The University of Notre Dame takes on Alabama Monday night in the BCS national championship game, but when cheering fans shout “Go Notre Dame!” from the stadium bleachers, what are they really saying?
When The Rev. Edward Sorin of the French Congregation of Holy Cross founded the university in 1842, he gave it the French name L’Université de Notre Dame du Lac, (In English: The University of Our Lady of the Lake).“I came here as a young man and dreamed of building a great university in honor of Our Lady,” Sorin later said. So when fans root for Notre Dame, they are actually crying out “Our Lady,” a title referring to Mary, known to Catholics as the virgin mother of Jesus. The words of the university’s alma mater were written by a priest, and the song also honors Mary, saying “Notre Dame, our mother.” In addition to “Touchdown Jesus,” the university’s campus is famous for its golden domed-building upon which a statue of Mary stands.
“Prayers and hymns honoring the Blessed Virgin can be traced back as far as the third century, but the Middle Ages, especially the eleventh and twelfth centuries, were the period [of] increased reverence for Our Blessed Lady” writes author M.M. Miles in her book “Maiden and Mother.” Churches and other Catholics institutions have been named after her or dedicated to her honor for 1,600 years. Notre Dame joins thousands of other Catholic institutions today in being named after the Virgin Mary.
According to Catholic theology, Mary was conceived in her mother Anne’s womb without original sin (called the “Immaculate Conception”), and never physically consummated her marriage to Joseph, Jesus’s adoptive, earthly father, making her a “perpetual virgin.” Because she is seen as fully human, Catholics are often implored to live Mary’s example of obedience to God and selfless devotion to Jesus (who is considered both God and man.) She’s been called “the first disciple.”
To Catholics, the presence of the Virgin Mary is often seen as a sign of hope in places or times of distress. There are historical examples, many still venerated today, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe or Our Lady of Fatima, and those of the present day, such as the statue of the Virgin Mary that survived the destruction of Hurricane Sandy in Breezy Point, NY.
What does the virgin mother of God have to do with crushing skulls on the football field? Plenty, if you read Kevin Helliker’s piece in Monday’s Wall Street Journal.
The University of Notre Dame and its football team have blended ancient Catholic traditions with purely Fighting Irish ones, from attending Mass before games to pre-game prayers of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin.
No, you don’t have to be Catholic to attend Notre Dame, but 83 percent of its student body is. While Helliker reported that “most players on the Notre Dame squad aren’t Catholic,” that has not stopped most of them from embracing the school’s longtime religious traditions.
Gerome Sapp, the captain of the 2002 squad, according to Helliker’s reporting, “had no qualms about leading the team in the Hail Mary, a prayer utterly alien to his Southern Baptist upbringing.” Sapp told Helliker “[the Hail Mary] prayer was just one tradition in a school rich with tradition.”
For others, it’s a tradition too far: “The distance between popular evangelicalism and popular Roman Catholicism is never more apparent than when doctrines and devotional practices about Mary arise,” said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Explains Mohler: “Evangelical Christians honor Mary as she is rightly honored in Scripture. . . But evangelicals do not find any biblical basis for claims that Mary holds a continuing functional role in salvation or the Christian life.”
Notre Dame also has its critics within the church. Post writer and ND alum Melinda Henneberger says she won’t be cheering for her alma mater because she believes the university responded deeply inadequately to allegations of sexual assault and rape against two players. Michael Leahy, writing for Outlook, said that Notre Dame reflects many of the issues that Catholics have with their church at large --from prohibitions on contraception to not tolerating dissent. On the other end of the spectrum from Leahy is the Cardinal Newman Society, which has often criticized Notre Dame as not Catholic enough for acts like its invitation and honorary degree to President Obama in 2009.
The university named after the Virgin Mary has served not only as a home for storied sports teams facing off on the football field, but has also been, like the church itself, home of many battles over how to keep the faith.