this month features a chapter from the book Reflections
In The Dome, by Robert Griffin, C.S.C., who graduated in Leon Hart's class,
Robert Griffin, C.S.C., was born in Portland, Maine, where he attended Deering
High School. Upon graduation from Notre Dame in 1949, he entered the novitiate
and, in 1954, was ordained a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He
spent the next several years teaching and furthering his own education. In 1958
he received a Master of Arts degree from Notre Dame. In the mid-1960s Father
Griffin returned to Notre Dame to serve in the Office of Campus Ministry, where
he currently serves as a residence hall chaplain. Father Griffin is the author
of several books of reflective essays and is a regular contributor to campus
newspapers and to The Observer. His by-line column appears regularly in Our
In the Shadow of the Dome
I sometimes pray for the unknown of the congregation of Holy Cross buried in the
cemetery up the hill from St. Mary's Lake. Sometimes, all the history you know
of a priest is his chalice, the date of his death and his place in the cemetery.
A number of old chalices are used, even after they have become museum pieces, by
celebrants keeping faith with the past. Years ago there were mix-ups in the
burials. I make it my business to pray for the religious who have been forgotten
by most, at altars they were familiar with in Sacred Heart Church.
Seminarians would point out to me, as a Notre Dame student, a chalice which they
kept freshly polished. "It belonged to Father Joe Cavanaugh," they said. "He
died of cancer last year. He was only 36."
Father Cavanaugh belonged to a team of young theologians Notre Dame recruited to
keep the University Catholic. As a postulant in the Congregation of the Holy
Cross, I decided to pray to Father Cavanaugh as a saint: he had been much loved;
he had specialized in the science of God; he had been called home early. As long
as his chalice gleamed in the gloom of the sacristy, I thought, part of his
priesthood remained active, so I polished the chalice as faithfully as the other
seminarians. I trusted him to help me survive the terrible ordeals that stood
between me and ordination. I located his cross in the cemetery so I could make a
daily visit to his burial place.
F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of the fresh, green acres of the new continent, first
seen by Dutch sailors. It was a place which was, for the last time in history,
commensurate with man's capacity to dream. In two years, if I survive, I will
have been a priest for as many years as Father Cavanaugh lived. The green acres
of this Emerald City have been a place commensurate with a priest's capacity to
dream. Holy Cross has kept me for many years in the shadow of the dome. My life
has been identified with a tradition, a campus, a family in faith. My Notre Dame
is a Holy Cross priest's Notre Dame. Holy Cross gives me my title to be at home
on this holy ground.
When you are starting out, you think you understand the great ideals expressed
by the abstract words. You are sure, for example, that you know what love means.
For you, as a novice, older priests do not exemplify love the way the saints
exemplify love. At Notre Dame the priests sat in summer on the Corby Hall porch.
They liked each other and joked among themselves a lot. You couldn't feel the
affection binding them as they burned up their wits to get in the last word. I
really worried whether Corby priests were involved enough with love.
In 1957 I lived with Father Joe Muckenthaler who taught German. On two
consecutive Fridays in the spring of 1957, priests died. On the third Friday,
unexpectedly, Father Joe joined them in death. He had gone back to his room
after breakfast. The maid found his body on the bed. Feeling ill, he must have
lain down. He had a rosary in his hand. He was 56.
Twice I had seen Joe grieve at the death of his friends. Now I was grieving for
Joe. A week before, at Father Phil Mitchell's death, he told me things about
Phil that I never knew: "Phil was one of the finest historians Notre Dame has
seen. He left a room full of books, and he was at home with all of them. He
annotated the margins on almost every page." This time it was Joe Muckenthaler's
turn to be praised.
When you're trying to figure out what a death means in the community, you listen
to the members talk about his life. You note the tears in tough men's eyes. At
the wake and funeral - the bon voyage trip to heaven - the old stories are told,
the anecdotes which had seemed like bad jokes extend the shadow of a confrere's
reputation, until the brother in Christ appears to have been a giant 10 feet
At the meal after the burial you hear comments on the funeral, whether it
measured up to the merits of the deceased. "He got flowers from Dillon.
Community members don't usually get flowers. It was good to see flowers by Joe's
casket. It showed how much the students liked him."
"The church was full of people. I knew it would be a big funeral. Joe never
missed a day visiting the sick in the infirmary. He never got over his mother's
death. He took the news of any death to heart. I'm glad he had a big turn out."
All the outward signs indicate an inner grace of profound affection, as in a
sacrament useful in healing the loneliness of the next of kin. The small talk of
the elders and contemporaries compose themselves into an elegy for the dead.
Nothing more eloquent remains to be said. The feeling grows in your mind that
you are following in the footsteps of religious men, beautiful in all the ways
you had imagined them to be ordinary.
The official saints seem like freaks of grace in their exaggerated forms of
goodness. The holy men of legend have stood half their lives as penitents on
pillars or exiled in deserts with wild beasts.
The people I have learned to love best for their goodness have been priests and
brothers, enduring disappointment, who remained humorous and kind when they must
have been tempted to give up. I have watched priests, mentally ill, help priests
chronically alcoholic. I have seen our Holy Cross lay brothers, as though they
learned tenderness from their mothers, pick up priests fallen from grace and
nurse them into a second spring-time of their vocations. I know a missionary,
home from overseas after a breakdown and troubled with religious scruples,
helped step-by-step through his daily Mass and office by a University
vice-president whose time money couldn't buy.
Notre Dame has broken hearts and hurt the ambitious because there are not enough
promotions to go around, and less prestigious duties, distant from the offices
of power, also need stewards. A bright, young scholar, six weeks away from his
doctorate, accepts a job teaching elementary Latin to seminarians, leaving his
research to gather dust. A community becomes remarkable through its members who
keep on giving. Their blood, sweat and tears are like the cement keeping the
bricks firmly in place to make walls.
A coach coming to campus takes his place among figures about whom myths are
made. Myths are useful and necessary in promoting the public image. Behind the
myths is a cast of hundreds, working in loyalty for the Notre Dame of their
dreams, in a love affair that lasts a lifetime. Football seasons wind down. The
students finally go home as graduates. Corby Hall is not so seasonal. It stays
here year-round, as keeper of the flame.
When I was a student, Corby Hall was the holy of the holies, observable only
from the porch where the priests rocked. Even with Frank Leahy and the football
team, Corby was the powerhouse where the shots were called. Moreau seminarians
told funny stories of the Corby characters: the old dean, for example, who blew
his dentures into the baptismal font while blessing the holy water for Easter.
Waiting on tables at retreat time, the seminarians brought back horror stories
of curmudgeons turning vicious because the coffee was served cold.
Meals with Father John A. O'Brien, the convert-maker, were not an encouragement
to religion. "Five-to-six O'Brien," the students called him, because as he
walked he cocked his head to that angle on the clock. His book, Faith of
Millions, had made a convert of me at age 13.
As a student, I first met him walking behind the golden dome. Hearing that I had
been won to the Church by his book, he said grandiosely, "We shoot our arrows
into the air..." - unctuously implying the rest of Longfellow's line, "They fall
to earth, we know not where."
Father Pat Carroll, old editor of the Ave Maria, passed us, obviously not
wanting us to get in his way.
Father O'Brien, who was not a C.S.C., tried to introduce us, saying, "Mr.
Griffin is anxious to join your community. He's kind enough to say my Faith of
Millions encouraged him."
Old Pat, mentally considering O'Brien's shaft, shuffled past as quickly as aging
legs would permit, shouting over his shoulder, "Stick with it, my boy, and never
give up." That's all the mileage I got for being one of O'Brien's millions.
At the Corby table Father O'Brien gave the waiters a rough time, hassling one
about his weight and another for deciding not to become a priest. Under the
charm, which could be extraordinary, beat the heart of a fussbudget who could
split the seed of a peach with the edge of his annoyance. He made the waiters
nervous, though students as whimsical as Jim Brogan, who became a professional
comedian, served at his daily Mass and loved him for his kindness. Father John
was a great and wonderful man. He was also neurotic, as most old bachelors are
neurotic, especially if they are bright. And imperfections bothered him. He kept
calling me Bill, believing my last name was Graham. I had a classmate named
Bill, whom he kept calling Bob. Who would wish to tell a perfectionist that he
had mixed up identities?
My best friend among the older priests was Father William McNamara, the history
professor. I would meet him every morning in the pay cafeteria after the last
Mass, at 8:30, in DilIon Chapel. I would settle him down with a cigarette and
coffee. Then I would mention a name or topic, and he would begin the old
stories: of Rockne's baptism and Rockne's coaching; of the first Father John
Cavanaugh, Notre Dame's president during World War I (who told students, who got
drunk in a good cause, "Notre Dame men are men of beer and chivalry"); and of
President Lincoln (whom he attributed with this statement, "I can get another
army, General McClellan, but those horses will be hard to replace").
Sometimes Father Frank Cavanaugh, brother to Father John, would join us and
recount his own stories. "You're here to carry out the bottles, not to count
them," he once told a Corby Hall maid who complained of priests drinking beer.
Old charmers like these persuaded me that, in a lifestyle full of legalisms, you
could remain sane and human. In 1965 I was with Father Mac when he died of
cancer in Holy Cross House. He was as pleasant in greeting Death as though he
were having an adventure he could tell about over coffee. He probably had a
story or two to tell Death on the way to heaven.
I first met Father Howard Kenna when I was a senior who had missed the Class Day
exercise in Washington Hall when the graduating class presented an American flag
to the University. The flag was blessed at the Baccalaureate Mass, and it flew
over the campus the following year. The tradition, which had begun in the days
of super-patriot Sorin, was mandatory for seniors vested in cap and gown. You
could forfeit graduation if you missed. I missed, because my roommate kept
telling me it wasn't important.
Father Kenna, the registrar, headed a board to hear the excuses from us
delinquents. How stern he looked, like the white owl from the cigar box, as he
listened at the end of the table.
I didn't know he would become my superior at the seminary in Washington, when he
kept the samestony face as I reported oversleeping morning prayers and Mass. He
let me be ordained, just as he let me graduate with my class, though I never
pleaded an excuse that deceived him. Later, as the provincial, he became the
greatest father-figure of them all. The very last time we talked, he had been
appointed by Rome to investigate a column I'd written for The Observer .
"You've become important," he said, relishing his own humor, "like Karl Rahner."
By that time I was used to giving him explanations. "I'm sorry," I said, "for
being a problem."
"I'm sorry," he said, "because they have caused you such a fuss." He hugged me,
and in that moment I never had a father whom I loved more. I understood how he
made us a stronger community by caring for us all.
At ordination a young man is given the title to be called a priest. He starts
off with a new Roman collar, a set of books, impossibly high deals and enough
fantasies to furnish Disneyland. You could take Bing Crosby or Spencer Tracy as
role models, if your work were to teach street urchins to sing sweetly; or to
convince Mickey Rooney that he ain't heavy 'cause he's your brother.
The younger priests always knew their places as junior clergy. Corby didn't
exactly feel like a democracy, but the junior members were treated graciously
and unfailingly called "Father," a title which reminded them of the dignity of
the calling they were sharing with the venerables. The use of your first name by
an older priest seemed affectionate, as though you had been hugged.
A story, still repeated, warned against brashness. A newly-ordained priest
walked into Corby Hall's rec room where one of his seminary teachers was reading
the paper. "Why hello, Harry," said the neophyte.
Harry, at least a silver jubilarian, put down his paper and rose to his feet. "I
don't think we've been introduced," he said in an ironic voice. Everyone felt
the put down was deserved. Ordination did not put the boy clerics on equal
footing with the community elders.
In the summer of 1955, the year after my ordination, I first joined the priests
on the Corby porch, watching with the rest of them as students wore
thoroughfares through the grass. The Corby priests were protective of the Notre
Dame lawns. The old provincial would roar with rage, "Look at that boy walking
on the God-damned grass." He seemed personally offended, as David Copperfield's
Aunt Bessie was offended by donkeys roaming on her cliff at Dover.
Corby porch talk had its fun. Father Tom Burke asked Father Eugene Burke if
young Father Griffin was the heaviest, weightwise, of the Congregation. Father
Eugene Burke felt that young Griffin was certainly the heaviest member. Father
Tom said he thought Griffin was the heaviest priest in the order; but there once
had been a brother who made Griffin look like a lightweight. Young Griffin was
never consulted for his point of view. The question was never settled. So goes
the conversation of serious men.
The American priests I know - aside from hearing thousands of confessions and
trying to save souls - are like the rest of the people in the country. They were
G.I. Joes fighting in World War II, and went on a police action in Korea. They
anguished over Vietnam, in or out of the Army. They gave up Latin in the Mass
and worried about the 18 1/2 - minute gap in the Watergate tapes. American
priests had best friends and relatives who lost their faith, and maybe found
their way back to the sacraments after quarreling with authority over birth
American priests talked about love before they ever understood how real lovers
How you never kick a guy when he's down, and how all of us are down some of the
How the goats on the left hand at Judgment are really sheep on the right,
because mercy always turns things around;
How it's hard to tell the black sheep from the others because none of us is
And how you take care of each other, not because some rules say you should be
caring, but because you hope you would care, whether there was a rule or not.
The rules only tell you that your best instincts are as sublime as the highest
law of heaven.
In the upheaval after Vatican II that rocked dogmas upon which institutions were
founded, religious communities were like families whose members discover in an
earthquake they need to hold onto one another. In a topsy-turvy time, religious
orders survived because Christ's love was their bloodstream. In Holy Cross our
particular devotion has always been to the Heart of Jesus loving the world. As a
result of the changes, our common lifestyle became more gracious and less
structured with rules, because we were collectively wise enough to see that
rules don't save human beings. Human beings save each other, in ways that our
maverick members have always known better than anyone. At Notre Dame our
archetypal maverick was Father Edward Sorin, who resisted the misunderstandings
of his work in Indiana by his religious superior 5,000 miles away in France.
With a couple of degrees from Notre Dame, I have learned nothing more beautiful
in my education here than to recognize Christ in His role as a servant in the
flawed humanity of the community I live with. You could take away the dome or
tear down the stadium, and the losses wouldn't make an essential difference. But
you couldn't take away the fathers and brothers and still find the gracefulness
that makes the place Our Lady's school as Tom Dooley loved it or as Knute Rockne
made it famous.
At Notre Dame one generation of elders succeeds another. Some of the fathers who
taught me are now more the age to be brothers. I am old enough now to use their
first names, but it rarely seems right. It's the way I have of showing them
respect, to be careful to address them as fathers .
This morning, going to breakfast, I met Father Hesburgh. "How are you, Bob, and
how's the pooch?" The day begins bright when you've been greeted by the
charismatic leader. The evening has a perfect ending when you see him in the
Grotto at 2 a.m. He always seems to have been noticing what you are up to. He
makes you feel like a member of the team. He makes you want to stick around and
to want him to stick around. You don't mind how long he stays on here, even now
that he's no longer president. It wasn't easy to see him retire.
"I would like to be immortal," says Woody Allen, "by living forever." Forever
would be nice. But as long as priests are ordained, I will be part of the
forever of Holy Cross. If Notre Dame survives for 1,000 years, the neat crosses
in the cemetery will identify the holy dead. The living members continue to give
their service to the campus, trusting in the continuing love affairs that binds
Holy Cross in a covenant of affection to Notre Dame.