What makes us so different from the rest?
I remember a section lounge debate sophomore year with a friend of mine on the nature of Notre Dame’s identity and character. I had said that Notre Dame is fundamentally and inherently Catholic, and he took issue with this. While he recognized that we were formally Catholic in name and in founding, he rejected that it was our common identity and distinguishing quality. He said Notre Dame is an elite university that just happens to be Catholic and I took issue with this.
We are fundamentally Catholic, I repeated. From the founding of the university by Fr. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., to the matronly intercession of the Mother of Christ atop our Golden Dome, to the crucifix in every classroom, to the Blessed Sacrament in every residence hall, to the countless Masses celebrated daily on campus, to the prayer that our beloved football team says before every game—how are we anything but Catholic?
This conversation got me thinking. While one might have a difficult time trying to find somebody who doesn’t know that Notre Dame is Catholic, the bigger question and point of contention today is how should Notre Dame behave as the premier Catholic university? Do we need to sacrifice the values that we hold dear to further fulfill our educational mission?
While the conversation was short lived, it is one I will never forget. It was during the course of it that I realized why Notre Dame is so special and unique. We are not just another great university. We are not just a group of people called to coexist and tolerate each other for four years as we pursue our degrees.
I believe Notre Dame sets itself apart from every other top college in the country, and perhaps the world, because our goal of inspiring genuine discipleship is radical. While many universities’ mission statements outline a general goal of “forming well educated citizens” of the world, we are reminded by the East Door of the Basilica, which says, “God, Country, Notre Dame,” that we are first and foremost citizens of Heaven. This is why we are to be a “powerful force for good” both now and out in the world after graduation. We are not just another “intellectual community:” we are a family. The Notre Dame family, like our families back home, is where we continue to learn how to love. We are called not to identify ourselves as “good members of the community” who tolerate opinions and get along, but rather as true disciples of Christ who love each other.
There are certainly students, faculty, and staff at Notre Dame who aren’t Catholic: what about them? If this university is inherently and fundamentally Catholic, can they not share in the fullness of our family or our intellectual tradition? Of course not. While there is an extraordinary number of faithful Catholics on our campus, there are plenty of people who are not. In my section of my dorm we have about 35 guys. About half of them are Sunday churchgoers. The other half are either non-practicing, practice another religion, or irreligious entirely. Nonetheless, if you walk into my section you will surely find a genuine and true brotherhood. You’ll see a groggy upperclassman up at 6:45 a.m. walking the freshmen through their first class registration. You’ll see guys of different majors tutoring others in their area of respective expertise. You’ll find an atheist and a fervent Catholic playing Super Smash Bros in the section lounge for three hours. You’ll see guys go far above and beyond in supporting each other during the tough times and rejoicing together in the good ones. You’ll hear passionate conversations and debates about God, life, vocation, politics, and dining hall food options. You’ll find mentors and mentees, big brothers and little brothers; you’ll find family.
This is certainly not unique to my section. It seems that everybody I’ve met at Notre Dame, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is motivated by a desire to know, love, and serve others. How does this happen? I wouldn’t presume to know, but I think that the Tabernacle at the heart of every dormitory might have something to do with it. I think that the Masses celebrated daily for our student body might have something to do with it. The priest who lives in every dorm as a role model and mentor might have something to do with it. Ultimately, the real presence of God that permeates and animates our campus most certainly has something to do with it.
One need not be Catholic to experience the incredible fruits of an authentic Catholic education. Yet, there have been calls from both outside and within to conform to secular ideals and values of today. There are those who believe one’s faith mustn’t animate their very being, and instead should be compartmentalized. To compartmentalize our faith as a university would be a compromise of our founding values and our fundamental identity. St. Paul reminds us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age” (Romans 12:2). Conformity is not an option. We are radically different, and we must embrace this. Notre Dame is not a place where we merely tolerate each other, nor is it a launchpad for prestigious, high paying jobs and careers. It is a community and family where true discipleship of Christ is the end goal.
I celebrate Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic University. It is our strength. It is who we are. As long as we remain faithfully committed to this and ultimately to God, we cannot fail. There may be many top universities, but this is why there is only one Notre Dame.
Leo Corelli is a (washed up) senior hailing from New York. He has been having trouble focusing the past few weeks because all he can seem to think about is skiing. If you are interested in playing Skate 3 with him, please do not hesitate to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.