DENVER – It was almost 35 years ago, but I remember it like yesterday. I was 19, it was Saturday, and I was in the Brass Rail, a popular beer bar in my hometown of Hays, Kansas. (Yeah, I was underage, let’s not dwell on it.) It was crowded and loud, but I found a friend at the bar intensely concentrating on a college football game playing on the small TV.
It turned out to be the 1984 Aloha Bowl, Notre Dame v. Southern Methodist. I asked my friend why he was so worked up, and his answer was simplicity itself: “We can’t let these Protestants beat us!”
For context, rural Western Kansas is about as Protestant-dominated a landscape as middle America has to offer, except for Hays, where a century ago Capuchins from Germany had followed Volga German immigrants out to the American Midwest to be farmers. As a result, Hays was always a small Catholic island in a vast Protestant sea.
Even 100 years later, consciousness of the religious divide was still strong, and I found myself sucked in by my friend’s enthusiasm: This wasn’t just a football game, it was about Catholic pride.
Alas, the Protestants took that one – SMU beat the Irish, 27-20.
All these years later, not a great deal has changed (except for the fact there’s no more Aloha Bowl.) I’ll admit, I’m not really a Notre Dame fan. I’m an alumnus of the University of Kansas, which means I’ve always got something to feel good about during basketball season, and maybe the Les Miles era will mean football gets interesting too.
Yet every now and then, when my Catholic genes stir, I can’t help but feel a ND tug, knowing how central the “Pride of the Irish” was to sustaining Catholicism in America before we entered the mainstream.
(I’m hardly alone, by the way – were your eyes dry at the end of Rudy? Honestly?)
All of which brings us to the great “What if?” of this season – can Notre Dame actually win it all, capping a perfect regular season with a national championship? Will the 2018-19 championship game on January 7 end with a triumphant Irish team singing the “Alma Mater” in the endzone of Levi Stadium in Santa Clara?
And if they could somehow do that, could it be a badly needed feel-good moment for a Catholic community in America that’s hurting?
No need here to detail the various reasons for Catholic ennui, but obviously they begin and end with the clerical sexual abuse scandals, including the Pennsylvania grand jury report (and the more than a dozen states that already have announced plans for their own grand juries), the scandals surrounding ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the accusations from a former papal ambassador in the U.S. that Pope Francis himself was in on the cover-up, the current frustrations in getting to the bottom of the McCarrick case awaiting promised disclosures from the Vatican, and on and on.
Many rank-and-file Catholics were hoping that something positive would come out of the U.S. bishops’ Nov. 11-13 meeting in Baltimore, given that the bishops had pledged to take strong action both on holding themselves to account for abuse cover-ups and also in terms of getting to the truth on McCarrick.
Instead, they were ordered to stand down by the Vatican awaiting a Feb. 21-24 summit convened by Pope Francis for presidents of all the bishops’ conferences in the world as well as the Vatican’s own senior personnel. No matter what results, it’s more delay and confusion for a church in the States that’s already had plenty of it.
Of course, nothing that happens on a football field is going to affect all that. The only real way to restore Catholic pride is for ordinary Mass-goers to see the Church doing what both common sense and doctrine dictate – coming fully clean on McCarrick, providing genuine accountability not just for the crime of sexual abuse but the cover-up, and so on.
However, sports have a capacity to lift people out of reality for a few moments, giving them something to celebrate amid the most difficult circumstances, even if they leave those circumstances unaltered. Just think about the way New Orleans reacted to the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl victory, just four years after Katrina.
Do I honestly think a heart-warming championship for the Irish in this year of Catholic angst is likely? Probably not –six or seven times out of ten, they might lose on a neutral field to any other team left in the field. As of this writing, there’s still a small chance they won’t even be in the final four.
However, the great thing about football is that all Notre Dame needs right now, assuming it makes the field, is to be better on one day twice in a row – and, if they manage to do that, maybe some share of American Catholics will feel just a little better too.
* * *
By the way, you may have noticed over the past few weeks several articles on Crux originally published in Katholiek Nieuwsblad, the leading Dutch-language Catholic weekly.
By arrangement with their editors, we’re offering exclusive English-language translations of some of their most important work, and they’re publishing Dutch translations of articles from Crux’s stable of writers. We’re confident this collaboration benefits both our audiences.
(For the record, we also think we’re getting the better portion of the deal, since Katholiek Nieuwsblad is doing all the heavy lifting of translation.)