The Time and the Place

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


Laughter pulsed outward through the stained glass into the night air May 14, as members of the Class of 2009 observed the traditional Last Visit to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Inside the church, the seniors savored their Notre Dame years through the punchy review of four ad-hoc comedians — classmates Ryan O’Connor, Kathleen Hession, Tim Cummings and Martha Calcutt. They observed a moment of silence over the football team’s painful 34-31 loss to USC their freshman year. They chuckled over indignant Viewpoint letters and earnest academic forums and the sudden popularity — and fleeting marketability — of the finance major that so many had bolted toward as sophomores.

They sat bemused through readings from a fictitious “Diary of Father John I. Jenkins,” in which the University president was imagined to ruminate over Charlie Weis’ contract extension and mull the wisdom of having mounted police patrol tailgaters on football Saturdays.

Those were the days.

Most of those crowding the pews would jubilantly attend their official commencement exercises three days later in the Joyce Center. Some two dozen would opt with sadness and firm resolve for an unofficial commencement day lineup of Mass and speakers on South Quad and prayer in the Grotto. All would turn their tassels and receive benediction from parents and mentors and caring onlookers. All would sing their alma mater.

None, it seemed as they filed out the oaken doors of the east nave and down the path to the Grotto, were going to let the two-month controversy surrounding the visit of President Barack Obama and the grave matter of abortion define who they had become or what they had achieved as students at the University of Notre Dame.

86 weekend events

In important ways, the University’s 164th Commencement Exercises resembled the previous 163. The Last Visit tradition rounded out Senior Week’s off-campus parties and carefree trips to the Indiana Dunes and Wrigley Field even as it formally kicked off the University’s tight schedule of departmental brunches and dinners, awards receptions, open houses, prayer services and concerts — 86 events in all over 69 hours before things would finally wind down Sunday evening with the Law School’s diploma ceremony.

As parents and other well-wishers arrived, cooler than average mid-May temperatures blew in to freshen the natural backdrop of lawn fêtes and a million keepsake photographs. Students stole away to local bars and strolled in packs to the casual eateries on State Road 23 for farewell dinners and last beers with their friends.

The caps and gowns came out for the weekend’s formal rites of passage. As 47 newly commissioned officers exited the ROTC ceremony at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC) Saturday morning, some 55 Asian and Pacific Islander students gathered at the Snite auditorium and received vibrant floral leis. That afternoon, medievalists emerged from an Oxford-inspired ritual in the Alumni Hall chapel that signified their acceptance into the society of their scholarly peers.

Not to be forgotten were the 399 master’s and 167 doctoral degree candidates recognized by the Graduate School, which hosts its own commencement for post-baccalaureate students in the colleges of Arts & Letters, Science and Engineering and the School of Architecture.

Over at the DPAC, security had tightened for Father Jenkins’ appearance at the Center for Social Concerns’ annual service send-off. Planners fretted that protesters of the Obama visit might disrupt the proceedings, conveying a hint of the underlying tensions that will forever mark Commencement 2009.

While the 195 graduates bound for at least one year of volunteer work streamed into the grand hall, a C-130 aircraft carrying the presidential limousine passed over the Golden Dome en route to South Bend Regional Airport. That day, several anti-abortion protesters carrying bullhorns, signs and rosaries and kneeling on the brick walkways lining Notre Dame Avenue added themselves to the list of dozens who had already been arrested for trespassing on campus in anticipation of the president’s arrival.

Campus on Sunday morning witnessed more of the familiar pomp and circumstance. African-American students hurried to Washington Hall early for a recognition ceremony distinctive for its African drumming. Meanwhile, engineers attending separate departmental ceremonies received fitted, stainless steel rings meant to remind them of the life-and-death social consequences of their work.

American studies, biology and classics students were the last convened and dismissed by their departments. They joined the hustle through the special security outposts along Moose Krause Circle toward the long procession line forming at Gate 3 of the Joyce Center. The time for the big show had come.

A bishop boycotts

One symbol of the divisions rending the extended Notre Dame family was the absence of Bishop John M. D’Arcy from the Joyce Center Sunday afternoon. The leader of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend made public his decision to boycott Notre Dame’s graduation four days after word broke on CNN that the University had invited President Obama to speak to graduates and receive an honorary degree.

“I wish no disrespect to our president,” his statement read. “I pray for him and wish him well.” But D’Arcy questioned whether in its plans to award an honorary doctorate of laws to a U.S. president who had already used his executive power to support abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research, the University had “chosen prestige over truth.”

The bishop did soften his initial determination to stay away from campus entirely. On Saturday evening, he attended the commencement Mass celebrated by Father Jenkins, whom he had publicly criticized for not consulting with him in making the Obama decision.

D’Arcy later would join a coalition of pro-life student groups called ND Response for an Eucharistic adoration service at Alumni Hall. There he prayed silently for 40 minutes for the students’ three intentions: the “conversion of the president,” the worldwide spread of the “culture of life” and the Catholic identity of Notre Dame and other Catholic schools.

“I don’t think there would be this level of response for many other Catholic universities, because with all its flaws Notre Dame is the most Catholic of the major universities,” D’Arcy told Catholic radio and film crews waiting for him outside the chapel door. “The issue is giving an honor to someone who has so frequently before the presidency and as president . . . been almost a crusader against life.”

As Sunday dawned, slogans and graphic images of aborted infants again clogged the corners of Angela Boulevard and Notre Dame Avenue, slowing open-gowned students and their parents on their path toward campus. Up on South Quad, a crowd of some 2,000 was gathering for the open-air Mass organized as part of ND Response’s University-sanctioned protest.

Sprinkled throughout the crowd were 23 Notre Dame professors, many in academic robes, and clusters of graduates who had decorated their mortarboards with bright yellow crosses and baby’s footprints, a longtime symbol of the pro-life movement.

“We are here today to bear witness and to love. We have gathered today to give voice to the most vulnerable in our society,” the homilist, Father Kevin Russeau, CSC, ’96, ’00M.Div. said.

Mass ended the outward protest for most of the students, who quickly made for the Joyce Center. But hundreds of other people stayed for a rally at which Bishop D’Arcy appeared, and faculty, student and alumni speakers gave reverent but forceful voice to their disappointment with the rites just gathering steam under the South Dome. At 12:30, the rally began. Air Force One descended through the azure skies.

The lead speaker, history Professor Father Wilson Miscamble, CSC, ’77M.A., ’80Ph.D., ’87M.Div., sharply criticized the University administration, referring to the controversy as a “self-inflicted wound.” He invoked Holy Cross founder Blessed Father Basil Moreau’s phrase that “the mind cannot be cultivated at the expense of the heart,” and said the Obama invitation failed what he called the founding vision of “an institution unashamedly Catholic and willing to embrace all the tenets of our faith.”

But Miscamble said the story wasn’t over. He predicted administrators would “have a chance to show through future deeds and in very practical ways Notre Dame’s commitment to the pro-life cause.” He called on his audience to work toward this goal and to close the distance he said Notre Dame had put between itself and the U.S. Catholic bishops.

“You must remember that there is so much that is good at Notre Dame that you can never relent in your efforts to call this place to be its best and true self, proud of its Catholic identity and loyal membership in the Church,” he said in closing.

The presidents meet

In a tunnel beneath the Joyce Center, Father Jenkins waited for his guest to arrive, hands clasped behind his back. Upstairs, the upper bowl filled with parents and other relatives, chatter and anticipation. The students — with whom Jenkins had walked on their academic journeys since his presidential inauguration in September of their freshmen year — approached the ramps for the beginning of the academic procession.

Jenkins had sent them a letter the previous Monday expressing his pride in them and in their conduct during the turmoil of their final semester. “You engaged each other with passion, intelligence and respect,” he wrote. “We need the wider society to be more like you; it is good that we are sending you into that world on Sunday.”

During its Last Visit, to the Basilica, the Class of 2009 had honored Jenkins with its Senior Fellow award.

By the time these sons and daughters began filing toward their seats, Jenkins and Obama had met, warmly exchanged greetings and were posing for photos with University dignitaries.

Obama paused for a private meeting he had requested with Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, signed a copy of the commencement program, and then he and Jenkins were off toward the ramps. A short lull trailed the seating of the last member of the platform party. Then the Concert Band struck up “Hail to the Chief.”

Obama and Jenkins entered. The arena erupted.

Loud cheers, some jeers

So Commencement 2009 began: A standing ovation for Barack Obama of Washington, D.C., who turned to face different sections of the arena to a swell of applause and whistles.

Two minutes passed before University provost Thomas Burish could settle the gathering.

Obama was not the only recipient of a standing ovation that afternoon. E. Brennan Bollman ’09 received the next, triggered by her peers in the College of Science, as she rose to deliver the valedictory address. Bound for Harvard Medical School, the biology major recounted with humility the less glamorous moments of her undergraduate days — the trials of the summer she spent in a Catholic Worker women’s shelter and her confinement in a hospital ward in Cambodia, where she had traveled to work in an AIDS hospice. She closed with gratitude. “You have given much to my classmates and me,” she said. “Please expect much from us in return.”

Burish congratulated Bollman and moved to the conferral of eight honorary degrees, starting with Obama. The proclamation cited Obama as the president “whose historic election opened a new era of hope in a country long divided by its history of slavery and racism,” for his work as a community organizer and diplomat, and for “his willingness to engage with those who disagree with him and encourage people of faith to bring their beliefs to the public debate.”

Father Jenkins, who had mostly withheld comment on his decision to invite and honor Obama throughout the spring, used his remarks first to congratulate the students and then directly address the rancor his choice had raised.

“Differences must be acknowledged and in some cases even cherished,” Jenkins said. “But too often differences lead to pride in self and contempt for others, until two sides — taking opposing views of the same difference — demonize each other.”

In a speech at times almost swallowed by applause, Jenkins quoted remarks Pope Benedict XVI had made on the South Lawn of the White House regarding religion as a source of respectful dialogue. He argued that when Notre Dame listens to “all views” and witnesses “what we believe,” it fulfills Pope John Paul II’s vision of the Catholic university as “a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture.”

“President Obama has come to Notre Dame, though he knows well that we are fully supportive of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research,” he continued, reasoning that Obama might have declined the invitation. “But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him.

“Mr. President,” Jenkins concluded, turning to face Obama. “This is a principle we share.”

For his part, Obama didn’t flinch from the conflict, referencing “abortion” seven times in a speech in which he would praise the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago as “a saintly man” and uphold Father Hesburgh’s civil rights work as a model for effective leadership.

Before Obama could even raise the subject, the first of three protesters yelled down from the arena’s back rows as Notre Dame Security Police officers moved to escort him out. Moments later, a second boomed out “Abortion is murder!” over jeers from others sitting nearby. And fully half the students rose to their feet as most joined in on an unscripted, thunderous cheer the seniors pulled straight out of Notre Dame Stadium:

“We are!” clap clap “ND!” clap clap “We are!” clap clap “ND!”

Unfazed, Obama kept the spotlight with humor. He congratulated the winners of the Bookstore Basketball tournament, but said he was disappointed that a team called the Barack O’Ballers “didn’t pull it out. So next year, if you need a 6’2” forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live.”

Obama waxed reflective as he reminded graduates of the world they were entering. Global recession, violence and pandemic disease, he said, “do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color. They do not target specific ethnic groups.”

Echoing “Father John,” whom Obama accused of stealing “all my best lines,” he said answers to these problems would only lie in historic “cooperation and understanding.”

Turning to abortion, Obama called for common ground in the “moral and spiritual dimensions” of the bitterly disputed issue.

“So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions,” he offered to a crescendo of acclamation. “Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women. Those are things we can do.”

Burish had one more gift for the president: a framed copy of the famous photograph of Father Hesburgh and Martin Luther King Jr., their hands clasped and voices raised at a Chicago civil rights rally in 1964. Burish pointed Obama to Hesburgh’s place in section 11D, where the priest acknowledged him with the sign of the cross.

The U.S. president appeared to enjoy the remainder of the long afternoon, even pointing appreciatively to the architecture students’ conspicuous mortarboards, many of which bore models of D.C. monuments in his honor. And when Burish closed the convocation by asking all present to raise their hands in blessing over the new graduates, the president raised his, too.

An alternative ceremony

The serenity of the Grotto provided a suitable contrast to the raucous energy of the Joyce Center. About two dozen graduates, joined by a few hundred supportive witnesses, participated in a “Vigil for Life” that began with Marian hymns and a scriptural rosary led by Father Frank Pavone of the New York-based Priests for Life.

“This is your commencement,” Father Kevin Russeau said in a short speech to the graduates, who each laid a white rose in the Grotto and then, as a group, moved their tassels from right to left to signify their graduation.

The ceremony closed with a prayer, a blessing of the senior class and the singing of “Notre Dame, Our Mother.” The graduates then threw their mortarboards into the air to cheers, laughter and applause.

“It means standing up for what you believe in,” event organizer Andrew Chronister ’09 said of the alternative ceremony. He said the choice he and his fellow graduates had made represented “a personal decision as to what [our] best witness will be.”

As the assembly dispersed, about a dozen people made their way to the corner of Juniper and Douglas roads. When Obama’s motorcade shot past, they turned their backs.

At the Main Gate, a new shift of protesters raised signs different from the anti-abortion placards that all day had lined the streets out to the Toll Road. Some chanted support for Obama. Others held forth for adoption and other causes.

Outside the Joyce Center, in the swirl and sunshine of the hopeful May afternoon, graduates with cell phones pressed to their ears probed the crowd to find their families, pausing for tearful hugs and hurried snapshots before turning toward the parking lot and a lifelong engagement with the joys and cares of the world.

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine. Additional reporting by John Monczunski and Carol Schaal ’91M.A.