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The Greening of the Fighting Irish
Jerry Kirshenbaum
December 14, 1970
The statue of the Virgin still looks down from the famous Golden Dome, and football still dominates the autumn Saturdays at Notre Dame. But even here there is New Awareness, for the times, they are a-changing in South Bend
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December 14, 1970

The Greening Of The Fighting Irish

The statue of the Virgin still looks down from the famous Golden Dome, and football still dominates the autumn Saturdays at Notre Dame. But even here there is New Awareness, for the times, they are a-changing in South Bend

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Amid all the criticism leveled at him, the one area where Hesburgh continues to get high marks from nearly everybody is in personal dealings with students. Sometimes criticized for being away too much on other business, Hesburgh makes amends by habitually working late into the night while on campus, and stories of students walking unannounced into his high-ceilinged office—the walls of which are hung with photographs of himself in the company of popes and presidents—at 2 or even 3 a.m. take on the collective weight of legend.

There is no fraternity system at Notre Dame, which is no great loss, considering that Hesburgh and even the most cynical of students seem to think of the place as one big fraternity. It is a Catholic fraternity, of course, but Notre Dame, ecumenical from its earliest days, also harbors a small but growing number of Protestants, a smattering of Jews (one member of the class of '70 plans to become a rabbi) and, almost inevitably, an occasional young man recently drawn to the way of Zen. Notre Dame officials speak with pride of their school's growing diversity, even while they admit that regular Mass attendance and other traditional forms of worship are in sharp decline among the 95% of the students who remain at least nominally Catholic.

The contrast with the piety of former days is dramatic. "We students felt we had all the answers," says John Houck, a 1954 Notre Dame graduate and now professor of business management. "We knew what mortal sin was, we knew what grace was, we knew what confession was. The institutional church gave us a wall to bounce our questions off. Now that wall is gone." Like Catholics everywhere, Notre Dame students are caught up in a search for relevance—that catchword of our times—one result being that while many of them shun Sunday morning Mass, informal folk Masses are flourishing. One of the best-attended religious observances in years was held during the October 1969 Moratorium when 2,500 students, joined by Father Hesburgh, laid down their antiwar placards to celebrate a "resistance Mass"—at which several youths tore up their draft cards.

It would be too easy to conclude from all this that Notre Dame is necessarily any less a Catholic university than before. It may be significant that the alumnus whose memory seems most alive on campus, other than Rockne, is the late Tom Dooley, the jungle doctor who graduated in 1948. His glass-framed letter to Hesburgh, written as he lay ill of cancer in a Hong Kong hospital in 1960, is displayed on campus before the flickering candles of the Grotto, a replica of the shrine at Lourdes. "The Grotto is the rock to which my life is anchored," he wrote, and he concluded: "I must return to the States very soon, and I hope to sneak into the Grotto before the snow has melted." He died a month later.

Even those who despair most about the state of Catholicism at Notre Dame take heart that many students, animated by conscience rather than authority, seem to share Dooley's interest in good works. It is a matter of pride around campus that 600 Notre Dame and St. Mary's students regularly tutor ghetto children in South Bend, and a source of wonder among many that an equal number gave up their tickets for last month's Georgia Tech game to disadvantaged youngsters. Such actions are seen by the Rev. James Burtchaell, Notre Dame's newly appointed provost, as evidence that many students, far from losing their faith, are finally finding it. "These kids aren't really Catholic to begin with," Burtchaell says. "Ritual must be confirmed by service, and our kids haven't served anybody before they get here."

Amid rumors that Hesburgh may soon step down as president, Burtchaell, at 36, is widely thought to be in line for the job. Attentive and tough-minded, the iconoclastic young priest stirred up a to-do in 1968 by assailing Pope Paul's birth-control encyclical as "grossly inadequate and largely fallacious." Interviewed recently by the Chicago Tribune, he shocked traditionalists by posing before the Golden Dome in a sport coat and tie—like a growing number of Holy Cross fathers, he sometimes wears clerical garb and sometimes not—at the same time that he angered students by saying, "We have to remember, they're just kids." Asked later whether that remark might not have sounded condescending, Burtchaell replied brightly: "I meant it to sound condescending"

Burtchaell made his reputation at Notre Dame by overhauling the theology department, which he headed for two years. Curiously, Notre Dame long was strongest in physical sciences, weakest in those studies—philosophy as well as theology—that are the foundation of Catholic higher education. Students were required to take theology courses that tended to rehash what they already knew from their catechism books or that spoon-fed them heaping servings of Thomism. The course requirement has recently been cut in half, and everybody is officially encouraged to question everything. In this vein the Rev. John Dunne, a popular theology professor, is apt to warn in midlecture: "My background and bias are showing." Adds Burtchaell: "We're striving not for faith but understanding. Ironically, we feel this will result in a faith feedback."

One area of campus life less intertwined with religion, this to the relief of many, is football. The old Religious Bulletin, a weekly newsletter that exhorted Notre Dame men to pray for victory, has ceased to publish, and the last time the student body marched to the Grotto to thank the Blessed Virgin for football success was the day Notre Dame snapped Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak in 1957. The team still attends Mass together on game mornings, but only to promote "a sense of unity," in the words of the Protestant Parseghian, and not to pray for victory. Even without help from On High, Notre Dame's altitude toward football seems, well, divine. When Pat O'Brien agreed to do his well-worn Rockne impersonation a couple of years ago at a Friday-night pep rally, Dick Conklin, who is now Notre Dame's publicity director, was afraid of a possible scene. "They're going to laugh the poor guy out of there," he protested. "Can't we stop it?" But when O'Brien stepped before the crowd a reverent hush fell over the field house, and some Notre Dame men could be seen flicking on portable tape recorders.

With the musty, barnlike old field house pressed into the service of the arts, the rally is held these days at less suitable quarters around campus. But excited students still build their human pyramids, and they still fill the air with cries of obeisance when some greater or lesser assistant coach pleads, "Men, we'll be listening for you tomorrow!" And when tomorrow arrives, football Saturday, they oblige in full, leather-lunged measure, urged on by a corps of cheerleaders that now includes several belles of St. Mary's. It is an emotional throng, its spirit undiminished by the graduation last spring (in cap and gown, presumably) of the Stripper, a fellow who partially disrobed at a given moment in every game, even, marveled one usher, "when it was colder than all billy heck."

Not until Notre Dame safely puts the game out of reach—the earlier the better—does the frenzy subside. Then everybody relaxes and waits for the postgame rites: students for the Saturday-night Sergio Mendes or Bob Hope appearance; old grads for a stroll to the campus bookstore to load up on Notre Dame sweat shirts and baby bibs; the Subway Alumni for a last noisy sweep through Sweeney's, where green-vested bartenders pour the beer to a blast from the jukebox of Tim Finnegan's Wake.

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