Being Mercy: Notre Dame Story Nights

Author: Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div.

“My Notre Dame story began when I was born. I think that my parents took me home from the hospital in a Notre Dame onesie.”

“My Notre Dame story began when I was 6. My mom and my little brother and I laid down in a big wooden crate that was tacked under a tractor-trailer in Tijuana, and that’s how we crossed the border from Mexico to get into the United States.”

“I’m the kid who, on football Saturdays when I was 3 years old, was already dressed up as a Notre Dame cheerleader.”

“Both my parents went to Harvard. Two of my uncles went to Harvard. My heart was all set on going to Harvard and playing lacrosse there. When I didn’t get in, I was crushed. I came to Notre Dame, certainly not my first choice. And now I am so happy and so grateful to be here.”

Acknowledging and accepting diversity is certainly becoming a way of life. You can’t go anywhere and not hear people talking about diversity and inclusion. It’s wonderful. Though I am only 50 percent Italian, I grew up in a very Italian world. We belonged to an Italian national parish and I went to the parish grade school. I always say that I didn’t know anyone whose last name did not end in a vowel until I went to high school. In my parish, “diverse” meant people from different towns in Sicily: Castel di Lucio or Palermo or Acquadolce or Santo Stefano di Camastra.

When I went to Notre Dame as an undergraduate in 1972, the campus was not very diverse. When I returned here in 2009 to work in the Alliance for Catholic Education and live in a dorm, I was surprised and gladdened to find how much more diverse Notre Dame had become. The University has been very intentional about creating a more diverse student body than I had known as an undergraduate.

At the same time I was concerned because I noticed that students did not mix easily across racial, cultural, ethnic or economic backgrounds. It is not uncommon to go to South Dining Hall and see a table filled with Latino students eating dinner together and talking in Spanish. Or to go to LaFortune and see several tables of Asian students snacking and studying together. I realized that, for the most part, students do not meet other students across cultures because they simply don’t know how to do it and don’t have opportunities to do it. And as human beings we seem hardwired to associate with people who look like we do, think like we do and talk like we do.

Four or five years ago (I can’t remember when I began) I decided that I would invite 10 students to my room in Dillon Hall one random evening. I blind copied all of them so no one knew who else was coming. I told them I would be serving pizza. And everyone would have an opportunity to tell the story of how they came to Notre Dame.

By now I have hosted about 70 of these gatherings, which have come to be known as Notre Dame Story Nights. More than 700 students have attended one. For the past three years I have only invited first-year students, because they’ll have more time left at Notre Dame to build bridges across cultures and to continue the relationships that begin with these evenings.

The only purpose of the evening is to meet other students from different cultures and races and ethnicities and economic backgrounds. I tell the students at the beginning of each gathering, “Some years ago two students who might not otherwise have met became roommates in one of Notre Dame’s study-abroad programs. I’m going to keep hosting Notre Dame Story Nights until I get a wedding out of it.” They all laugh . . . and look around the room.

The stories are beautiful and moving and personal and touching.

Fr. Joe Corpora—A Notre Dame Priest Tells His Story from VideoND on Vimeo.

“My great-grandfather went to school here. And then my grandfather and my father. And now me!”

“I never heard of Notre Dame until my guidance counselor in high school mentioned it to me.”

“I was in a high school program called Avid. It’s for high-performing, economically poor students. And through a program called Questbridge, I learned about Notre Dame.”

“My high school English teacher was an ACE teacher. I learned about Notre Dame from him.”

“All my siblings have gone to Notre Dame and I was determined to go somewhere different. And here I am, happy as could be.”

“I was sitting in my AP math class and I got an e-mail telling me I had been accepted.”

“I was waiting desperately for news from Notre Dame. For several days my mom and I would wait at the mailbox for the carrier to bring the mail. Then the day came. The BIG envelope. I opened it. I had been accepted. I started to cry. My mom was crying and so was the mail carrier! We all hugged each other and cried some more.”

As I listen to each student’s story, I feel like the mercy of God is flowing in and out of everyone in the room. These young, wonderful students truly listen to each other. I am aware that every story is holy, is of God, and that we are all standing on holy ground. It’s easy to see how God moves and acts and prompts in our lives. And the older I get the more I know that all anyone really wants in life is for someone to know a piece of their story.

Notre Dame Story Nights are an opportunity for our wonderful young people to share a piece of their story with other students who represent the growing diversity of Notre Dame. Athletes, DACA students, international students, students from wealthy families, shy students, gregarious students, first-generation students, students working on campus so as to send money to their family in Texas.

After everyone tells their Notre Dame Story, we all say our names again and then we pray a Hail Mary together. One night a student asked, “Can we all pray the Hail Mary in our native language?” We prayed together that evening in Spanish, English, Lithuanian and Swahili. So beautiful.

On the first Saturday of May I invite all the students who have taken part in a Notre Dame Story Night for Mass and lunch. Of the 170 who will have participated, approximately 120 will come. It’s a wonderful event each year.

These nights are an opportunity to practice what Pope Francis consistently calls the “culture of encounter”: You have something good to give to me and I have something good to give to you.

I think the students leave my room having experienced the culture of encounter. Each one has received something good from the others. And each one has given something good to the others. As I clean up and haul out the trash, I think about how our country and our world might be enriched if people from different backgrounds sat down with one another and told part of their story. We would have a very different world. Rather than building walls, we would all be building bridges.

As I say so often, one thing is obvious — we all stand in need of the mercy of God. For sure the mercy of God unites all of us in our diversity. The mercy of God is all-inclusive.

Father Joe Corpora, CSC, is the director of the Catholic School Advantage campaign within Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program and associate director, pastoral care of students, in the Office of Campus Ministry. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in February 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy.