An Interview with Fighting Irish Chaplain, Father Nate Wills
Last week, Father Nate Wills, C.S.C., chaplain of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, sat down with the Rover to discuss football, faith, and the culture of Notre Dame’s campus.
Wills, originally from St. Paul, MN, came to Notre Dame as an undergraduate seminarian, spent two years teaching for the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), and was ordained a Holy Cross priest in 2006. He then earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015.
Wills began his duties as the chaplain of the football team from Fr. Mark Theising C.S.C. in 2018 and additionally serves as the priest in residence for Keough Hall. Wills said that Fr. Pete McCormick, C.S.C., Director of Campus Ministry and Fighting Irish Men’s Basketball chaplain, originally recommended him to take on the role of chaplain.
He recalled his conversation with McCormick: “Honestly, I’d never even considered the idea. I always kind of wondered, ‘How do people end up doing that?’ And I said, ‘First of all, I’m honored, and second, I don’t know that much about football. And [McCormick] said, ‘Look, we don’t need you to call plays. A lot of people get paid a lot of money to know everything there is about football. We need you to bring them to Jesus.”
Wills explained his duties as chaplain: “We have Mass before every game, and that’s kind of my primary responsibility, I usually try in my homilies not to preach about football. Usually, I introduce them to the saint of the day and really just talk about life, because I think their world is so soaked in football that it’s important to remind them that they’re more than what they can do on Saturday.”
Reflecting on the players, he said, “It’s an interesting group in the sense that it’s kind of hard to get into. It takes a while for people to trust that you’re just there and you don’t want something from them. And you’re authentically who you are. So it took a little while. But this was my fourth season, and two of them I’ve done as the full chaplain. It’s been pretty amazing. [The athletes’] Notre Dame experience, like all of the undergraduate and graduate students who come here, is about forming them into the person that they’re going to be and pointing them toward Christ and heaven.”
Wills explained further, “As a Holy Cross priest, I think we have a unique opportunity to point people to hope. I celebrate Mass, I’m there on the sidelines, we pray before the games, and we pray at the end of the game. I pray with individuals. There’s a number of folks who will come up to me and say, ‘Can we pray together for the game?’ just to center themselves in the eternal. I’m on the sidelines there next to the orthopedic surgeon (God willing, neither of us are going to be needed during the game). Some of the close games I put myself to work in praying pretty hard. Sometimes it’s efficacious and other times not so much.”
Wills doesn’t minister only to the Catholic students; he seeks to lead the whole team in their faith. He reflected, “Most of the people on the team, if they’re not Catholic, are people who have deep, deep faith, and our common link is usually Sacred Scripture. I think it’s a real opportunity to not shy away from digging deep into the Word and to really open that up.”
He continued, “I’ve done some Bible studies with the guys, and sometimes they do their own fellowship, which is really great, too. The way I approach [ministry] is to really focus on Scripture, focus on the person of Jesus, and invite them into some of the [Church’s] traditions.’
Wills prays the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary at every Mass the team celebrates together. “I feel like it’s really important to explain to them the difference between saying to God the Father, ‘Have mercy on us,’ and saying, ‘Holy Mary, pray for us.’ [It is] very different asking for Mary’s intercession, her inspiration in our lives, and for her to intercede with her Son … It’s all simply to say, I think the intersection of our faiths is really important. I think a lot of people come to Notre Dame to cultivate and grow in their faith, whatever that might be. I try to take the opportunity to help them grow.”
When asked about the Catholic identity of the university and the participation of the team within it, Wills said: “I think the reality is, we’re strongest when you lean into our identity, and say, ‘This is who we are. And that’s not at the exclusion of other people.’ And that becomes an invitation to people to say, ‘Oh, okay, I get who you are, I get who I am.’ And let’s see if there’s any intersection or commonalities. I think when it gets dangerous is to say, ‘Well, you know, I’m Catholic, but it’s no big deal.’ And then … there’s no clarity in terms of who you are. I see this a lot in our students—an authentic desire to grow in their faith. A desire I think I see more and more in the world, to belong.”
Contextualizing this with the athletes and their fellow students he said, “I do think in terms of football, I see that it is, in many ways, sort of a crucible. It’s sort of an amplifier of a lot of things; there’s an intensity among our student-athletes: about training, about excellence in just getting better. So I hope and assume that they bring that same mindset into the classroom, and I certainly know some of them do, and they see that in their faith life as well. And I think that’s not a bad reflection of the Notre Dame student in general.”
Wills continued: “I think we’re hitting an interesting point in our American society in general where there’s just a radical secularism among a ton of people who want nothing to do with a life of faith, and if they’re going to dabble in anything spiritual, it’s going to be, a meditation app their with friends, reading Tarot cards and doing brunch on Sunday. That’s the extent of things.”
He then concluded with a hopeful outlook for the future: “I think we’re seeing a real shift among people who are saying, ‘That [lukewarm spirituality is] not enough. I was created for more in life, and God is calling me …’ and I think, more and more, those people are going to choose places like Notre Dame that say, ‘We don’t just care about being a place of academic excellence. [We want to] hopefully help you to become the person you want to be, but we will be helping you to grow in your faith and your relationship with Christ.’ My hope is that people continue to listen to that restlessness in their heart and come to places like Notre Dame or other places where they can have that faith cultivated.”
Wills looks forward to continuing to lead the team in faith and brotherhood going into his fifth season as chaplain of the Fighting Irish. He expressed enthusiasm in getting to know the new coaching staff and working with both them and the seasoned veterans in leading Notre Dame onward to victory.
William Hunter is a sophomore in the Theology/Philosophy joint program. If not fine-tuning his rich and totally authentic Louisiana accent, he can be contacted at email@example.com.
Photo credit: used with permission from Father Nate Wills