Last August I arrived on campus like any other student, my car overloaded with what I thought to be the essentials for a new school year. I had finally made it back to college after 40 years as a priest and 21 as a bishop.
My plan to come to Notre Dame began with an invitation from Father John Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., the University president. As my retirement was nearing (I had “reached the age limit,” according to the classic ecclesiastical language), Father Jenkins asked me to spend a semester or more living on campus, doing whatever I wished to do. I’ve spent my adult life as a “wannabe” student, so I quickly said “yes,” then waited about two years for the installation of my successor as bishop of St. Petersburg, Florida, in January 2017.
Bishops on college and university campuses are rare. Church law prohibits a bishop from being absent from his diocese for more than a month without permission from the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. During my service as general secretary to the bishops of the United States, our episcopal conference twice petitioned the Holy See to allow bishops to take six-month sabbaticals precisely in order to go back to school, study Spanish, take refresher courses, update our pastoral theology and so on. Twice in the 1990s the answer was “no.” The reason given both times was that ordination to the episcopacy made the bishop the chief teacher of his diocese and it would not be “seemly” for him to seek continuing education.
Increasingly I had felt a growing chasm between the theology I had learned around the time of the Second Vatican Council and the lived reality of the 50 years since then — and not just in my life but in the lives of the faithful entrusted to my care as priest and bishop. Pope Francis has written and said often that the Church, like the world, is entering a new epoch, and I wanted to understand it and proclaim it better in the time I have left. But I had to wait until retirement to live this dream of finding myself in a circumstance where I could truly go back to school.
Now, at the end of my Notre Dame experience, I think I would have made a far better bishop if I’d had this opportunity earlier in my ministry. I have a better understanding of “epochal” change as seen through the lenses of young women and men and those who guide them. I am less alarmed by rejection and more comfortable with conflict. Matters like contraception, church governance and collegiality, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and the whole complex of justice and peace issues, to name a few, have evolved in the minds and practices of priests and people during my four decades of ministry. It’s a different world and a different church. Happily I have far more trust in the Holy Spirit now than before.
The president’s office had inquired what I would like to do during this semester. Originally I thought I might begin to write a book. But I also wanted to immerse myself in campus ministry and learn as much as I could about the students and their relationships with God and the Church. Upon arrival I received a schedule that did not resemble “retirement.” I would hear confessions for an hour at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart twice each week, celebrate Mass in residence hall chapels five nights a week and at the basilica every Friday morning, attend and give lectures at the request of the theology department, lead a weekend retreat for the young men of Old College as they discern vocations to the priesthood, conduct an overnight staff retreat for a University department, participate in a weekend retreat for 180 teachers in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, and do anything else I wished or might be asked to do.
I never got started on the book. But I did learn a great deal during this grace-filled engagement with campus life, and I profited from a nourishing personal spiritual pilgrimage that extended right up to the last exam day of the fall semester.
One thing I learned is that the Catholic faith at Notre Dame is alive and well. Many times I have heard parents lament, “My children went through Catholic schools from first grade to college and now they don’t practice the faith!” What I found here is that Catholic students — about 82 percent of the student body — arrive on campus with minimal to no knowledge of the sacraments; that they did not at home and do not now attend Mass because — they would say — their family did not make it a priority in family life. At Notre Dame they often struggle with things such as dorm Masses, Catholic teaching, the fine campus ministry programs and other manifestations and practices of the faith because these things are foreign to them.
My very unscientific observations suggest that the Grotto — and Mary — might attract more students than the hall chapels and the basilica, which fascinates me. During my own visits to the Grotto on those warmer, drier September and October nights, I saw many students coming to light a candle, touch the stone and kneel for a prayer, a rosary, a meditative moment.
The world’s bishops need to prepare better for the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment than they did for the synod on marriage and family life a few years ago. This time we bishops need to listen, patiently and nondefensively, to the voices of the young. We need to better understand our failures in our churches and dioceses before blaming colleges and universities for the apparent diminishment of students’ faith practice.
As a celebrant, I’d estimate that just under half of the Catholic men, and about one-third of the women, attend the readily available Sunday Masses on this campus. The synod would do well to discuss the reasons the Church seems to be decreasingly attractive to young women in particular.
Accounting for those who aren’t Catholic, I calculated these proportions based on the number of residents in each hall, comparing notes with the hall rectors. My figures do not include those students who attend weekend Masses at the basilica or the women who are reportedly more likely to go to Mass in a men’s dorm. So my perceptions may be suspect — although they are not far off from University estimates. About half the Catholic students who respond to the annual senior survey — filling it out is a prerequisite for receiving one’s diploma — report having gone to religious services “frequently” during their senior year. The figure jumps to three-fourths of those Catholic students who still lived in the residence halls as seniors. The survey instrument does not define “frequently.”
I loved the dorm Masses and think my sacramental priesthood grew richer there. No one worries about dress, no one worries about being on time to get a great parking place, no one leaves early, no one wails about the music — which is always liturgically lovely and appropriate. I have never had a more attentive congregation for my preaching. The liturgy was intimate, serious but relaxed, and genuinely appreciated.
After my first appearance on a Sunday in one women’s dorm, I received a call the next day from the rector asking if I would mind coming an hour early the next Sunday night for a “Q and A” with the residents. I did. I loved it. The most interesting question put to me that night was “Bishop, why do so many people outside of here think Notre Dame is no longer Catholic?” Others asked how the gifts of women could be put to better use by the Church. I found it interesting that none of these young women asked the ordination question.
But I left troubled by those beyond the reach of campus ministers who do not seem to avail themselves of the opportunity they have at Notre Dame to grow in their Catholicism. Are they to be forever lost to the faith of their baptism?
An aggressive, extremely talented, well-funded campus ministry program is not to blame for their seeming lack of interest in religion. I repeat and would defend the idea that the disinterest began at home with the faith practice, or absence thereof, that preceded these students’ arrival. The Church needs to work harder to convince parents in our local churches of the need for ardent faith practice, and not to seek cover in blaming our colleges and universities. There is a lot of work to be done, and it can and should be done at home long before a freshman arrives on campus.
Priests throughout this country would give their right arms to administer the sacrament of reconciliation here. It was the highlight of my Notre Dame experience. There is genuine sanctity, or at least the search for sanctity, found in those who come for reconciliation. I was never bored, never without some soul in my presence — and I have never been approached privately to hear confessions as often as I have been during these last four months. As many as four of us would hear confessions prior to the daily Masses, and we often stayed late. Bright people properly attuned to the moral life know and feel their transgressions more clearly, and their remorse is amazing.
Generally, I would characterize my experience in the “box” as hearing many bright people deal more with sins of omission rather than commission, struggle with fidelity and avoid the addictions that are so readily available. My life was blessed by people in search of genuine holiness as well as by many who had been away from the sacraments for many years. Confessions in the basilica just prior to football weekends gave many the opportunity to unburden themselves to someone whom they had never met before and would likely never see again.
Another thing I learned is that the theology department is superb and very Catholic. One of the tactics of the noisy right-wing of our present Church is to light what I call the “Bonfire of the Vanities” and accuse an institution of higher learning of not being Catholic in its teaching. I leave here very impressed with the theology department and with the faculty’s commitment to the Catholic faith. And I am amazed at how many undergraduates are pursuing majors in various areas of engineering, pre-med, business, science and language arts, yet choose to minor in theology. Why? “Because it is interesting,” I was often told, or because “I want to know more about my Church,” or “It challenges me,” or “It attempts to answer some of my deepest doubts.”
To teach undergraduate theology today is often to challenge one’s students — for surely their faith will be challenged when they leave school, if not before. I found great comfort as one student after another shared with me what I would paraphrase as, “Father, I needed to travel through the forest of doubt in order to emerge into the clearing of truth.” Teaching about faith sometimes means allowing them some freedom to work with what is not true, in the hope that, with help, they will ultimately embrace the truth of our faith.
Some critics of Catholic higher education dispute this point. My experience is that allowing intellectual freedom in the pursuit of truth yields a much better and longer-lasting result.
When Notre Dame challenges its Catholic students, it helps them more maturely embrace a faith that is countercultural and sometimes counterintuitive. I would go to the bank on the premise that those who criticize Notre Dame’s commitment to the Catholic faith have never spent any real time at this or any other major Catholic institution of higher learning. It is just easier to load snowballs with rocks than to do the investigative legwork. The discovery of real faith to last a lifetime with its joys and sorrows is a journey, and this University leads and accompanies its students well. Pope Francis would be very comfortable here amidst teachers who discern and discuss truth with their students.
I also found that the majority of Notre Dame students, at this moment in their lives, are committed to social justice. They have a heart for the poor, whom they would like to help in some meaningful way. I detected no innate or lingering animus among them against their LGBT peers, as may not have been the case not so long ago. I saw little evident xenophobia because the campus itself is so culturally rich. I found these young women and men better prepared to adapt to and enter the “new epoch” than I am.
The student newspaper, The Observer, mirrors these young minds, who are asking that the administration take a more active role in current political polemics. The administration has, in my time here, taken strong positions on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Charlottesville protests and other controversies. I feel for the administration because I know that while Pope Francis would defeat Donald Trump in a campus election hands down, such would likely not be the case around the boardrooms, offices and family dinner tables of all who are involved with this enterprise. It’s a tightrope, but there is dialogue between the administration and its student body. Fathers Ted Hesburgh, “Monk” Malloy and John Jenkins have offered strong presidential support for peace and justice initiatives here and overseas, offering a wellspring of information and opportunity for these students.
I must admit that I enjoyed reading The Observer. As a bishop who has spent 21 years at the vortex of conflicting opinions and nonnegotiable but often unreasonable demands, it was enlightening to read about contentious issues — such as how the women’s dorms are stricter and less tolerant of abuses than the men’s dorms; the inequality between new residence halls and the older, tired mainstays, both of which cost the same for “room”; the contraception question vis-à-vis University policy — without being personally involved. I was glad to not have a proverbial dog in many of those hunts.
The semester also revealed to me that students are under great stress. When I arrived, one rector told me how a recent national survey had indicated that roughly one in five members of this year’s freshman class relies upon prescribed psychotropic medications to control anxiety and depression. At Notre Dame, the figures appear to be a little lower, but not by much. I found Notre Dame students to be at once the most gifted yet driven, the most serious yet occasionally frivolous, the most communal yet often lonely group I have ever encountered. One needs only to review the profile of the freshman class to know that getting in was tough, getting out will be tougher and getting a job — which fulfills everyone’s hopes and dreams — will be the toughest test of all. These young women and men labor under great expectations. They are under more pressure than I thought to meet the expectations of their parents, family, professors and friends.
It is also clear that Notre Dame remains the premier Catholic university for innovation and transformation in the Church’s ministries of faith formation and education. I have grown in my admiration for the Institute for Educational Initiatives, with its ACE teacher-training program, the ACE Academies and the Remick Leadership Program for school principals, as well as for the Institute for Church Life’s Echo program, which places young graduates in positions of parish leadership in faith formation. Having been privileged to engage some of these entities in days of recollection, reflection and prayer, I have witnessed firsthand their commitment to the Church and its mission.
Two influences seem to me a special blessing on this holy ground. One is the incredible commitment of the Congregation of Holy Cross, this group of men who get it, who live in the real world and are always present to the students. They founded this place 175 years ago and they have seen it grow through many adversities. Every graduate I know has at least one favorite priest or brother who was there to help, encourage and affirm them in times of high anxiety. When alumni return to campus, they make a beeline first to the Grotto and then to the rectors of their residence halls.
The Board of Trustees understands and values the University’s founding community, and will do anything to strengthen the relationship between it and the school. Holy Cross’s commitment of manpower to the classroom, residence halls and administration guarantees that every student has some Holy Cross priest or brother they can rely on, lean on, build on. The formation program for future Holy Cross priests is also impressive, as is the current group of young men discerning and preparing for priestly ordination. The Congregation of Holy Cross is the “soul” of Notre Dame.
The second blessing is Notre Dame, our Mother. Students here of every religious tradition and of no faith at all connect with her throughout their time here. The alma mater, known and sung on multiple occasions, is itself a prayer. The Grotto is a spiritual oasis. The basilica is a shrine. Mary permeates every inch of this vast campus. As I take my leave and say farewell to an extraordinary Catholic university, I know that Notre Dame is now my mother, too. I no longer count myself as a “wannabe,” but as having been extremely blessed.
The Most Reverend Robert Lynch is bishop emeritus of Saint Petersburg, Florida, and is a former general secretary of what is now called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.