinese guy even like American football, let alone Notre Dame? So, I asked him. He told me that when he was a young boy his grandmother used to bring him to Mass with her, and he would play out in the courtyard in front of the church. One day, when he was maybe seven or eight, an American priest stepped onto that courtyard, played basketball with him for a bit, and handed him a Notre Dame baseball cap. Ever since then, he has been a huge Notre Dame fan, and a committed Catholic.
I wondered, and asked: “What was that priest’s name?”
“Father Ted Hesburgh.”
This amazing encounter gave me—apart from a new friend—a meaningful perspective on what Notre Dame can be for the rest of the world. The temptation to aim for the bar set by elite, secular universities in the international sphere will always remain, but because of our Catholic mission, we ought to set out bar much higher.
Several other experiences only confirmed this intuition, such as serendipitous encounters with other Chinese Catholics during my rosary walks in the city, or unplanned bump-ins with full, if dusty, translations of Thomas Aquinas on the shelves of the Peking University library.
Business ties, technological advances, and political relations are all worthwhile goals, but let us not lose sight of our true vocation: our apostolic calling. The opportunity to play a distinctly Catholic role in the international sphere is right there in front of us: Our Lady of China, pray that we may take it.
Nicolas Abouchedid is a junior majoring in the Program Of Liberal Studies and in Mandarin Chinese. He is originally from, and hopes to one day return to, Caracas, Venezuela. You can reach him at email@example.com.