The huge facade of the Hesburgh Library is visible to fans in the Notre Dame stadium, particularly those on the south end, and, of course, to the millions watching on television. On it, Christ the Teacher lifts his arms in a way that has led the irreverent to refer to Him as “Touchdown Jesus.” Foes of Notre Dame will not be convinced that this designation sprang up spontaneously and was nurtured and broadcast by perfervid sports commentators. Critics see in this yet another instance of a woeful mingling of the secular and sacred on the South Bend campus, with football elevated almost to the status of a liturgical rite. Of course the mural must have been designed with this in view.
Some errors are interesting, and perhaps this is one of them. The theologically illiterate have even been known to object to the bumper-sticker legend God Made Notre Dame #1. But who would imagine this to refer to the football team rather than to Our Lady Theotokos? It is of course otherwise with the illuminated number 1 atop Grace Hall, outlined against the blue-gray autumnal sky. This glowing numeral shines brightly through good seasons and bad, unaffected by the actual ranking of the Fighting Irish. To the skeptic, this electrified hubris is on a par with the huge statue of Moses on the east side of the library, arm raised, one imperious digit thrust upward. How does one see this as different from the illuminated sign? And then, of course, there is “Fair Catch” Corby.
Father William Corby was one of the priests of Notre Dame who went off to the Civil War as a chaplain, attached to the famous Irish Brigade from New York. He was at Gettysburg and before that bloody battle gave general absolution to the troops, so many of whom were about to meet their Maker. The event is commemorated on that battlefield by a statue of Corby blessing the Irish Brigade. The twin of the statue stands before Corby Hall on campus. The hand raised in absolution, like the finger of Moses, like the uplifted arms of Christ the Teacher, has received an athletic interpretation, as if the intrepid priest, who went on to become president of the university, were indeed signaling for a fair catch.
These items of Notre Dame lore formed the heart of the book Irish Icons, copies of which were being signed by its author, Magnus O’Toole, in the campus bookstore just hours before the game with Georgia Tech. It has been said that anything not nailed down can be sold on game day to the thousands of faithful fans who converge on Notre Dame, filling local motels whose rates have tripled, even quadrupled, for the occasion. Cars come bumper to bumper along the Indiana Toll Road from east and west; they descend southward and ascend northward on the Jacob’s ladder of U.S. 31; they come as well on lesser modes of access known to the initiate. For days before a game, private planes descend on the Michiana Airport, taking their turn in the landing pattern with commercial flights whose seats have been reserved for months. Scattered about the campus are fragrant charcoal fires on which hamburgers and brats send up propitiatory smoke as if invoking divine patronage for the team. Crowds move about the campus in the hours before the game, marveling at the beauty of the grounds and the majesty of the buildings. The devout kneel at the Grotto or pay a visit to Sacred Heart Basilica. Others stand as if mesmerized by the great golden dome atop the Main Building on which Mary, the patroness of the university, gazes serenely southward. Seasons come and go; coaches rise and fall; players and students are quadrennially replaced as if in some metaphor of the ages of man. She has seen it all so many times. Sub specie aeternitatis, as it were.
And in the bookstore, Magnus O’Toole was doing a land- office business autographing his book for eager purchasers, many of whom regarded it as a souvenir rather than as something to be read. Their decision perhaps may be the wiser.
He sat at a table on which copies of his book were piled, but, given his small stature, he might as well have been standing. Beneath his tweed jacket, he wore a green turtleneck. As he scrawled his name in book after book, he seemed to flash his Notre Dame ring, Class of 1977, like a proud girl displaying her diamond. His beard exaggerated his fixed smile. The occasion was successful beyond the dreams of avarice, and this despite the formidable competition. At other tables other books were being bought and signed by their authors. Gerry Faust, who had sold his soul to Notre Dame, a bargain not exactly reciprocated, was there, of course. Regis Philbin was hawking a DVD on which his singing was mercifully eclipsed by a chorus. Monk Molloy was signing a book made up of his otherwise unmemorable presidential addresses. For Magnus to prosper in such a setting was success indeed. Two bookstore minions kept the line moving and replenished the supply of books. Magnus was ecstatic.
“Magnus, you old crook.”
The startled author looked up. A hand was thrust at him, and then faulty recognition shone in his bloodshot eyes. He shook the hand of a classmate, trying desperately to remember his name.
“Quintin. Quintin Kelly.” A frown came and went before this correction was made.
Well, it had been years since the two men had seen one another, and Kelly had the advantage, as Magnus’s name was prominent in forty-point type beneath the flattering photograph on the poster propped behind the signing table.
“How long will you be here?” Kelly asked.
A bookstore assistant pointed to the poster. Magnus’s allotted two hours had twenty minutes to go.
“I’ll wait for you outside.”
“Do you want a book?”
“That may be too late.”
Shamed into a purchase, Kelly took the autographed book and sidled through the crowd to a doorway. Resentment at not being recognized by his old classmate came and went. Would he have recognized O’Toole without the help of that poster? Outside, he took a package of Pall Malls from his jacket pocket and inserted one between his thin lips. Before lighting it, he looked out toward the parking lot as if a firing squad had been mustered there. He might be waiting to be blindfolded. Then he lit his cigarette and drew smoke into his wheezing lungs. This was his first return to campus in twenty years.
Copyright © 2007 by Ralph McInerny. All rights reserved.