Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Notre Dame Family, Leadership and Light

I am sure I have felt this way before, but I can't recall when it happened last. On Saturday, I thought twice about wearing my favorite jacket with its interlocking ND. Two days later, I felt like a neighbor was staring at the shamrock pin on my vest: the one that represents the Fightin' Irish. My alma mater is in the spotlight—a spotlight of judgment and shame, disdain and mistake making. This is no easy place to be and for now it is where we stand. The University's campaign HERE has a whole new meeting.

In my best moments, I am able to take a step back, breathe and just shake my head. "I know, I know" is all I can say. At other times, I would like to offer things as I really see them. Instead the words of the Notre Dame Alumni Association Executive Director, Dolly Duffy '84, come to mind.

On a Zoom meeting tonight with other alumni board leaders Duffy said, "We are a family. We have to remember that. And families make mistakes. Notre Dame has made a lot of them recently." She paused and offered a knowing smile. "Right?"

I have always believed in the ethos of the Notre Dame family. In fact, "family" is a charism of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, who founded the University. I work at Saint Francis High School, founded by the Brothers of the Holy Cross. At the very center of our campus is a statue of the Holy Family, where paths cross, students gather, and we have the blessing of athletes. This sculpture is visible sign of what Father Sorin and the community taught, preached and lived. Today, I live out the spirit of family in many ways. For example, I never miss a chance to see the Irish when they come to the Bay Area. Every other Thanksgiving when the football team plays at Stanford I tell people that I will be spending the holiday with my nuclear family and the rest of the weekend with my Notre Dame family. Here come the Irish; I get to host them all!

To be a member of a family means that there will be conflict and tension, disappointment and even disgust. However, it also means caring for one another, extending kindness, loving and forgiving. 
Family is a foundation. It means you stand up for one another and have their back. In light of current events, I do not have an official charge for the Notre Dame family—how we should be or what we should say right now. No, I simply want to rest in Duffy's remembrance: We are a family.

On Saturday evening, a friend and fellow alumna brought to my attention that Father Jenkins was not wearing a mask at the Rose Garden ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett. Like many people she was shocked, disappointed and angry that the President was modeling behaviors contrary to what he has been preaching to students. What might be equally surprising is that I did not even notice. I don't know that I could have. How? Why? My vision was completely focused on one thing: the Barrett family.

Amy's husband, Jesse and I are classmates and friends. Jesse lived in Keenan and I lived just across North Quad in Farley Hall. We met my freshman year in our International Relations course. Over the course of four years, Jesse and I ate a lot of meals together and talked often. Though naturally gifted and very intelligent, I knew how seriously he took his studies. I remember thinking he saw the world in an amazing way—he studied Arabic, he traveled to Israel. I remember him telling me about his family in South Bend. I knew he was faith-filled and though he has a great voice (it's very deep) I recall that he was a fantastic listener. I remember wondering more than once, Why does he want to be my friend? I always felt like I was the lucky one. 

For me to see my friend with his wife and seven children at the White House brought tears to my eyes. Though I don't know Amy, I remember Jesse telling me about her when they first met. I know of the sacrifices he has made in his own talented legal career. I am inspired by her gifts and talents. I love that she is a working mom and that she is a beloved teacher! She makes me want to do more with all I have been given. 

On Monday, a different friend and fellow alum sent me the apology that Father Jenkins wrote to the Notre Dame community. I read it several times now. I accept his apology. I believe he is sincere in his regret not because he has to be, but because that is who he is. Father John is a leader of integrity, purpose and prayer. To me, he models true Christian leadership which is defined by sacrificial service. Though he has been called hypocritical, in this instance I find him to be human. You might disagree.

In 2009, Father Jenkins hosted President Obama at the University's 164th Commencement Exercises. This invitation brought Notre Dame into similar spotlight. In an interview I saw, Jenkins admitted that he did not anticipate the backlash, division and contempt that event would yield. Nor did I, for Notre Dame has a long history of inviting the President of the United States to graduation. Obama changed our history as the first Black American in the Oval Office. But as Jenkins said, "I was wrong." He was forced to navigate tough waters during and after that time, let alone countless others (meeting the grieving parents of Declan Sullivan comes to mind) That is what leaders must do. 

I have often wondered why does anyone want to be a leader today? This question is more rhetorical than sincere, as I certainly would not want to lead a school on any level right now. 

There are those who lead because of the ego. They want the spotlight. Many are power hungry. Some don't think anyone can do it like they can. Some lead because they can. In some situations there is no one else! And some people lead because they are called to do so. They are willing to serve. They serve as models for what to do and for what not to do. The public is weighing in on Notre Dame leadership—from Father Jenkins to a potentially new Supreme Court Justice in Amy Coney Barrett, to Coach Brian Kelly (39 football players tested positive for COVID). We know it's no easy time. 

Being a member of the Notre Dame family means that I respect and love Our Lady's University. It is something I am willing to fight for. I know of its flaws and failings, I always want ND to be a "Force for Good" and I know it falls short. I also know this family has roots in the message and challenge of the Gospel. Right now, I can only offer that this family is both blessed and it is broken...much like the Body of Christ. And so in these tough times, though I cannot go to the Grotto—I offer this prayer and invite all those in the Notre Dame family to pray it with me. 

Let us pray 

  • for the health and well being of all those who are affected by COVID. 
  • for a world that builds bridges and seeks mercy.
  • for families—our own and those we create and in a special way for the Notre Dame family. 
  • that we love, learn, lead and live in your light oh Lord. Amen

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