University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
My Fifty Years at Notre Dame / by Leo R. Ward, C.S.C.

CHAPTER II: Commitment

Then all of a sudden without any of us voting on it or thinking of it, we were shipped out. A new boss had arrived, a man of irmuense faith, and he proved to be a shot in the arm for that house and the priests of Holy Cross. It was said that on his first day as a young boy in that house he saw a seminarian mopping the floor and at once he started helping him. Home now from a vigorous round with the Army in Europe, he gave new life wherever he went. He was prepared to tear down the old shack and in fact he built over it, and ever afterward the place looked vastly better.

The custom was that seminarians had a considerable vacation: to save expenses, to be with their families for a while, possibly in some instances to build up health, and to see how they could stand living in "the world," for that is where active religious such as those of Holy Cross sink or swim. One year a boy who had no home went to the farm with me where he was welcomed by my father and mother and two brothers and a sister then at home; his brother went off with a Pennsylvanian; and one summer during the war, help being short on the Brothers' Notre Dame farm, several went and farmed with them, and this Iowa farmer had to handle a team of colts.

The big news as we met the new boss was that more than twenty were headed for the novitiate. Our house was too full and had too many upper class men in it, too great a stretch from first year high to senior college. Two years of college men would summarily go. The shift did not perturb me. Was I therefore becoming passive, a "Yes, Father," "No, Father" man? At any rate, I had only to put on my hat and go. Because we were leaving, we were "allowed" privileges: to go to the Grotto in the evening, go to town for dinner, go walking, seemingly so as to smoke. Some took these items as events, and a classmate thought it great to get me to pose with a cigarette. Evident among some was the idea that to go was like punishment. I did not dread it or long for it, but saw it as a routine step which we were expected to take. One boy thought it a terrible thing: "Doc, you're going to the novitiate!" It was a sure bet that he would never go.

With us went our sub-boss as "Master of Novices," a gentle man full of charity, too humble to be a good man for the job. I should have appreciated his present diffidence. He did not know what the novitiate was about, he only knew that we were to "make our novitiate" and that he was to "direct it." That was all we knew and all we ever found out regarding its rationale. Our chief idea was to survive it. Some years afterward, a priest said that when he was to go to the novitiate he asked the old master of Greek what the step meant. The reply amounted to the word "commitment." The novitiate is to see whether the youth is serious, is once for all committed to the religious life, to living as monk or nun and to being weaned away from "the world." It should be co-creative for the novice and the superior, but one might question whether among us it was so conceived by either.

The novitiate was strange for us. Each novice stayed there a year and "made" his novitiate; church law demanded, at least a year. Yet it would be an exaggeration to say that I lived during that year and when people say, "Happy, happy novices! The happiest year of your life," I cannot agree. The trouble was not with the novice master who was a human being and never would consent to be called "Father Master." The trouble was with an unexamined tradition. I worked hard at everything assigned. In lieu of anything better the assumption came over me that the hard way was a guarantee that the Holy Spirit would take possession of me and the devils be driven out. The recipe was too simple.

I kept rules strictly, and this, so all understood, was the thing to do. Novices make trivial things too hard and think that hoeing a potato patch is as important as laughing at a joke. I did pull jokes on others and with them. This was allowable but had to be done with circumspection and during recreation after lunch and after dinner, although one Sunday a month was Puritan Sunday when we had "retreat" and silence all day until after supper. Other Sundays we talked and visited and either played games or went on assigned walks on public highways in long black cassocks and black head-gear; always in mourning. Of course, Vespers first, and then all went; there was no choice. The notion was that doing all things in common helps to form community.

We had magnificent grounds to work in and take care of, not to revel in and enjoy. Apple trees as big as elms were loaded with Northwestern Greenings, better apples than Eden dangled before Adam and Eve. Once after Vespers, two of us in our cassocks, our birettas on the ground, climbed an inmense apple tree, one out on this branch, the other, half a tree away from him. My companion in sin was Bill Nibs Donahue who used to take November swims with me. We were making the most of it when the master of novices came by. He saw Nibs, but because of poor lateral vision he saw only one side of the tree. "Well, Mr. Donahue, I am surprised!" Zachaeus came down and made the "Way of the Cross," no great punishment for an illegitimate adventure.

The boss would have been scandalized if his good eye had been turned on me. I was the teacher's pet, and everyone must have despised me as a goody-goody boy, though in defense I repeat that cannot play up to authority and I hate people who do. The master once praised me in public when I was the only one who could recite in Latin the assigned Miserere, but it would have been better for my living with the others if he had said nothing or if I had stumbled. It would have been much worse if they had known that on occasion he confided secrets to me; it was for comfort, that is all. A novice master is more terribly alone than any novice, and this novice master needed consultants and comforters. He spoke to me about each of two boys, about their possibly leaving. One was a neat, perfect gentleman, a firm body with style, and, everything settled that the boy would leave, the boss's heart was broken as if he thought he was somehow at fault. The other time he was afraid that a boy would have to leave for canonical reasonsLhe did not want to lose any of those the Lord had given him.

It was a crowded house and we had work inside and out, the winter was severe, the lake at our feet frozen sixteen to eighteen inches. One morning in February two of us were assigned to scrub a corridor on our knees. Well, what are brushes for, anyway, or hands and knees, either. We got down and crept along. For a moment I half straightened up my long back and neck. It was a foolish requirement that a novice had to leave his key in the corridor side of the keyhole. At eye level was a key, I turned it and put it sticking out from the transom; and my fellow convict, his eyes fixed on the floor, saw me do it.

Minutes later, an SOS for manpower came up from those cutting ice; and the corridor shining and the key forgotten, I was sent to the lake. The work was heavy, handling well-shod horses and immense blocks of ice, and as Lent was underway we had taken little breakfast; to make matters worse, we came late to lunch. Across the table from me was my co-scrubber and though there was solemn silence with someone reading to us -- the regimen at all meals -- the message reached me that there was question about a misplaced key. I took this for joshing, but could not concentrate on either the reading or my plate of beans.

After meals the rule was to march to the chapel reciting the Miserere, and this day while we knelt some formal words were on the air: "Will the young gentleman who tried to perpetrate a joke by locking a door come to my office immediately?" Now two things: the voice was solemn but never could be dictatorial; it was piped out over a tongue too round and soft; and secondly, any normal person looking about in a normal way as he came to his door would have seen the key. But a novice is not normal.

The too genial boss only said, "Oh, I thought it was someone who had been pulling tricks around here." My {conf~r~s?????} waited at the back step to see what my penance would be. The heaviest possible was to help "Jok," our Dutch-born Brother Joachim, to clean "Chicago," an elongated privy partly hidden by a hedge as if ashamed of itself. I let them think the penalty was to help "Jok."

Novices were brought up on the letter of the law, the novitiate a long year of rule keeping, they kept rules and kept still. Any notion that they would be better off by discussing rules and not merely memorizing and keeping them and by discussing the good or bad sense of keeping silence for a year, was out of the question. The novice master who succeeded ours was an eloquent and sentimental man, and one of his formulas, borrowed from St. Bernard, ran: "O beata solitudo, O sola beatitudo!" Now I think that solitude and silence could well be blessed things, and I look back almost with unbelief to hours of unpolluted silence on the farm where we would hear only a mule bray or a dog bark and to seminary days when, after the whistle of factories two miles away, there was only the sound of boys shouting and a horse trotting: no cars, no planes. Those times are forever gone even from seminaries, monasteries and convents.

I can readily grant, too, that interior prayer, itself a good thing, needs calm and quiet self-possession. I only say we might have been "dialoguing" on these and many matters.

Far from being rebels, our novices seldom even dreamed of a smoke or a bite of the cantaloupes in our garden. But did we really go for this way of life, this perpetual silence and rule keeping? Or was it something we put up with and wanted to be rid of? We did things with vigor, but without spontaneity. To me today it would seem that I should either have continued in that monk-hermit pattern or have dropped it at once. I thought I liked it and was born for it.

After lunch, we walked in twos around the grounds freely choosing a new partner each day. We were to speak "appositely" about the spiritual life, the Rule and Saints; and we meant to, but I was awkward on set topics. What else did we have to talk about? A torture for most was the loss of access to football dope. One of the novices jolted me. I had taken part in a joke on him, and one day, neither of us held by chores such as dishwashing, we walked and talked. All had memorized the rules on charity and special friendships, and knew the latter was to be avoided. My friend said, "Mr. Ward" -- the rule was to use this form -- "if your friend pulled a dirty joke on you and you forgave him from your heart, would that indicate a dangerous special friendship?" Novices are not likely to see things in perspective and I was so tensed-up that when, outside of Lent, we were permitted to write home once a month I didn't always do even that. But I pride myself on my reply: "No, it would be an instance of heroic charity.

We played hard, at least I did, and when it was touch football, a rugged Idaho boy told his rugged brother, "Don't run into Ward on the line: his bones stick out like the corner of a rail fence."

Brother "Jok" assigned work, one job being to "go by the blut," that is two novices drove a wagon to the slaughter house, loaded up barrels of blood and sprinkled the gardens with this lotion, the smell of it lasting for days and nights. I can still see a long-faced oldster novice like myself almost herding novices home from hoeing corn; he said, "The idea must be to line us up, no one thinks we will raise corn in that gravel." It was as if there was virtue in metallic toughness.

I took things hard, work, play, prayer, and came up with yellow jaundice, an incapacity of the liver, the bug getting me in my most vulnerable spot; but later with the pressure off, the trouble disappeared. Others developed ulcers and still have them. I could appreciate what was said of St. Ignatius in his first fervor: "The plowshares of scruples" wrecked his stomach.

Everyday we read aloud the "Martyrology," the saints' record for the next day, and at the close of our blessed and holy year I had enough imagination left to write a piece called "The Forty Holy Martyrs" which featured the sprinkling with blood, the lapses of our sceptic tank and the heroic efforts of a novice to retrieve a hammer he had let fall in "Chicago."

After a year at hard labor and dutiful prayers, we were on our way to be pioneers in a new Notre Dame seminary called Moreau, built in part by our hands. We had to rough it in our new house, our living room, the furnace room, things dusty and unfinished. As novices we had studied rules on community life, but here we had to live it. The best of the good things we got in years of training was a feeling for, at least allowing for the other; but some were slow to tolerate me. Factors keeping us together for years were the Rule which turned into a way of life, a common purpose and having to make sacrifices to live together.

The custom has been to spend many years studying for the priesthood. Those beginning studies after the age of twenty should, I'd say, be ordained in four or five years or not at all, those beginning after thirty in a year or two or not at all. A man whose son was studying for the priesthood said, "Damned if I'd spend half my life studying," and in 1930 Stephen Leacock asked whether education was eating up life. It was, and it progressively is.

At Notre Dame the seminarian's schooling was not really living classical, not yet a respectable social science learning, not scientific and mathematical, and the seminarian's philosophy in Latin was dead. We did not read Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas or Kant; our Roman-trained teacher knew none of these and neither he nor we had any inkling, his favorite word, that philosophy proceeds by way of challenge and inquiry. Our method was structured and formal and full of uncritical terms and definitions: "philosophy" is such and such, its parts such and such; "substance" is such and such, and so on for good and evil and truth; Kantianism and evolutionism were ruled out, a blow for each. I got high marks in philosophy and people began to assume that philosophy was my forte. What I got as an undergrad at Notre Dame was how to express oneself. A course in Latin was taught by a white haired Father George Marr who chewed tobacco and corralled us with wide gestures, waving his biretta. He quoted St. Jerome and St. Paul in Latin, we copied exactly and then someone read the lines, everybody ready to catch any error. At home we made translations. The word was not "excellence," but "perfection." George Marr's ideal was drilled into us: get all that is in the original, nothing that is not in the original, and put it into English as if that had been the original. He would spend whole nights on our efforts and come to us the most enthusiastic man on the grounds. "There now, Tom, read the original. Mike, does Bill's translation get all that is in the original? And nothing that is not in the original? Wait now, does he really put it into English -- is that the way Ruskin would say it?" We would wrestle half an hour with Jerome's words: "Nolumus volumus senescimus," the teacher delighted with this rendering, "Like it as we will, we are getting older."

Another good was in vernacular language and literature, good because of good teachers and in my case of learning to go on my own. In this area the novitiate's routine and its yellow jaundice supplement had taken something out of me so that writing and study had become things to be done, "assignments," whereas a gifted lay student said that entering into religion should have made writing soar: "Beautified" was his word.

I graduated from college at the age of thirty, commencement held in the open air in front of the Golden Dome, and our main speaker surprised us with a speech on relativity. I won some trinkets and was so self-conscious that I nearly fell going up the makeshift steps. My father and my little sister and a fond aunt came and were elated. But the eclat of "college" and "university" never overwhelmed me, and people with many degrees seem no more important than cooks or soldiers.

When a new batch of seminarians, geared to a high level of piety, arrived at Moreau, there was already a feeling between their group and ours. We moved like buccaneers, they folded their hands and kept silent; they thought we should be re-processed, we returned the compliment. Our crowd got a vacation, and coming back through Chicago four of us went to see Babe Ruth strike out twice on slow balls thrown by a rookie. The news of this event was great for our coterie, but a scandal to the others, though one of them had the good sense to ask, "Who pitched for the Yankees?"

In Moreau and later in the theological seminary, some began to see for themselves and to think and to speak. A big gun with one boss was that we were making history in this brave new house and our every step, so he said, was watched by the University priests. To which a boy, notable for good sense, said, "Doesn't he know that we also have eyes?" At breakfast one day a sub-boss announced, "The young men who botched Vespers yesterday will spend today's recreation learning how to serve." A victim whom we called "Muck" giggled into his plate, and another whispered: "Ward, why didn't you tell him to go to hell?" and was pleased with my reply, "He'll probably go anyway."

The national background of the priests and brothers of Holy cross in America began, as Notre Dame University, founded in 1842, also began, {???} as all French. When the founder, Father Sorin, and his early {conffr?????} baptized anyone -- they baptized many -- they noted his origin: they said "Sauvage" for Indians, "Irlandais" for Irish, "Anglais" for English and "Allemand" for Germans. But for the French, no comment, these were presumed to be natives. Soon the non-French had to be allowed for, and following the Famines of the 1840's in Ireland, Notre Dame was flooded with wandering Irishmen, some becoming priests and many becoming brothers; tombstones show that several of Irish origin died of the cholera in the 1850's. For fifty years there was animus between French and Irish, but that was gone before my birth, and by the time I became a priest, the German element resented Irish control.

What no seminarians or priests could escape was the social milieu from which we came, with its attitudes and assumptions. Except for a great grandmother buried in County Cavan, my grandparents and great grandparents left Ireland because of the Famines and landed in Iowa via Ontario on one side of the family and via Ohio on the other. They wanted to getaway from semi-slavery and starvation. My parents never knew a ground-down peasant status, but were well acquainted with hardship and were not afraid of it. Some in the seminary came from a next to peasantry social status with its indigenous feelings and attitudes. But as the decades passed, many came from bourgeois origins. The peasant always pays the price in hard knocks and expects to have to pay. The aristocrat pays as he goes, bound by the law of noblesse oblige. The bourgeois mind wants a guaranteed affluent way, convenience and comfort at not too high a price and he keeps looking for a cheap way out.

By this time in my life, I may have become bourgeois, a characteristic of American priests: life is comfort, a palatial house, a big car, vacation in Florida. Yet I think that in the novitiate and in seminaries and at least my early priesthood days and even now I have been somewhat less under the bourgeois spell than the seminarians and priests who have been my colleagues. If so, it may have been because of my rural life background, semi-peasant origin, not far from persecution and starvation.

The other side of the picture is that I was a sort of Puritan and Manichaean. No liquor, smokes or cards came into our Iowa farm home. My mother did hang some beer in a well when her Dakota brothers visited us; she took a glass at her father-in-law's annual beer drinking, and at these events my teetotaler father loved to play euchre. There were naturally some seminarians who for temperamental reasons would hardly keep rules at all, and some who were legalistic. I leaned toward the latter class. The over-rigid tend in time to moderate, but the slack and slovenly become more slack and slovenly. Following a common rule which becomes a way of life, religious and monks appear to be conformists: "There's the bell, I must go." It is easy to settle into a pattern and take little part in great problems such as race, war, poverty, and ecumenism. A layman friend says, "See how comfortably the monk folds his hands over his stomach." Yet I must say that many priests among whom I was to live, have, one by one, been remarkably independent; any of a dozen is "a character." A person can fit into even a legalistic structure and simultaneously become more and more fully himself.

Copyright ©2000 by the Indiana Province of the Priests of Holy Cross. All rights reserved.

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