Last winter, I wrote an essay about returning to Notre Dame for the first time in decades to attend my 25th reunion. “The Reluctant Domer” put to words my ambivalence about returning to a place where I hadn’t always felt at ease.
Even before graduating in 1984, I’d become a doubting Catholic, never going to church as a college student and openly questioning Catholic beliefs and doctrine. When I left Notre Dame, I became fully lapsed. I traveled around the world for three years, dabbling in other religions and searching for — as I said jokingly — the best way to live a life. Back at home I married a non-Catholic (still considered a sin in the Catholic cosmos) and became a skeptical university professor who planted his spiritual flag firmly in the agnostic camp.
What did I have in common anymore with the Catholic university of my young manhood? What could I learn by going back for my 25th reunion? Quite a lot, it turned out. Back among the trees and lakes and silence, I reflected on my parents’ divorce, which led to the demise of their Catholicism — and mine. The divorce had alienated me from many of the flock at Notre Dame — and led to minor acts of rebelliousness: pot, booze and protests.
Nevertheless, on my return to campus in 2009 I reconnected with good friends. I galloped around the quads again like a happy hedonist on a spring afternoon. Gratefully I remembered my many excellent teachers at Notre Dame who had stoked my love of learning and my quest for truth. Best of all I met up with my father, Tony, another reluctant Domer (class of 1959), who’d returned for the first time in decades for his 50th reunion — and was glad he did.
“We’re just a couple of fallen-away Domers, Peter, who still find a lot to admire about the place.”
The response to my essay surprised me. A score of letters and emails arrived from people I’d never met. Other reluctant Domers professed their same ambivalence about Notre Dame. Many of them wanted to be true to their school — but felt alienated from their alma mater. They were divorced or gay or lapsed or simply fed up with rah-rah football culture. They yearned to reconnect with their college, but without the boosterism or the piety.
When the Notre Dame Magazine editors asked me to write a Reluctant Domer blog, I was, well, once again reluctant. What did I know about Notre Dame now? So much of the place had changed. Catholics in America were no longer so stigmatized, and the University had become bigger and richer and more powerful. There were more than 120,000 alumni. The endowment had grown from $150 million in 1980 to $6 billion today. Notre Dame had also blossomed into a more feminine place. Now almost half the students are women — a miracle to many older alumni — and perhaps an argument for the power of prayer. ND also enrolls more minority students, more international students and more non-Catholics than ever before.
Clearly reluctant Domers have burgeoned as well, and this blog — I hope — will speak in part for them.
At the same time, behind any decent blog is a writer trying to work out his own personal obsessions — and I have plenty of them — sex and death, love and marriage, guilt and ethics. Another is my dubious commitment to the community — and the poor. Where did such commitments stop and my own happiness begin? How much, in other words, should I give to others and how much did I give to myself? The great moral question.
Lapsed Catholics, like lapsed Jews, often carry around in themselves a skein of moral scaffolding — and a thick clot of guilt. We still want to do the right thing, the good thing, and yet blame ourselves for stiffing the Salvation Army Santa or having a third margarita with dinner. I’ve always wanted to investigate where guilt came from and to explain its power. Was it our insect-like tendency to advance the group at the expense of the individual or was it something else? Time to figure it out.
Also time to suss out my dilemmas about fatherhood. How did a lapsed Catholic raise his kids — and how did I respond to my 10-year-old daughter who came to me two winters ago in a pique of sorrow. “Daddy,” she said, “Daddy, I don’t want to die.” I could only wrap my arms around her and squeeze. Catholicism had a neat spiritual template, replete with answers — answers that put children (and other believers) at ease. A lapsed Catholic didn’t have that luxury. He had to reinvent the spiritual wheel. Yet how could I comfort my kids about death and how could I teach them about religion if I hadn’t crystallized my own beliefs?
Another morsel for this blog to chew on. I hope you check in from time to time to partake in these humble meals, to break bread with me and other wandering intellects in the Notre Dame community. Perhaps this forum will make the disenfranchised feel more at home. Perhaps these words will shed some light on other Domers out there — reluctant and otherwise.
Peter Graham is an associate professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He teaches creative writing and film studies. Read his Reluctant Domer article from the winter 2009-10 issue of Notre Dame Magazine.