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Living the faith at Notre Dame


On the path to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on the Notre Dame campus, there’s a statue of Thomas Dooley, a Notre Dame graduate and a famous physician active in the care of refugees in Vietnam in the 1950s. He’s portrayed holding two small children by the hand. Beneath the statue is a bronzed copy of a December 1960 letter he wrote from Hong Kong where he lay dying of cancer, which claimed his life the following month, the day after his 34th birthday. The letter reads:

“How I long for the grotto now. ... And I wonder, do the students ever truly appreciate what they have while they are there?”

Certainly many do not. They may never truly realize the gifts that surround them at a place like Notre Dame, may never linger in the autumn afternoon on the quad, thinking that there are many who would surely like to be in their shoes.

Still, I believe the majority do stop, perhaps every other day, to give thanks. They take a walk along the lakes or light a candle at the grotto before a test, a decision, or even a date. They stand among their friends at a Mass in the dorm on a Sunday night or in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and say together, “Thanks be to God.” Or maybe it is the moment they take to sit by the statue of the woman at the well and remember that we are all much like her.

At Notre Dame, we are surrounded by the Holy Spirit. She is everywhere you look -- crucifixes in every classroom, a chapel in every dorm, religious statues and artwork everywhere, and Our Lady atop the Dome, visible from all corners of the campus. The Catholic character of Notre Dame is, visually speaking, inescapable -- a constant reminder to put things in perspective, remember what’s important and give our daily labors to the glory of the Lord.

Notre Dame has created an environment where some would say there is “peer pressure” to attend Mass, take part in retreats and become active in community service. In 1998, 10 percent of graduating seniors entered into volunteer work, a tangible indication that the message is getting through.

With all the benefits of this strongly spiritual environment, however, come restrictions and quasi-oppressive policies deemed necessary by administrative standards to maintain the Catholic character of the university.

For instance, Notre Dame remains one of the only schools in the nation not to have coed dorms. At midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. weekends, all members of the opposite sex must evacuate the premises or limit their visit to the designated “24-hour space.” In this 24-hour space, certain rules must be adhered to, as I quickly found out my freshman year when my male companion and I were thrown out of my dorm’s 24-hour lounge because he did not have both feet on the floor. They were up on the table in front of him and (gasp!) my head was leaning on his shoulder as we watched a movie.

In every way possible, we’re always dealing with that oddly Catholic ambiguity about sexuality. A case in point was the banning of rock star Billy Joel because he sang “Only the Good Die Young” in direct violation of the administration’s orders during a campus concert (“Come out, Virginia, don’t you wait/You Catholic girls start much too late”).

On a more serious level, the rights of gay and lesbian students are constantly in question. In my four years at Notre Dame, the issue remained in the headlines every season of every year. A group called Gays and Lesbians of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s was denied official university club status in 1995, making national news. Most recently, an openly homosexual Holy Cross priest resigned his faculty position in protest of the university’s policies and alleged discrimination. In addition, in the spring of 1997, the university refused to revise its nondiscrimination policy to include gays and lesbians.

In the past year, students have also had to suffer through the weekly bombardment of offensive advertisements for a continuing lecture series promoting conversion therapy, the very suggestion of which was enough to make most students and faculty sigh in disbelief and disappointment.

Many a time, there was a sadness in my heart over the things I witnessed, the apparent lack of compassion in these types of policies, and I and others did our best to change minds.

Still, the bottom line is that it is a unique and blessed experience for a college student to be surrounded by spirituality on a daily basis. Fortunately, the education provided by the university, rich in philosophy, theology and the liberal arts, reminds us always to maintain our own individual thought. We were taught well enough that we need not accept everything we hear, to critically analyze and examine the world around us, including its policies and procedures.

In fact, I believe the most important thing I learned at Notre Dame is to embody my religion in everything I do, to live as best I can in the example of Christ, although that will many times run counter to the the status quo. Thus, as students and graduates, we can still appreciate the Catholicity, the family of love and the incredible atmosphere of Notre Dame, while choosing to express Christ’s love according to the estimations we were taught so well to develop on our own.

Tara Dix can be reached at taradix@juno.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998