Before Monday night's national championship game, a University of Notre Dame football captain will lead the team through a prayer called Litany of the Blessed Virgin. "Mother of our Savior," a captain will say. "Pray for us," the team will respond.
It's a ritual familiar to Catholics. But most players on the Notre Dame squad aren't Catholic. So participation in that ritual is voluntary. And should any concern arise about praying to the Virgin Mary—a concept some non-Catholic Christians find objectionable—team chaplain Father Paul Doyle stands ready to respond. "We're not praying to our blessed mother," he says. "We're asking her to pray for us."
At the heart of Notre Dame's legendary football program is a careworn balancing act. The team is unapologetically Catholic. Before every game, the Fighting Irish participate in a Mass overseen by one of the team's two appointed Catholic priests, a tradition dating back to the 1920s. At the end of that ceremony, each player receives a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint—a different saint every game for four years. Also during the pregame Mass, players can kiss a reliquary containing two splinters that Notre Dame believes came from the cross of Jesus. "Most of the non-Catholic players are Christian, so when you tell them these splinters came from the actual cross of Jesus they are humbled to reverence," Doyle says.
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Yet Notre Dame is so non-promotional that players of other faiths feel welcome on the team, never receiving so much as an invitation to convert, let alone pressure to do so. As a result, many feel comfortable participating in distinctly Catholic rituals. As a Notre Dame football captain during the 2002 season, Gerome Sapp had no qualms about leading the team in the Hail Mary, a prayer utterly alien to his Southern Baptist upbringing. "That prayer was just one tradition in a school rich with tradition," says Sapp, now a retired NFL player launching his own business in Houston.
Catholic high schools across America maintain a rich football tradition, but there are only two Catholic universities in the ranks of major-college football (the other being Boston College). Given its affiliation, and its long and glorious football history, Notre Dame garners support nationwide from Catholic fans, donors and players, giving it the sport's only truly national, if not international, fan base.
Yet the school's Catholic identity hasn't always been an advantage. In the early part of last century, Notre Dame was three times rebuffed in efforts to join athletic conferences, including a 1926 bid to join the Big Ten, in part because of its Catholicism. "At that time in the Midwest, the Ku Klux Klan was very powerful, and since there weren't many black people in Indiana, Jews and Catholics came to the top of the list," says Murray Sperber, a University of California-Berkeley visiting professor and author of "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame Football.
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's star linebacker, receives a blessing from Father Theodore Hesburgh.
Instead of diminishing or eliminating its religious affiliation—as many Christian colleges did—Notre Dame instead abandoned the bid to join an athletic conference, and took to establishing rivalries coast to coast with universities such as the United States Naval Academy and the University of Southern California. Eventually, the school's national appeal led to a highly lucrative contract with NBC to air its games nationally; at other schools, such deals are negotiated through their conferences.
By the 1990s, when the Big Ten—in a historic reversal—issued an invitation to Notre Dame, the university saw little benefit to giving up its independence. "Does this core identity of Notre Dame as Catholic, private and independent seem a match for an association of universities—even a splendid association of great universities—that are uniformly secular, predominantly state institutions and with a long heritage of conference affiliation?" Rev. Edward A. Malloy, the University president, asked in a statement at the time. "Our answer to that question, in the final analysis, is no."
The school's appeal also derived from dramatic improvements in its academics. Back in the 1920s, its faculty consisted largely of priests and nuns, largely without doctorates, and its academic offering was lighter on scholarship than on Catholic theology. By the 1990s, however, Notre Dame had broken the ranks of the top 20 academic institutions in America, giving it an edge in recruiting high school players who also wanted a top-notch education.
"The value of the education at Notre Dame was something you had to consider," says Derek Brown, who obtained a marketing degree while playing for the school's 1988 national championship team.
As a Southern Baptist, Brown says he knew little about Catholicism when he arrived at Notre Dame. Though he valued the saints medals he received—"I think I still have them," he said—he added that he questions the value of services consisting heavily of memorized prayers. "Does it come from the head or from the heart?" he asks.
Even so, he said, the overall message he heard at Notre Dame was no different from what he'd heard growing up in Baptist churches: "Do the right thing."
Players arriving at Notre Dame enter an extraordinarily Catholic environment—compared with Boston College and Georgetown University—fellow Catholic schools embedded in large multicultural cities. Notre Dame is a monastic outpost in largely rural north-central Indiana, its campus decorated with Catholic iconography and populated with the statues of saints. About 85% of the Notre Dame student body is Catholic, compared with a national average of 65% at Catholic colleges. In every classroom at Notre Dame hangs a crucifix, a tradition long ago dropped at many Catholic colleges. And unlike many universities, Notre Dame doesn't house its athletes in a special dorm, spreading them among the largely Catholic student body. But it isn't as though the Catholic students at Notre Dame necessarily radiate holiness and piety. "Don't tell my mother, but there were Protestants at Notre Dame who went to Mass more often than Ned Bolcar did," says Mr. Bolcar, a Catholic member of the 1988 national championship team.
In the 11 years that Father Doyle has served as head chaplain of the Notre Dame football team, one player ever declined to participate in the pregame Mass, choosing to remain in a confessional outside the chapel. "He had his reasons. I didn't ask why," says Father Doyle, whose upbringing prepared him for a ministry to non-Catholics: His hometown in Virginia was only 2% Catholic.
Notre Dame isn't the only team featuring chaplains. The other national-title contender, the University of Alabama, will bring to Monday's game a minister and Catholic priest.
Many of the 30 men who have served as head coach at Notre Dame have not been Catholic. Its most famous coach, Knute Rockne, won one national championship as a non Catholic, then converted and won two more, according to Sperber, the Notre Dame historian. Although the pregame Mass is a tradition beyond the power of any coach to scrap, each coach is free to choose its timing. For many years, the Mass took place just ahead of the game. Current coach Brian Kelly moved the Mass several hours before kickoff. Kelly, Doyle said with a laugh, "wants a little more distance between me talking peace and love to the players and him talking smash mouth."
Of the four captains of this season's team, two aren't Catholic, including star linebacker Manti Te'o. Following practice a few days ago, Te'o did something highly unusual for a devout Mormon: He sought and received a blessing from Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame. Te'o couldn't be reached for comment. But Doyle said he has talked with the young man about religion. "This is not a place where you have to apologize for your spiritual interests, whatever they are, and Manti has said he feels supported here in his Mormon religion," Doyle said.