Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Upon these rocks: faith and the Notre Dame grotto

The following is a reprint of an article I wrote (in 1996) on the 100th anniversary of the Notre Dame Grotto, complete with my original ending that was edited from "Queen of All Hearts" magazine. With "Queen" now gone the way of "Look" and "Life," many have requested it, and Fighting Irish Thomas is happy to comply.
But just now, and just so many times, how I long for the grotto. Away from the grotto, Dooley just prays. But at the grotto ... I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness ... If I could go to the grotto now, I could sing inside. --Tom Dooley (from a letter written to Fr. Hesburgh shortly before his death to cancer Dec. 2, 1960)
The first known photograph of Notre Dame's Lourdes-style grotto built in 1896We're goin' to Notre Dame!" my eldest son John exclaimed to his two younger brothers and sister, upon hearing the acceptance of my latest freelancing idea. This time, however, the main event of the pilgrimage was not football, that trip would occur several months later. This visit would focus on the campus landmark that celebrates its centenary this year, one that has little to do with Rockne and much to do with rocks. Not regular rocks, but the kind that faith, and Notre Dame, are built upon.

The Notre Dame Grotto (pictured is the earliest known photograph of the Grotto, August, 1896) was constructed entirely from unhewn rock (some boulders weighed as much as two tons!), hauled on horse-drawn carriages from nearby farms. Although Father Edward Sorin, Notre Dame's founder had a great devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes and led the first North American pilgrimage to this site, ND alumni (who have a penchant for being "#1" in everything) would be disappointed to find that their Lourdes grotto is not even the first or greatest imitation of St. Bernadette's cave on our continent. Of the more than a dozen major Lourdes copies, there are older replicas in Quebec, Canada, and Covington, Kentucky, and grander scale grottos in Brooklyn, New York and Belmont, North Carolina. But, just as the sons of saints often become saints themselves, but with a much different vocation, Notre Dame's grotto is sacred, but with a purpose quite different from Lourdes. And I believe it is the fact that Notre Dame is a university that makes its grotto unique.

The original and most famous symbol of Mary's presence at the University is not the grotto, but Our Lady on the Golden Dome. When fire totally destroyed the existing Notre Dame in 1877, an undaunted Father Sorin decided it was because he had dreamed too small, and immediately began to rebuild the place, starting with the Administration Building; topped with a Marian Dome "so darn big that no one would not know what this place is about." Well, Fr. Sorin's dome and dream did endure, but although it clearly symbolizes her presence to the outside world, it is not the image of Mary ND's youthful inhabitants desire. For, as Father John Fitzgerald stated back in 1950, "From the great Golden Dome of her university, Our Lady reigns as our Queen. Yet at the grotto, she seems to have stepped down a little closer to us that she might emphasize the other side of her personal relationship with us—that of Our Mother." In other words, most students arrive here at an age where they're still rebelling against authority (their Queen) but also in dire need of a friend (their Mother). "To light a candle at the grotto is to put faith in faith," states Maura Mandyck (ND class of '87) showing that it is at the grotto that many students choose Mary for the first time. Of course, it is only in their later years when they return that they realize it was she who had chosen them.

There are several grotto memories common to most "Domers" (slang for Notre Dame students), and they all clearly show this Marian paradox. Prior to the 1960s, the lights in the Notre Dame dorms were shut off by a main switch at 11 p.m., to save electricity, and "force" students to get the bed at a decent hour. Thus, most 1940s and 50s alum's fondest grotto memories were not of the mandatory Marian devotions they attended, but of the nights they snuck down there to take grotto candles back to their rooms (often without paying the devotional donation!) so they could continue their late night studies on the sly. Rather than putting one over on the Holy Cross Congregation, it appears the Fathers and Brothers had these late night excursions in their sights all along. Controlling the only source of light on campus, the students would be forced to dedicate any extra study to Mary, as they were on her time now. As for pilfering the candles, you can be sure by the university's financial success, that these fellows more than made up for the slight once they became alumni!

Meanwhile, many modern grotto sagas start not with fire, but water. First, one must note that back in 1896, not long before the grotto was completed, builders struck a national spring; almost identical to the spot one was struck at Lourdes. Almost immediately miracles were reported from Notre Dame's water too, but whereas the French spring remains as it was, the American version was made into a drinking fountain! Still, with the current popularity of jogging, rollerblading, or just plain walking around the lakes, students almost always need to stop there for a drink ... and usually develop a desire to stop and pray afterward. Maybe that drinking fountain wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Eventually, these chance encounters lead to planned grotto prayer with a specific purpose. For example, since Notre Dame went co-ed a quarter century ago, many male students have brought their future spouses here to propose marriage in the presence of their Mother—figuring that a "yes" before the Blessed Virgin is better than an "I guess so" somewhere else. Still, whether they were casual or committed, every grotto dweller seems to have come away with one of these two thoughts; late or early, sun or snow, there was ALWAYS someone praying there, or, although God is everywhere, prayer is more powerful HERE. And so, sitting in the peaceful contemplation of the grotto tree shade, I gazed up at the Lady dressed in white and asked if these things were true.

The first of these two statements was easy to discern, both actually and theoretically. As it was summer, I wondered if someone else would replace the usual steady stream of students at the grotto, but found they were more than compensated for by businessmen, mothers with strollers, and vacation camps of soccer players and baton twirlers. It was good to see, for not only does the sight of the constant procession of petitioners leave one feeling strengthened after a period of time it makes it easy to understand the meaning of the Lord's words, "When two or more are gathered in my Name, then I am there," someone was always there, as least when someone else needed it. But could grotto prayer really be better than "ordinary" ones?

"This is soggy sentimentalism," Tom Dooley concluded, "old prayers from a hospital bed are just as pleasing to God as more youthful prayers from a grotto ..." Still, as I read the letter (a copy of which is encased in glass near the grotto kneelers), Dooley went on to say, "the grotto is the rock to which my life is anchored," and I was left to ponder whether there was any theological reasoning for Tom's soulful ramblings. Fortunately, "Father Billy" (as my kids called him) had just entered the grotto for a short visit with my family, and I knew I could put the question to him.

Father Bill was just ordained on June 1st, but he was already my favorite priest. He had two clear-cut goals; encouraging vocations through witness and prayer, and establishing perpetual Eucharistic adoration in as many parishes as possible. The fruit of his prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was already evident in the wisdom with which he spoke, so after Father goofed around with John, Patrick, Therese and Gary, I asked Bill (I was allowed to call him that, for Bill was also my younger brother!) if, like prayer before the Eucharist, grotto prayer possessed some special graces too.
"I know that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, so prayer in this presence must be unparalleled. Still," I said motioning to the crowd, "a lot of people sure like praying here ..."

"I don't think you need to choose one over the other," offered the new associate pastor of Queen of All Saints Parish (Michigan City, IN) to the new freelance writer for Queen of All Hearts magazine. "Whenever there was a true apparition, no matter where it was, Mary always told the person she was appearing to, to have a church built on that site, so there would be no question that this was not about her, but about Mary leading people to Jesus."

"So I guess, since a chapel is always nearby, grotto prayer is, in a sense, an extended form of Eucharistic adoration."

"I never really thought about it," replied Father Bill, "but I would have to say that's true," he concluded, approving of my insight.

"So grotto prayer is different!" I thought to myself, as Father went off to have his picture taken by my wife. Through her power of intercession, Mary somehow mystically unlocks the doors of the Church so we can adore her Son's Eucharistic presence in the open air. So to those, like the young lass from Belfast who, visiting the states and Notre Dame for the first time, was struck most of all by the place "where young men had the grace and guts to pray in public," we can tell them it is because the men's grotto courage comes not from sentiment, but Sacrament.

Looking back on the Notre Dame grotto's first one hundred years, and ahead to its next century, I come to two concurrent conclusions. Lourdes Grotto devotion, judging not only from what I saw but letters such as the one from an anonymous Notre Dame graduate, who in memory of ND visits, donated $200,000 to a small Catholic college in New England so they could build one there, will continue to spread. And this is only fitting, for during the greatest century of French saints, which began with the "Cure de Ars" and Catherine Laboure of The Miraculous Medal, and ended in a flourish with the "Little Flower," Mary's appearance to Bernadette Soubirous remain the central triumph, for her miracles as "The Immaculate Conception" confirmed the pope's recent declaration of this concept as dogma to those who remained in doubt.

Predicting the future of the grotto at Notre Dame, however, is perhaps a little more difficult. At last season's Notre Dame vs. Texas football game, as I saw Notre Dame Stadium littered with hundreds of disposable soft drink cups depicting the big grotto anniversary, it reminded me of another current centenary, the one in which we now send pro athletes because they give us a better chance to win free burgers or fries. Besides the threat of commercial corruption from without, anyone who has read the works of Father Richard McBrien, or several Notre Dame professors who don't claim to be of the Faith (or any faith!) knows there is a real threat to Catholicism from within as well.

But unlike Harvard or Yale, Northwestern or Southern Cal, all once Christian universities but now secular schools, Notre Dame has the weapon to combat all heresies; namely Notre Dame Herself. The modernists may have their day, but, like the song says, Notre Dame will win over all. For the modern infidels to take control here, they would have to blow our dame off the dome, rip the heart (the Eucharist) out of Sacred Heart and lastly, rock by rock, tear the grotto apart. And legions of Her sons and daughters would willingly die martyrs before they would allow that to happen.

1 comment :

Jackie Mitchell said...

You wrote: "For the modern infidels to take control here, they would have to blow our dame off the dome, rip the heart (the Eucharist) out of Sacred Heart and lastly, rock by rock, tear the grotto apart. And legions of Her sons and daughters would willingly die martyrs before they would allow that to happen." Excellent reminder that God is still in control! That's what we noticed when we toured St. Mary's yesterday. Despite some of the obvious and somewhat troubling secular influences making headway, the beautiful statues or Our Lady, the crucifixes in the classroom, the old photographs of the Sisters, and other reminders of devotion to Our Lord were ever-present.