A JPW Wake-Up Call

Junior Parents Weekend is a time where each of our individual families can be merged with the greater Notre Dame family.
~ Tommy Yemc, JPW 2017 Chair

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Of Mrs. Rice, Daily Mass, and the Camaraderie of Faith

pats-and-hedwigs

The Blessed Eucharist is precisely food, which explains why it is the one sacrament meant to be received daily.
~ Frank Sheed

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Of Three Days, Two Move-Ins, and One University

Dad, Joan, and Benedict

What shall I say? I greet you at the beginning of a great career?
No. I greet you at the beginning, for we are either beginning or we are dead.
~ Wendell Berry

“Ready to go?” I asked my son Ben. He was returning to Notre Dame for his sophomore year, and it was move-in day.

“Yup,” he replied. “Let’s go.”

The van was packed with his luggage along with the stuff his buddies had stored with him over the summer. Ben had already said his goodbyes in the house – younger brothers and sisters, and a tearful mom – so no more stalling. I pulled away from the curb.

“What’s in the CD player?” he asked turning on the stereo. The cardboard thudding and euphonious bass line of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” were unmistakable. “Led Zeppelin II,” Ben commented. “Nice.”

You’ll have to believe me that I hadn’t cued up that song ahead of time, but it turned out to be particularly serendipitous for our short trip up to campus. “Leaves are falling all around,” Robert Plant sang, as if to evoke the back-to-school season. “It’s time I was on my way.” Ben and I listened in silence for a while. “Thanks to you, I’m much obliged for such a pleasant stay, but now it’s time for me to go.”

“Why are you taking Twyckenham?” Ben wondered aloud.

“The move-in staging area is by the Joyce Center,” I answered.

“Oh, right.”

It was so different from last year’s move-in which had felt more like a practice run – like an experiment to see how this whole college business worked. Then, after spring finals, Ben moved home again, and old routines were re-established: We argued about current events and popular culture, and we laughed a bunch as well – often about the same things. He worked, hung out with his friends, took side trips, and emptied the fridge – again, just like old times. The end of August materialized out of thin air, and suddenly Ben was heading back for another ND round. This time, however, the leave-taking was all so very palpable – the connections to home more tentative, the domestic ties less secure.

That feeling was especially acute since we were still recovering from Joan’s move onto Notre Dame’s campus a mere two days before. Joan is our second child, and we were ecstatic when she accepted Notre Dame’s offer of a spot in the Class of 2019. Now, I’m well aware that the expression “Double Domer” is technically reserved to those privileged to complete both an undergraduate and a graduate degree at Our Lady’s University – I get that. However, can I plead a special application of the term to our situation and those like ours? Son and daughter, sophomore and freshman, both blessed to be attending the finest Catholic university in the land at the same time? If that doesn’t qualify us as double-domerish, then maybe another, better term should be invented.

August 19, 2012; Motorist line up along Notre Dame Avenue on move in weekend. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre DameAnyway, my wife and I helped Joan moved into her dorm on Friday morning, and then we attended a presentation there on Saturday afternoon. The rector introduced herself and her staff, and then they each briefly addressed various aspects of Notre Dame dormitory life. Aside from the change in venue and voices, it was remarkably similar to the dorm presentation we attended during Ben’s orientation the year before. In fact, at one point it seemed like Joan’s rector was directly quoting a talk we had heard last year in Alumni Hall – albeit with the expected gender substitutions: “Thank you for entrusting your daughter to us,” she said, echoing Fr. George. “We’ll take good care of her.”

When she said that, suddenly our unfolding family drama became exquisitely real and personal and disorienting: Joan, Ben, Notre Dame…our first two children are in college! Our kids are growing up – we’re running out of time with them, we’re running out of opportunity! Grasp, grab, cling – hold on!

It couldn’t be helped – events proceeded apace, Joan launched in the company of her new Irish family, and I was left mulling things over.

So, back to Ben – the next day, Sunday morning. We pulled into the circle in front of Alumni Hall and started unloading. A couple of his buddies came down to help, and soon the van was empty. “That’s it, dad,” Ben said. “We got it all.”

“OK, well, I guess I’ll say my goodbye here then,” I shrugged, giving him a hug. “See you soon.”

“Yeah,” he said, “see you soon.”

As I drove home to the south side, Prairie Home Companion was on the radio, and Garrison Keillor was singing a medley duet with an opera singer. “It is well with my soul,” they sang. “It is well, it is well, with my soul.” I love that old hymn, but it was hard to sing along under the circumstances. The truth was that my soul wasn’t all that well, and I had a gnawing sensation that I’d left something undone – something important, something that still required attention. My two oldest children were off to college, and the transition felt like an ending, a conclusion – but I wasn’t done yet! Fathering is an apprenticeship that seems to take our whole lives, and our kids grow up well before we reach anything approaching proficiency.

Then, thankfully, mercifully, Garrison and company transitioned into the second hymn of their medley. “For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child,” they sang. “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.” It calmed my spirit and reminded me that my fathering role was supplementary – and always had been. “[God] is the Father in a special way only of Christ, but he is the common Father of us all,” writes St. Ambrose, “because while he has begotten only Christ, he has created us.” Moreover, as sons and daughters of that creator God, we too are called to create – new beginnings, over and over and over again, every day. Ben and Joan starting at Notre Dame wasn’t merely an ending, but a host of beginnings as well – for them, for ND, even for me.

I arrived home later on Sunday and I was humming that hymn medley as I walked in the door. “Did you get him moved in alright?” Nancy asked. “Any problems?”

That gave me pause. “No problem,” I said after a moment of weighing the possibilities – the opportunities and chances of discovery, the adventure and risk, the endings and new beginnings. “No problem at all.”
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

On Keeping Our Kids Catholic: The Indispensable Minimum

It took who I was and where I came from to make me who I am. For that I have to thank my late parents, Arthur and Amelia Neville. They, along with the nuns at St. Monica’s Catholic School, especially Sister Damien, taught me morals and guidance. My Catholic upbringing helped me in some dark times.
~ Aaron Neville

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Charles E. Rice (1931-2015): A Remembrance

Being a Christian isn’t for sissies.
~ Johnny Cash

ammonAmmon Hennacy, godson of Dorothy Day, was picketing and protesting war taxes in Phoenix. It was 1949, and folks out west had little experience with political gadflies like Ammon, so they hauled him into the police station. The police captain threatened to jail him, but thought better of it after consulting with higher-ups. The captain let Ammon go and told him he could picket, but that he’d be taking a risk. Here’s how Ammon relates the final exchange:

“You’ll be on your own,” the captain said.

“I’ve been on my own all my life. I don’t need cops to protect me,” I answered.

Later, as he hoisted his signs and took his stand like some latter day John the Baptist, Ammon entertained a journalist’s question:

“Hennacy, do you think you can change the world?” said Bert Fireman, a columnist on the Phoenix Gazette.

“No, but I am damn sure it can’t change me,” was my reply.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a stretch to compare Hennacy, the anarchist rabble-rouser and pacifist, with Dr. Charles Rice, the law professor, boxing coach, and Marine. Still, when I learned of Rice’s passing last week, it was Ammon’s bold defiance in Phoenix that leapt to mind. It’s exactly the kind of single-mindedness and visceral courage that defined who Rice was – a characterization that I was glad to see affirmed by Nell Jessup Newton who wrote the memorial post on the ND law school’s website:

A man who stood by his beliefs no matter what, [Rice] respected those who opposed him, and the feelings were mutual. Never one to shy away from a fight, Professor Rice was willing to take on the difficult battles for what he knew to be the truth.

In particular, Dr. Rice was passionate about fighting for life and for the Faith, and it’s in those arenas that I came to know him best. We’d met each other through mutual friends over the years, and I’d always been an admirer of his writings on abortion and the right to life, so when I had an opportunity to help arrange a series of pro-life speakers on my campus a number of years ago, he came to mind immediately.

“What’s the topic?” he asked when I contacted him.

“We’re bringing in Joe Scheidler to talk about abortion,” I told him, “so we were thinking you could address the issue of euthanasia.” That was fine with him.

last-temptation-of-christ-2The date arrived, and I met Dr. Rice at the front doors of Bethel College’s auditorium where he’d be speaking. His trademark grin was wide and bright, and he shook my hand vigorously as I ushered him inside.

“These are all Christian kids, right?” he asked.

“Yes, for the most part,” I replied. “Mostly evangelical Protestant, so they’ve been hearing the pro-life message all their lives.” He nodded, acknowledging the fresh datum, his eyes drifting upward as he cogitated.

Dennis Engbrecht, the VP for Student Development at the time, introduced Rice to the Chapel audience, and it turned out he had a story to tell. “Dr. Rice is well known for his books and his scholarship and his fearless defense of life,” Engbrecht said. “But my own introduction to Dr. Rice was when the movie version of Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988, and it came to the theater right across the street from here.” That theater is gone now, but I remember it well: A small, two-screen cinema next to the Kroger on McKinley – I saw Gattaca there, and maybe one or two other films.

Back to Engbrecht’s introduction. “The opening night of the film,” Dennis recalled, “Dr. Rice showed up at the theater to picket and protest the movie’s sacrilegious content.”  Picture it now: Dr. Charles E. Rice, acclaimed author, speaker, and legal scholar, a beloved Notre Dame law professor known and respected throughout the world for his efforts on behalf of truth and life and justice, and he was all by himself outside that theater, walking back and forth with a sign – to all the world, a fool and a crank, like Ammon Hennacy. Dennis, however, saw a man of firm and gutsy conviction, a hero. That’s how I saw him, too: A role model of fortitude and unwavering commitment to his beliefs come what may.

And a role model of faith besides. After his remarks about euthanasia and Terri Schiavo in Chapel that day, Dr. Rice encouraged the students to pray for a greater respect for life, womb to tomb, despite the culture’s continual slide toward relativism. “You can always pray to St. Jude,” he recommended, adding, “You know about St. Jude, right? The patron saint of impossible cases?” Rice knew he was tcharles_ricealking to a Protestant audience – I’d reminded him myself – but he nonetheless urged them to pray to Mary and the saints because he knew that such prayers had merit. And you know what? It wasn’t an awkward moment at all. Well, at least not for me.

Aside from those interactions I had with Dr. Rice when he visited Bethel, I rarely had the privilege of speaking with him. Occasionally I’d ask his advice about bioethics and the law, and he even read through drafts of some of my earliest writing attempts before I submitted them for publication. My favorite memory of him, however, are the many times I’d see him and his wife, Mary, at St. Joe hospital for daily Mass. He’d almost always sit in the back, and I’d only catch a glimpse of him as he went forward, head bowed, for Holy Communion. Those glimpses were in themselves moments of inspiration.This great man, possessing such a great mind and great heart, full of love for his cherished wife and family, and yet somehow overflowing with boundless generosity for his students and friends and countless other people and causes – this great man daily approached the throne of grace and ate of the divine banquet. It was his secret, and I felt a privileged kinship with him in sharing it.

After those daily Masses (if I could catch him), he’d always greet me cordially, inquire of my family, and encourage me in my work and writing efforts. “Keep at it,” he’d say. “It’s important.”

Yes, Dr. Rice, I’ll keep at it. You, too.
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A version of this memorial tribute was published on LifeSiteNews.

Of Auto Insurance and Raising Sons: An Open Letter to MetLife

Kindness to a father will not be forgotten (Sirach).

Dear MetLife,

My son, Ben, is a resident freshman at Notre Dame this year, and he’s not making use of any of our vehicles while living on campus. Consequently, he’s not driving at all, and I called you recently to inquire about taking him off our auto insurance policy to save some dough.

god_quad_in_the_winterscholasticYour agent (let’s call him “Eric”) was very kind –  although I thought it was a little strange that he neglected to comment on my son’s good fortune at becoming a domer. Regardless, Eric informed me that Ben could not be removed from our policy until he obtains a policy of his own first – a MetLife rule.

You’ll forgive me for grumbling a bit – finances are tight these days, both for my son and for us. Still, I guess your rule makes sense, what with your risk/benefit analyses, amortization tables, and the liabilities involved. Anyway, Eric was savvy enough to offer me a conciliatory gesture: A discounted rate for full-time college students who only drive occasionally, mainly while home during breaks. The gesture worked – I was consoled – and I asked Eric to see if our family qualified for the special rate.

When he came back on the line, Eric indicated that he was all set to enroll Ben in the discounted program. “Just a couple questions,” he noted. “First, is your son attending a college 100 miles away from home or more?”

Now there’s an interesting question.

Technically, Ben is a mere 5 miles away from home – within walking distance really. Unlike most parents dropping their firstborn off at college, I didn’t have to take time off from work last fall to make a road trip with a van full of boxes and suitcases. Instead, it was a short ride up Miami Street and then over to Eddy and Notre Dame Boulevard – we were there in 15 minutes. I dropped Ben off, drove home, changed from jeans into Dockers, and headed to the office.

So, no, Met Life, he’s not 100 miles or more away from home. Not even close – at least in terms of geography. In fact, when Ben asked me to meet him at Notre Dame’s bookstore for coffee last week, it required only a minor detour off my daily commute, and I gladly obliged.

Coffee_and_Bagel“You buying?” I asked cautiously, after placing my order for a bagel and a schmear. Ben grunted, and the lady behind the counter laughed. I laughed, too, but I still let him pick up the tab.

As we ate our bagels and sipped our coffees, we talked. I shared a bit of what was going on at home, but I mainly listened, relishing the exorbitant luxury of a tête-à-tête with my collegiate son. Physics, chemistry, calculus. (Are you kidding me? Way over my head…but do continue.) A seminar on classic literature, plus his work-study jobs and life in the dorm. “And did you see that game last night?” he asked – the big one against Duke. “Here, check out these three-pointers” (photos on his phone) – “unbelievable!”

Then it was time for me to get on to work, and Ben to class. “See you later, dad.” No big deal, right? Almost like he never left home.

Why then, I ask you, the tears as I drove away – where did those come from? Just a few miles from home and work, and close enough to drop by for a chat, but the reality of the true distance between us hit me like a sledge that day. Can you see it, too?

I mean, here we are, MetLife: I’m in South Bend, and my son, grown to manhood, is a student at Notre Dame – just across town, sure, but embracing a life hundreds of miles away from my own. He’s learning new things, making new connections, and exploring new ideas well beyond me.

In short, Ben’s moving on, declaring his own direction, sifting through the influences from his youth and retaining only those that meld with his fresh start. How George-MacDonaldmuch further away could he be from my day-to-day existence? It could be 1,000 miles – a million even – and it would still be the same.

At least it would feel the same – I don’t suppose you offer an auto insurance discount for that, do you?

On the other hand….

All this is precisely what we signed up for as parents. We love our children, devote ourselves to their formation and upbringing, and then we work ourselves out of a job if everything goes right. “What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk?” asked George MacDonald, and then he linked that question with its corollary: “What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son!” Agreed.

Besides, in my case? I’m blessed with a full-grown son who sought out his dad for a meal and conversation, and so I’ve nothing to be whiny about – indeed, I’ve got every cause to rejoice! That pause last week over coffee and bagels wasn’t just a privileged luxury; it was an incalculable gift of grace and a profound sign of filial love. There might be a yawning gap between our daily lives these days, but it’s a gap that my son chose to bridge of his own volition.

So, never mind, MetLife. Leave our policy the way it is. It’s a bargain reminder that he’s not so far from me after all.
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An Ambassador at Our Lady’s University

Hard weekend for Irish fans – at least football-wise.

It’s been tough enough that a season launched with such promise could falter and fall so abruptly, but there was at least the hope – an assumption even – that the team would land a win for the seniors’ last home game.

Alas.

Even so, there’s more to Notre Dame than football – if you’re a true fan, you already know that. So, for all you true fans smarting from our team’s recent losses, ville.0here’s a happy story from last Saturday to ease the disappointment.

My family and I have been Irish fans long before my oldest, Ben, matriculated this fall at Notre Dame. He’s doing well and keeping busy – we rarely see him even though we’re mere minutes away. Still, we always know he’ll be in the stadium for home games, and we have fun trying to pick him out when the cameras pan the student section.

This past weekend was different because a friend surprised me with a pair of last minute Louisville tickets on Friday afternoon. “It’ll be rainy,” she said, “but not as cold as it was for the Northwestern game.”

I assured her that weather was not an issue, and I gratefully accepted her kind gift on behalf of my family.

Like I said, we’re big fans, but we don’t get to many games on account of (cough, cough) “budgetary constraints.” However, over the years, thanks to occasional splurges and the generosity of others, we’ve managed to get most of our kids to a home game or two – with the exception of our two youngest, Kath and Nick. Kath is only eight, so she’s just now at an age when she’d appreciate the game day experience – we’ve got plenty of time to make that happen yet.

Nick, on the other hand, is already eleven, and he’s the fiercest ND fan of us all (with the possible exception of my wife). He roots and hollers and whoops when we score – “GO IRISH!” he roars ferociously whenever there’s a pause in the revelry. No question: Nick was going to his first home game.

Saturday morning, we deliberated as to who’d take him. Nancy was up for it and reluctant to pass up the opportunity, but she had some work to finish up that evening. I lucked out.

“Nick, guess what?” I asked him. “We’re going to the Notre Dame game today, you and me!”

1383871_10152804864518686_1764748065031248725_nHe was confused – go to the game? Like…go to the game? I told him it was true, and that we’d probably get to see his brother there as well – maybe even sideline reporter Jeff Jeffers, whom we know from church. Nick’s one word response (accompanied by a fist pump): “Yes!”

After lunch, we bundled up and grabbed a heavy woolen army blanket – just in case. Nancy dropped us off on Eddy Street, and we joined in the hoopla as we made our way to the stadium parking lot. We’d made arrangements to meet Ben at Legends, and it was a happy reunion when we saw him coming our way.

“Hey, Nicky!” he yelled. “You going to the game today?” Nick ran into his arms. We chatted a bit, and then Ben took our picture with his phone.

“Classic,” he commented.

“Be sure to send it to me,” I replied. He promised.

By then, Nick was ready for some stadium fare, so we said goodbye to Ben and headed to the gate. Once inside, it was hotdogs and popcorn and Sprite…and then another hotdog, even before we started migrating to the stands. I got a little confused about our section number, and we ended up in a line that wIMG_20141122_142633ould’ve put us in the student section. Before I realized my mistake, we approached a young woman distributing miniature gold pom-poms. “Hey, Nick,” I said as came up, “you can get a shaker for the game!”

“Sorry, sir,” she apologized, “they’re only for students” (pause, glance down at Nicky), “but I have one for him.”

Now, understand that my Nicholas has Down syndrome, and we’ve discovered you can tell a lot about people by how they respond to him – almost like he’s a character barometer. I mean, how can you look at a kid like Nick and not melt? You’d have to be pretty callous – the kid’s pure love. Maybe that ND student-worker would’ve made a pom-pom exception for any eleven-year-old making his way into the stadium, but I like to think that she was especially motivated by Nick’s particular Down’s shine.

And it was the same when we were entering the stadium and buying our grub – smiles, beaming smiles all around at Nicky. And likewise when we got to our seats: Whereas I was just another ticket holder with a bulky down coat, Nick…well, Nick was more, especially during the national anthem.

“Don’t forget to put your hand over your heart,” I reminded him.

“No, papa,” he said soberly, as he formed his fingers into a salute. “I’m a Cub Scout, so I do this.” More beaming smiles all around.

It’s like he was an ambassador, and people changed when they saw his beautiful face – they lightened, they softened, they mollified. Even into that first quarter on Saturday, when the score went lopsided against the Irish so early, Nicky helped us keep it in perspective. After all, he was so happy just to be there! He was in Notre Dame stadium, and there was the marching band, and there was #5 – Everett Golson himself! – right down there on the field.

Score? What score?

Special needs’ kids and Notre Dame have a pretty tight relationship. I know that many ND students get involved with South Bend’s Logan Center in various ways, not to mention Hannah & Friends, founded by former ND coach Charlie Weis, as well as Sharing Meadows in nearby LaPorte County. Those are all excellent programs for the students, but Nick’s reception on Saturday illustrates something beyond programs – something about Notre Dame’s culture itself. marthaartworknd_landmarks

It’s a culture that we also saw on freshman orientation weekend last August as we attended events as a family with Ben. The students, the staff, the other anxious parents, and the volunteer alumni – everyone noticed Nicky. My wife especially observed it at the picnic dinner in the South Dining Hall on Saturday. The smiles, the looks, the whispers of delight.

That says something about Nick, of course, but it also says something about Notre Dame. It’s a place that seeks to form its members to be welcoming and receptive, especially of those less fortunate – the opposite of the “throwaway culture” that prevails today according to Pope Francis. The Holy Father’s remedy is exactly what we’ve observed at Our Lady’s University, at least when it comes to our Nick: The building up of a “culture of encounter, solidarity, and hospitality” toward everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

What with the rain and the long walks up the ramps to our seats, Nick was pretty much ready to go home before the half. We said our goodbyes to those seated near us, and we headed out of the stadium to the bookstore where Nancy was going to pick us up.

“Well, Nick, your first home game experience,” I said as we walked. “What was your favorite part?”

“The food,” he replied without hesitation. “And seeing Ben.”

If you ask me, it was the smiles. I guess it’s all in the perspective.

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Stay With Your Vehicle

Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away.
~ Cat Stevens, “Father and Son

It was all over so quickly.

University_of_Notre_Dame_Golden_DomeFirst Years moved onto campus at Notre Dame today, including our son – so exciting! However, unlike those coming to South Bend from out of state, we’re only 20 minutes away, so despite the momentous occasion, it was a pretty typical morning for us. At first.

I was up early as usual, made the coffee, and went for a run. Nancy and the other kids were rousing by the time I got back, and I saw a light under Ben’s door telling me he was up as well.

There was a rush for bathrooms and showers, some hurried breakfasts and lots of last-minute lunch-packing and homework-finishing. Since I had the morning off to help Ben move, I engaged in a bit of daddish banter – commenting about current events, nagging the kids about doing their dishes, giving Ben a heads-up about the Roger Ebert documentary showing on campus in a couple weeks – acting like everything was normal, everything was the same.

But it was different, and I knew it in my gut. Plus there was an unusual trickle of siblings coming by Ben’s room to bid him farewell. “Good-bye, Ben,” said Katharine, his littlest sister, “have fun at college.” Cecilia stopped by Ben’s room as well. “See ya’, Ben,” she said. “I’ll miss you.”

“I won’t be far,” he said, grinning. Yeah, I suppose.

Once the high-schoolers made it out the door, and Nancy herded our three grade-schoolers toward her car, it was just Ben and I. We got to work and loaded up our dilapidated Plymouth Voyager.

“Do you think I’m bringing to20140814_122120_resizedo much junk?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I replied. “I can always come pick up the stuff you don’t need. That’s one nice thing about being from town.”

We were done loading by 8:00, but Move-In didn’t start until nine. I drifted upstairs to my computer. Ben plopped down at the piano in the living room and worked his improvisational magic. I checked email and The Weather Channel, but mainly I listened to Ben’s music. What a gift he has. What a privilege to have been privy to it over the years.

At about 8:15, Ben called up to me. “Hey, dad! What are you doing?”

“Stalling,” I said from the landing, my eyes welling. “Why the hell did you have to grow up?”

“‘Nothing I could do about it,” came the laconic reply. “It’ll be OK, dad.”

Ben let me drive to campus – which might’ve been a token of filial deference, but I knew better.  By not driving, he gained complete oversight of our musical backdrop – Animal Collective, some Jack White, “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.

“I heard Coldplay is in the running for the Super Bowl halftime this year,” I said, trying to sound relevant.

“Who cares?” he replied. “They’re just a Radiohead ripoff.” So much for relevance.

Up north on Eddy Street, a cut over to Notre Dame Avenue, and then straight toward the Dome. We were directed to the DeBartolo parking lot and maneuvered into the queue for Alumni Hall. Don, one of the volunteer parking ushers, came over with a parents’ packet for me. “Alumni was my dorm,” he said as he pumped our hands. “Welcome to Notre Dame!”

When it was our turn, we continued the crawl up Notre Dame Avenue toward the statue of Our Lady of the University in the Main Circle. Another volunteer usher beckoned me to the curbside right in front of the dorm. Immediately, we were swarmed by returning Alumni Hall residents (i.e., “Da20140814_121725-1_resizedwgs”), and the usher came over to my window. “Your son can unload, and the guys will help him carry it all to his room,” he said, adding firmly, “and I’ll need you to stay with your vehicle.”

Stay with my vehicle? No father-son moment of transporting his past into his future? No profound parting words? Not even a firm handshake and a “God bless you, son”?

Nope. I tried to assist, but the Dawgs kept saying, “That’s alright, sir, we can get that. That’s alright, sir.”

Pretty soon, I glimpsed Ben walking away amid a stream of new dorm mates. The traffic usher, with a wistful smile, motioned me along and encouraged me to go park in lot ‘C’ by the Joyce Center. When I looked back one more time, I heard the usher murmur, “He’ll be alright, sir.”

Yes, he will.
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I Feel Like I Should Be Doing Something

father-of-the-bride-5Is this what it feels like to be the father of the groom?

Father of the bride is bad enough – as Spencer Tracy showed us in 1950, followed by Steve Martin forty years later – but it seems like father of the groom would be even more irrelevant to the whole wedding vortex phenomenon.

Not that any of my sons are heading to the altar any time soon. No, my feelings of irrelevancy are related to a different life event and milestone: My oldest is heading to Notre Dame. As a freshman. Next month.

Shouldn’t I be doing something?

Practical things – equipping the dorm room, last minute tips on laundry, etc. – seem to be covered by my wife at present. At least, Ben isn’t coming to me for advice, so I’ve got to assume that his mother is fielding those questions. If there are any. He’s pretty much launched out on his own already.

So, how about composing a fatherly testament of vision and values as a farewell gesture?

I’ve read plenty of “To My Son on the Brink of Manhood” (or marriage or fatherhood) screeds written by celebrity and journalist dads, but I’ve really no interest in attempting anything along those lines. It seems like any sage advice or tidbits of paternal wisdom that I’d offer in such a declaration ought to have taken root well before now. Otherwise, I’m guessing it’s a bit late.

Like riding a bicycle. Today I was out with Katharine, my youngest, who is just on the verge of training-wheel freedom. She is balancing on the bike just fine – the trainers rarely touch down when she’s pedaling along – and it’s just a matter of time until she has built up enough self-confidence and I can remove the side wheels once and for all.

It seems like just a blink of an eye since I was doing the same for Ben. In fact, I think it might’ve been the same bicycle, and even the same set of training wheels! But let’s say I’d never taken the trouble to help him wean off the trainers when he was in grade school. Let’s say he skipped riding bikes as a boy, learning to use public transit inst488438538_6babc2c765ead, and then jumped right into driver’s ed as a teen.

And now he’s getting ready for college, where freshmen are generally not allowed to have vehicles at their disposal. Wouldn’t a bicycle be convenient? Completing his two-wheeler training at this late stage would be awkward at best, and likely to fail altogether.

An eloquent parting shot, untethered to a commensurate upbringing, seems equally awkward and prone to failure. Any advice I have to give now that I haven’t already attempted to instill is too late, and a late-breaking Desiderata would pointless. And yet if I did attempt to raise my son with attention to truth and beauty and permanent things, then rehearsing it all in bullet point form would be unnecessary, and perhaps even somewhat ridiculous.

Still, I feel like I should be doing something, and, consequently, I’ve come up with a different kind of list. Instead of looking backward, at the things I hope I’ve taught him (or wish I had), I’ve decided to look forward. It’s a list of questions – questions I’ve already grown accustomed to asking former students when I encounter them long after graduation, and I’ve decided they’ll be among the questions I’ll ask my son when we see each other on weekends and breaks in the months and years to come.

  1. What are you reading? He’ll be at Notre Dame, so he’ll be reading a lot, but he’ll know I mean what is he reading that he doesn’t have to read. Reading for pleasure, in other words. If it’s something I know, I’ll enjoy hearing his insights. If it’s something I don’t know, all the better. Note, too, that I’m not asking, “What are you watching,” or “What are you listening to?” These can be important questions as well, to be sure, but they don’t deserve anywhere near the same priority. My kids have grown up surrounded by books in every conceivable way, and I’d be very surprised if books didn’t continue to surround them as they make their own way hence.
  2. Where are you working? That’s what I ask my former students, most of whom are staff nurses here and there (or full-time mothers, or both). For current students, like my son, I’ll ask, Where are you in your studies? The inquisitive “where” allows for an unfolding of conversation on a number of fronts: The progress being made in a particular program or discipline; the kinds of classes being taken at the moment; and, most importantly, the trajectory along which which current pursuits are trending. It’s an inquiry with both quantitative and qualitative angles, and it’s helpful in getting beyond mere questions of “what” classes and “what” jobs to the “why” and “who with” of daily living.
  3. How’s your soul? This one is loaded, no doubt, but it, too, is calculated to get into meaty matters as rapidly as possible. “Are you getting to Mass and confession? Are you praying?” are too easily dispensed with – either with a hasty “yes” (whether truthful or not), or a painful “no,” followed by an even more painful conversational stall. Who needs that? We’re all adults here.  Sacramental obligations, vocational discernment, and the pursuit of holiness are totally his responsibility now, so I’m not going to grill him. I might’ve acted as a coach in such matters as he got older, but I’m on the sidelines now – a cheerleader, to be sure, and a ready consultant when asked. Yet, now I’m only one among many that he can turn to for input. Consequently, instead of grilling, I’m hoping for openness and candor, a space for us both to voice our inner joys and struggles as we wind our way along the murky years. No challenges, no guilt. Just invitation, and cross-bearing of burdens. And honesty. Listening.

These are questions that assume a lot, but don’t presume anything. They take for granted where we’ve come from together, but they leave lots of room for where we’ve made – and will make – side trips apart. Like I said, they’ll be the questions I ask my son in the months to come, and probably they’ll be the same questions I’ll ask him years from now when he’s launched beyond Notre Dame, rising in his chosen profession, and raising his own family.

And, soon enough, maybe he’ll be asking them of others as well. Now that would be something.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Fatherhood and Notre Dame

chris-christiejpg-b5ab967aa73027fcTurns out, Chris Christie and I have a lot in common.

First, there’s New Jersey — we were both born there. He stayed and became the governor; my family and I moved to Colorado when I was in grade school and we never looked back. Still, Jersey roots run deep, and that distinctive accent is always lurking just beneath my relatively featureless Hoosier drawl – all it takes is 20 minutes in the presence of another Jerseyite, and “war-der” will bubble to the surface.

Next, we’re both Catholics with Sicilian (maternal) and Irish (paternal) flavorings. Admittedly, Christie is a cradle Catholic, and I’m an adult convert – a big difference in terms of upbringing and formation. And there’s more German blood on my dad’s side of the family than Scotch-Irish (although that trickle from Grandma Addie O’Boyle seems to be pretty potent). In any case, lineage and creed count as two more points of convergence between the governor’s story and my own.

But now we come to the point – and the reason why any of this is worth commenting on. It seems that Christie and I can both claim membership in a fairly exclusive club: Dads whose kids have been admitted to the University of Notre Dame next fall – his Sarah and my Ben.

I came across this connection in Peggy Noonan’s WSJ column over the weekend:

I asked some smart, accomplished people: What was the best thing that happened this year, some breakthrough, some joy, some encouraging sign. It was interesting that with a lot of them, their first thoughts went to the personal….

Chris Christie, elected in 2013 to a second term as governor of New Jersey: “I am grateful that my oldest daughter Sarah got her Christmas wish — admission to the University of Notre Dame Class of 2018. I am a father full of pride and joy this year.”

Did you catch that last line? “I am a father full of pride and joy.” That’s where I feel some real kinship with Christie. Yes, we’re both Jersey natives; yes, we’re both Italo-Irish Catholics; yes, we’re both dads – things we have in common with millions of other guys. That can’t be said, however, of our both having kids admitted to Notre Dame, a rare privilege. We’re a couple dads full of pride and joy indeed — a very particular kind of pride and joy that seems associated with the Fighting Irish.

Which raises a question: Why the special pride and joy?

Neither Christie nor I are Notre Dame grads, so there’s no particular loyalty there. True, I’ve been living in South Bend for some 18 years — ever since Ben was a baby, in fact. So Notre Dame has bee12-university-of-notre-damen the cultural backdrop for all our kids growing up here, but we’re townies and have always been relative outsiders when visiting the campus or the stadium.

And, yes, admission to Notre Dame is prestigious — a mark of distinction, no matter what comes next. Obviously, the objective is actually getting our kids there for classes, but that’s almost secondary at this point. Admission itself is a sign that they have already accomplished something extraordinary. At our house, we’ll be framing that admission letter and hanging it in a prominent place.

Nonetheless, the prestige belongs to my son, to Christie’s daughter — it’s not mine and not the governor’s. We didn’t achieve anything; our accomplishments aren’t being heralded, unless you want to derivatively and with hindsight grant us some vicarious credits for our paternal contributions. So why the peculiarly intense reaction?

The bottom line is this: My son’s gifts and hard work were recognized by ND’s admissions people, and his college dream is coming true — plenty of pride and joy there to go around for everyone. No doubt, the same holds true for Christie and his daughter.

Yet, for me, there was something else: A phone call.

Ben had also applied to I.U.-Bloomington and got an acceptance letter a few weeks back — I found out when I got home that night. He applied to and was accepted by Butler and Purdue as well: No calls. Notre Dame was different, however, and it was no secret that Notre Dame was Ben’s real goal.

I don’t know how Christie found out about his daughter’s ND acceptance — maybe he got a call during a budget meeting in Trenton; maybe he ducked out to answer it and leaped around the hallway with glee. All I know is that when I heard Ben’s voice mail message the day he was expecting his letter, I was ecstatic — not just because I suspected he got his wish and was Notre Dame bound, but also because he called to include me in his triumph right away. That phone call was a sign that he was anxious to share his good news with me directly, and it sent an unmistakeable message of love and respect — a huge gift to a dad.

“Kindness to a father will not be forgotten,” Sirach announced in today’s liturgy. Indeed it will not. Congratulations, son. And thank you for kindly keeping me in your loop.
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