The Basilica's Cloud of Witnesses


Author: Rick Becker

Stepping inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart is like showing up at a family reunion in full swing. The Basilica’s walls and ceiling are crammed with images of the Catholic family in paint and stained glass: Saints and martyrs, prophets and patriarchs, so many forebears of the faith. Those holy images help orient campus visitors to what makes the Notre Dame community tick — and, for Catholics, they remind us of our common destiny. We’re all called to be saints, after all.

"We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses"; Ceiling of the Lady Chapel and other photos by Matt Cashore '94.

My first exposure to the basilica’s family gallery came 17 years ago when my own family was younger and smaller — three kids at the time, with baby Margaret in a Snugli. Nancy, the kids and I tagged along on a parish youth group tour led by our associate pastor, Father Tom Shoemaker. Since we were still pretty new to South Bend, and our connection to Notre Dame was minimal, we were happy for any excuse to get to know the church and the campus better.

As we inched our way down the nave toward the altar, Father Tom commented on the history and liturgical significance of the basilica’s iconography, and then he halted. “Now, look up over there,” he said, pointing. “I like this spot because you can see both of my special patrons from here: Saint Apollonia and Saint Crispin.”

Sure enough, there was the Roman martyr Apollonia, high above the main aisle, holding a tooth that her torturers had yanked out. Such is the tradition that made her the patron of dentists — Father Tom’s profession before entering the seminary. Across the way we spotted a window depicting Crispin — as in Shakespeare’s Henry V and his rendering of the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech (“we happy few, we band of brothers”) before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Another Roman martyr, Crispin holds a shoe, the symbol of his cobbler’s trade — hence his “patronage” of Father Shoemaker.

Directing our gazes upward again, Father Tom pointed out several other pairs of figures, like the great theologians Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas flanking each other over an arch. Nearby the beggar Alexis is matched with the homeless saint of Rome, Benedict Joseph Labre.

“Wait, what?” Nancy and I did double-takes. “Did he just say Benedict Joseph?”

This particular Benedict is the namesake of our oldest, a preschooler at that point, and we’d never encountered his depiction in a church before.

As we were leaving, Father Tom drew our attention to the famed inscription over the east transept entrance — “God, Country, Notre Dame” — and the memorial to those former students who had fallen during the First World War. “To the right above the doors you’ll see Saint Michael the Archangel, a patron of soldiers,” Father Tom said. “To the left, another patron of soldiers, Saint Joan of Arc.”

Our relationship with the University has deepened, and consequently Notre Dame’s landmark church has truly become an extension of the picture gallery around our own mantelpiece. When I visit, I’m comforted and profoundly edified by glimpsing my kids’ saints here and there.

Again, double-takes from the elder Beckers. Ben’s younger sister, our second, was named for the girl savior of France, and here, sculpted in stone, was her namesake at Notre Dame. Another unexpected tour bonus! I considered going back inside to track down Saint Margaret of Scotland for a Becker family trifecta.

In the years that followed, God continued to bless us with more children — seven in all — and their names continued to correspond with images in Notre Dame’s magnificent campus chapel. This was a coincidence. We didn’t select their names from the Basilica’s roster of saints — although you might think we did since we named our newborn son Crispin the year following our tour.

In truth, it’s possible the correspondence isn’t remarkable at all given the enormous number of holy men, women and children who appear throughout the Basilica. For example: When our fifth child, Cecilia, was born, we didn’t have to hunt long before we located the patron saint of music inside the church. Twice, in fact. An image of Cecilia playing a lap organ is painted above the nave not far from Benedict Joseph. She appears again down below in a stained glass window. Providence? Perhaps, although it’s just as likely probability — especially when you consider the emphasis on beautiful music in campus liturgies.

Regardless, the close correspondence between the basilica’s iconography and my children’s namesakes has taken on new meaning now that Ben and Joan are students at Notre Dame. Our relationship with the University has deepened, and consequently Notre Dame’s landmark church has truly become an extension of the picture gallery around our own mantelpiece. When I visit, I’m comforted and profoundly edified by glimpsing my kids’ saints here and there.

The same might be true for you. Next time you visit campus, make time to wander around the Basilica and keep an eye out for your family’s saintly counterparts. Or, try the online virtual tour. There’s a great cloud of witnesses there — almost a party.

“The name is the icon of the person,” the Catechism teaches, and a baptismal patron saint “provides a model of charity” for the recipient. Here’s an account of those connections for my family in order of their appearance in the Basilica, beginning at the main entrance:

St. Cecilia, left, playing the organ

1. Cecilia
We first encounter Cecilia when entering the basilica by its main door, off to the right, in a group of windows depicting female saints. The windows directly opposite these across the nave are also devoted to women, and you’ll find that fully half of the basilica’s saints are female, no small thing for a church constructed in the late 19th century when the University admitted men only. This apparent balancing of holy men and women ensured that those worshiping there might recall Saint Paul’s words that we’re all “one in Christ Jesus” — an especially important reminder since the move to coeducation in 1972.

Cecilia appears with a musical instrument in both the window and the mural further up the nave toward the altar, which is standard for the patroness of song. On her wedding day, an ancient vita relates, “the pipes played and she sang in her heart to Christ.” In time, the singing became conflated with organ playing, and her status was fixed. Yet, Cecilia is also a model of integrity and pluck. Her marriage had been arranged against her will, and on her wedding night she bravely informed her new husband, a Roman official, that she was already espoused to Christ — a confession that eventually led both to martyrdom. She turned out to be the ideal saint for my own Cecilia, a redhead possessed of considerable moxie.

2. Crispin
The second panel of stained glass on your right features male saints, and here you’ll find Saint Crispin, the fourth-century Roman tradesman who, with his brother, brought the Gospel to ancient Gaul. The three other men in this panel and the four across the aisle also put their professions at the service of the Gospel. There’s a doctor (Damien) and a lawyer (Ivo), a farmer (Isidore) and a soldier (Sebastian), a bishop (Patrick), a founder (Dominic) and a king (Louis IX of France). Again, here’s a graphic reminder of the Gospel’s leveling effect: All, without exception — lay and consecrated, rich and poor — are called to take up the cross of discipleship.

In Crispin’s case, it’s telling that he and his brother were missionaries. They could’ve stayed home and made a decent living fixing shoes, but they were motivated to extend themselves on behalf of strangers. In a world seemingly given over to self-absorption and instant gratification, what better role model could I give my son than this humble laborer who attained heavenly rewards by pouring himself out for others?

3. Benedict Joseph Labre
Since Ben was our firstborn, and hence our parenting guinea pig (as he always says), it’s appropriate that he ended up with a patronal hat-trick: Three saintly overseers for the price of one. A painting of Saint Benedict, the traditional founder of Western monasticism, peers down from the arch leading to Lady Chapel. Saint Joseph is all over the place, but most prominently in the large transept painting showing him on his deathbed, attended by Jesus and Mary.

Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, above the main aisle on the right, is the main attraction for us and his prominent presence is telling. Notre Dame is a great university by any measure, but it is also distinguished by its social outreach, particularly through its Center for Social Concerns that coordinates student efforts to care for people in need locally and around the world. Thus it’s fitting that a homeless French vagrant who probably suffered some form of mental illness is depicted here facing Thomas Aquinas, the saint most identified with studious accomplishment and analytical thought.

4. Catherine of Alexandria
This fourth-century noblewoman and martyr was famous for her persuasive arguments in favor of the faith, and her reputation for converting pagans to Christianity landed her in jail. During her imprisonment, Catherine continued to have phenomenal success in drawing others to Christ, including her guards and the wife of the emperor. That was the last straw for Maxentius, who had Catherine affixed to a spiked wheel as punishment — a scene depicted in a stained glass window at the end of the main aisle on the right. When the wheel didn’t do the trick, Maxentius had Catherine beheaded, releasing her soul to paradise where her powerful intercession made her one of the medieval world’s Fourteen Holy Helpers (and one of St. Joan’s heavenly voices).

In truth, our Katharine was named for a different, more modern holy helper: Saint Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress who gave away her fortune and spent her life serving the marginalized of her era — namely Native Americans and African Americans. Since Drexel died in 1955, there was no chance that we’d find her image in Notre Dame’s 19th-century church. Still, the two women shared a common life trajectory, having moved from privilege to poverty in order to serve a noble purpose. Thus, our Kathy and the ND students who frequent the basilica can look to both saints as models of leveraging blessings to others’ benefit.

5. Rose of Lima:
When I mentioned what I was writing to my third-born, Margaret Rose, she scowled. “There’s no Margaret of Scotland in the Basilica,” she said, referring to her namesake. “And my middle name is from Rose of Sharon – you know that’s not there.” There’s no denying it. Meg’s connection to the basilica’s saints, like her sister Katherine’s, is oblique. There are a couple windows dedicated to Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque’s vision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Lady Chapel at the church’s rear apse. And Rose of Sharon? That’s an ancient title of Our Lady derived from a reference in the Song of Solomon, and certainly the Blessed Mother is depicted all throughout Notre Dame’s basilica.

Still, there’s a more direct connection. When our Meg was a baby, we had trouble finding holy cards of her namesakes to adorn her crib. So we opted for the best approximations available, and that included Saint Rose of Lima, the 17th century Dominican who became the first canonized saint of the Americas. Rose, like Cecilia, appears more than once in the basilica. She’s depicted in a couple windows on the left side of the nave about halfway down, and a mural near the main altar. Known for her comeliness, Rose shunned suitors and instead cultivated an inner beauty through prayer and fasting. The mural shows Rose gazing at her crucified Lord, with whom she sought to identify by means of severe penitence. Her crown of roses represents the crown of glory she was to receive in heaven after a lifetime dedicated to Christ.

6. Nicholas of Myra
No festive gathering of saints would be complete without Saint Nick — the original Santa Claus — and sure enough the fourth-century bishop of Myra is represented in Sacred Heart Basilica. It’s a stained glass window in the apsidal relic chapel just beyond the main altar to the right, but it doesn’t feature his most famous likeness — no twinkling eye, no cherry nose, no Coca-Cola product placement. Instead, there’s a box containing his relics with his name on it, and the action revolves around the historical transfer of those relics from Asia Minor to Bari, Italy, in 1087.

Known for his generosity and gift-giving, Nicholas is also the patron saint of children. Combine those associations with the early Advent occasion of his feast day (December 6) and it’s easy to see how the legends connecting him with Christmas largesse sprouted in the West. The actual Nicholas was hardly the shill we’ve come to know — especially in light of the legend that he bopped the heretic Arius on the nose during the Council of Nicaea. For Nicholas, the Gospel story wasn’t about tinsel and sentimentality, but rather truth and sacrifice and embracing the good no matter the cost. We couldn’t have picked a better patron for my own Nicky, a bright, funny sixth-grader who happens to have Down syndrome. That diagnosis means he faces a world that devalues his capabilities, his potential, even his very life, but Nicky is determined to prove his worth. He dreams of studying calculus at Notre Dame someday like his brother, maybe even play for the football team, like Rudy. Those are big dreams, no doubt, but he has Santa in his corner for starters, and some hand-me-down Irish luck to boot.

7. Joan of Arc
Standing sentry over the “God, Country, Notre Dame door” at the entrance to the east transept, Saint Joan graces the memorial tablets on either side of the doorway that list the University’s fallen sons of the First World War. Little did we know when we named our second child after this 15th-century maid of Orleans and warrior-saint that our daughter would take on her passionate persona. Our Joan Marie is a tireless seeker and idealistic dreamer — a “hopeless romantic” in the eyes of the world, but someone who embodies that vision for a better world that is most admirable about youth. The University she now attends is all about fostering innovation and forming agents of change. And, regardless of whether the rest of my children end up Domers, I’m grateful that all of them can point to Notre Dame and its “cloud of witnesses” as a spiritual and inspirational home.

Rick Becker is a writer and registered nurse who teaches nursing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana.

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