National Championship. Ever since it was announced that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Alabama Crimson Tide would play in the Bowl Championship Series title game Monday night, I’ve been trying to get my head around those two words. As a Notre Dame alumnus and lifelong fan, “national championship” sounds so foreign, so unreal, after decades of mediocre football with a few teases of success.
But just as National Championship has an otherworldly quality for me, mainly because heretofore it seemed so unattainable, the name “Notre Dame” also has an elusive quality. Drinking beers and talking college football in my hometown a few weeks ago, a high school buddy asked me, “Man, so what is the connection between Notre Dame and the Virgin Mary? I know it means Our Lady, but what’s the meaning behind that?”
Walker Percy once asked a similar question. During his 1989 acceptance speech for the Laetare Medal, an annual honor bestowed by Notre Dame on a Catholic of great faith and action, Percy recalled the first time he heard those poetic words, Notre Dame:
I must have been five or six. My father was a great football fan. Every fall he would receive a batch of tickets to football games, like Alabama versus Georgia, Ole Miss-Tennessee, Georgia-Auburn, Southern Cal—then came that strange name, unlike all the others, Notre Dame. What is that I asked? I don’t recall any satisfactory explanation of what it meant.
It is a strange name to the American ear, whether it’s pronounced with the weird “o” of the Chicago accent or in the more refined original French. The University of Notre Dame du Lac, or Our Lady of the Lake—a truly medieval name—was founded by a Father Edward Sorin, a French priest with a great old beard that made him look like one of Tolkien’s dwarves. In the bleak winter of 1842, he and a band of fellow clerics from the Congregation of Holy Cross were given a plot of land containing two snow-covered lakes, one called St. Mary’s and the other St. Joe’s, in desolate northern Indiana.
Father Sorin was a bold man with great visions for his little college that initially consisted of a single log cabin. Calling it a university from the start, he wanted the school to be a “powerful force for good,” and so he entrusted it to the patronage of the woman who, by saying yes to God’s will, brought the source of all that is good into the world.
Early on, Father Sorin pledged, “When this school, Our Lady’s school, grows a bit more, I shall raise her aloft so that, without asking, all men shall know why we have succeeded here. To that lovely Lady, raised high on a dome, a Golden Dome, men may look and find the answer.”
Today, her statue stands tall on that Golden Dome stands over the fairy-tale like campus with its yellow brick buildings and mist-covered lakes. The gothic buildings, the crooked pathways under stone arches, the little statues of saints and heroes tucked in everywhere are vestiges of a different time, a different world really, and direct the mind out of workaday life. Indeed, there’s a whole theology throughout the architecture of the campus, all reflecting school’s focus on faith.
Below the Dome, is a statue of Jesus amid sidewalks that form a heart, in the shadow of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, bearing the inscription in Latin: “Come to me, everyone.” His arms are outstretched, facing the Dome with Mary atop it, and so the statue has acquired the nickname, “Jump, Ma, I’ll catch.” It might sound irreverent, but it’s theologically sound. Trust in God and you’ll be fine. That’s what Mary did when she took quite a big jump by telling the Archangel Gabriel that, sure, she’d consent to the power of the Holy Spirit overshadowing her so she could bear the Son of God in her womb.
G.K. Chesteron was also captivated by this scene. After a visit to Notre Dame, he wrote:
I have seen, where a strange country
Opened its secret plains about me,
One great golden dome stand lonely with its golden image, one
Seen afar, in strange fulfillment,
Through the sunlit Indian summer
That Apocalyptic portent that has clothed her with the Sun.
Catholic writers like Percy and Chesterton aren’t the only ones who have been intrigued by these otherworldly images and ideas. Sports Illustrated broke out Latin on the cover of its November 26, 2012, issue just before Notre Dame played Southern Cal: Splashed across the top were the words “Miraculum Dominae Nostrae MMXII,” or Miracle of Our Lady 2012. It could have been a church-lady journal.
Notre Dame’s coach Brian Kelly, amid all his practical football talk, throws in those ancient references too. Not long after he was hired, I went to a Notre Dame Club of the Hudson Valley event at West Point featuring Coach Kelly. He announced that “first and foremost, we must play for Our Lady.” That’s the language of a medieval guild. No one talks like that anymore, except Notre Dame people.
There’s a YouTube video of the locker room celebration after the Irish beat USC in which Manti Te’o, a Mormon, yells at this teammates to quiet down before saying, “Father, Father, say it.”
And so the priest, the team chaplain, says, “Notre Dame our Mother,” to which they all shouted, “pray for us.”
Some might find it jarring that humans would offer so much honor to a girl from thousands of years go, even putting a gold statue of her on a golden dome. Lady Liberty—the “goddess of liberty” is all right atop the capitol and a massive statue of Abe Lincoln in a temple on the National Mall is okay, but the Mother of God, the actual human being who said “yes” to God at around age thirteen and became the flesh and blood mother of the Word made Flesh! To make a statue of her! And to put it in gold!
Yes, exactly. God exalted all of humanity by becoming man. And Mary is the symbol of that. That’s why the reality of Mary is our life, our sweetness, and our hope, which is also the motto of the university, vita, dulcedo, spes.
“Having dreams is what makes life worth living,” says Pete, Rudy Ruettiger’s best friend in that famous Notre Dame movie. And the greatest dream—the best, the most real one—is the hope of eternal life, made possible through the Incarnation, when the human family was united with God in a special way, through the womb of a virgin.
You might say that I’m just trying to justify an undue devotion to Notre Dame football. But I have good authority to do this. A great Jesuit priest I know is a lifelong Notre Dame fan, despite the fact that he is about to retire after decades teaching at Georgetown. I remember the story once of him attending a conference on a fall Saturday. He was missing from the sessions between 2:30-6:30 p.m., and afterward some folks asked him where he was.
Without hesitating, he said “Marian devotion.”
He had been watching Notre Dame football.
Joseph Lindsley, Jr. graduated in 2005 from the University of Notre Dame.
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