A Neo-Gothic church of blond stone, with a tall, slender bell tower that houses a carillon of 23 bells, the largest of which, named St Anthony, weighs seven tons. The interior is all arched ceilings and sky blue walls. The floor around the chancel area is brown marble; the lighting fixtures are gold and bright. An expert in architecture would be able to describe this better, but for me it was like walking from a bright Indiana morning into a bright Indiana morning.
The Basilica serves the students of Notre Dame University and is also the mother church for the United States Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Thus, ordinations and funerals for people of religious orders are part of its main function. Their campus ministry is quite active in outreach to the students, and their music program is world-celebrated.
The University of Notre Dame is a small village in and of itself, an independent entity within the city of South Bend in fact, if I looked at it as a village, it reminded me a lot of Winchester. The campus includes a 150 year old cemetery, several chapels and event spaces, and two gorgeous lakes named after Mary and Joseph (someone at the reception pointed out that they are ever together, but not joined). But it is perhaps best known to sports fans as the home of the "Fighting Irish" football team; the fervor for the team was apparent in the presence of their belligerent leprechaun logo just about everywhere, as well as abundant blue and gold. The notice board outside the Basilica announced that mass time on Saturday evening is adjusted to follow the end of the game; a member of our party wondered if the liturgical color was dependent on whether the Fighting Irish won or lost.
The Revd Thomas J. O'Hara, CSC, Provincial Superior, Congregation of Holy Cross, United States Province, was the presider and homilist and formally received the postulants' vows. The Revd Peter Rocca, CSC, and Brother Dennis Meyers, CSC, were the masters of ceremonies. The lectors were Sister Catherine Hilkert, OP, and Mr Timothy Pishacich. The gospel was read by the Revd Neil Wack, CSC, pastor of Christ the King Church, South Bend. The sung portions of the liturgy were led by Andrew McShane, Mus.D., Basilica Director of Music, and Mary Catherine Levri, Assistant Director. But the stars of the show were the two postulants: the Shipmate we know as Hart and his fellow seminarian, a lad named Patrick.
What was the name of the service?Liturgy of Profession of Perpetual Vows
How full was the building?
Quite full all the pews were used, and extra seating was put out in the back. The two postulants and their families occupied the front pews.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We scurried in a side door shortly before the service began, and a smiling seminarian in black suit waved us to a seat being held for us by friends (he saw them waving at us) and quickly handed us service leaflets. It was all done in one smooth, graceful, kindly gesture.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was, erm, pew-like not cushy, but not uncomfortable either. The padded kneelers were very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Outside, the carillon was clanging away at full voice it sounded like every bell in the state of Indiana was ringing! Inside, by contrast, the pre-service atmosphere all thirty seconds of it I experienced seemed quietly anticipatory. The organist played several selections, including the "Great" Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542, of JS Bach, which almost had one of our party dancing in the aisles! An excited hum buzzed in the crowd but everyone was quite solemn.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for this holy mass of the profession of vows."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hardbound Worship and Gather hymnals, plus a softbound Sacred Songs of the University of Notre Dame, were in the pews but were not used. Rather, we followed the entire service from a beautifully designed program.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, a majestic 1978-vintage instrument by the Holtkamp firm of Columbus, Ohio. The University of Notre Dame Liturgical Choir, about 60 strong and dressed in blue robes, sang from the gallery in a technically pristine and artistically brilliant style.
Did anything distract you?
Photography without flash was allowed, and the congregants were respectful and unobtrusive while taking pictures. Even so, the very nice lady next to me didn't know how to turn off the sound settings on her digital camera, so it kept sending her informative bleeps and bloops. I chose to pretend that R2D2 was murmuring endearments throughout the service. And one of our party said that the Provincial Superior could have passed as the twin brother of the verger at an Episcopal church in Maryland to which he once belonged.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was about as high up the candle as you could get, but still managed to be warm and unifying. For instance, the processional consisted of thurifer, crucifer and acolytes, lectors, about 100 concelebrating priests in identical white chasubles, and celebrant, all walking with regal solemnity. But as the procession passed the two front rows where Hart and Patrick were sitting with their families, each member sneaked a hand out from under his robe to give the postulants a quick little pat on the back. Plenty of incense but no Sanctus bell at the consecration. We sang "All Creatures of Our God and King" as the opening hymn and "O God, Beyond All Praising" as the recessional. The service music was the Proulx Community Mass. The choir offered Handel's "Sing Unto God" from Judas Maccabaeus and "Draw Us in the Spirit's Tether", which we thought most poignant, especially the line "All our meals and all our living make as sacraments of thee."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I'd call the Provincial General's homily a little sedate, but he spoke with a gentle, intent tone, and kept things simple and direct. It was clear he had a deep affection for the postulants as he received their vows, and had taken the time to get to know them.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father O'Hara related selections from the Holy Cross constitutions to the journeys of the prophets spoken of in the readings and then to the two postulants. He seemed to be very aware of each man's personal journey. He reminded them that they were not just to be sojourners, but prophetic sojourners, with all the challenge and frustration that is implied in being a prophet. He quoted Pope Francis's call for workers who were willing to walk side by side with the people they served, and said that living a prophetic life was even more important than prophetic speech.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It is extremely difficult to choose one moment, as this was easily the most joyous and celestial service I have ever attended mostly due to the obvious joy of Hart and Patrick and the care and affection with which their brothers were showering them. Just as a snapshot there was the moment when the two young men came forward and knelt before the Provincial General to read and then sign their vows. Both the solemn intent on Hart's and Patrick's faces, and the tenderness on that of Father O'Hara, were beautiful to behold. Also, the voice of the leader of song (Mary Catherine Levri) was absolutely glorious: spot on technically and captivatingly emotive.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Again, the ceremony was so wonderful one has to resort to griping about things like camera bloops to generate a complaint. However, getting from the Basilica to the seminary, where the after-service reception was to be held, was genuinely diabolical. The Notre Dame campus seems to have been laid out in such a way that regardless of where one might be, it is virtually impossible to get to where one might want to go and once you do arrive, you'll find it roped off! I expect that the engineer who planned the roadways (and his cartographer) will be spending a good deal of time driving around aimlessly in Purgatory trying to find the exit that leads to the Pearly Gates.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The after-church atmosphere was mildly chaotic, with St Anthony and the other bells ringing wildly and robed seminarians milling about, but I was sort of swept up by the huge pack of Hart's and Patrick's friends and family. We all introduced ourselves to each other, posed for pictures, and passed general congratulations all around. Seminarians were bustling about giving people directions for how to get to the after-service reception, or packing them into shuttle buses or golf carts (Hart himself sped off in a golf cart with his family as one of our party wondered if we were expected to throw rice).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A buffet breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, blueberry pancakes, gazpacho orzo (trust me), salad, fruit, and juices had been laid out, along with urns of strong, robust coffee. For dessert there were donuts and pastries also there were rumors of a carrot cake but it was gone by the time I hit the dessert table. I consoled myself with a Boston creme donut.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I were a student at Notre Dame, I would be hanging out in the Basilica all the time! The sanctuary is pleasant and serene – a great place for quiet prayer. A lot of the Basilica's activities seem attractive, too, and while I am not Catholic, I could see myself tagging along to church services, anyway. I give it a 9 only because of the communion restrictions.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely, positively, yes! As my party and I drove back from the service, we kept looking over at each other and sighing, "What a wonderful, joyous day this has been!" (Yes, those exact words.) Even remembering various moments in the mass brought back happy tears. It was a truly unique experience of concentrated joy.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The expression of peace and submission on the faces of Hart and Patrick as they professed their vows will stay in my mind much, much longer than seven days.