Just over 175 years ago, Fr. Edward Sorin, at the age of 28, looked at 524 snow-covered acres after walking 250 miles and declared that he would turn a log cabin into “one of the most powerful means of doing good in this country.” Thanks to the perspective of time, history and tradition, we can see the effects of the incredible vision and determination that the founder of Our Lady’s University embodied. Because of Fr. Sorin’s zeal and determination we, the Fighting Irish, can boldly proclaim today that the University of Notre Dame truly is a force for good in our world.
One of my favorite stories about Fr. Sorin showcases his visionary spirit and heroic determination. The University was founded in 1842, and by 1865 there was a white dome on the Main Building with a plaster statue of Mary on top. Then, in April 1879, fire broke out and within six hours, only a few outer walls of the Main Building remained. The dome had collapsed and the entire structure was in ruins. This fire destroyed everything that carried the educational endeavor at Notre Dame.
At the time of the fire, Father Sorin was in Canada on his way to Europe. Upon hearing of this tragedy, he returned to campus and surveyed the damage.
People expected him to bend under the sight of his life’s work in ruins. Instead, he grew more determined.
Fr. Sorin boldly proclaimed, “If it were ALL gone, I should not give up. The fire was my fault. I came here as a young man and founded a university which I named after the Mother of God. Now she had to burn it to the ground to show me that I dreamed too small a dream. Tomorrow we will begin again and build it bigger, and when it is built, we will put a gold dome on top with a golden statue of the Mother of God so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has.”
In this moment of tragedy, loss, heartache, discouragement, Fr. Sorin notes that it was Our Mother Mary’s way of telling him that he had dreamed too small a dream. With renewed commitment and galvanized resolve, Fr. Sorin and a fleet of volunteers got to work rebuilding the University of Notre Dame, reopening five months later for the start of fall classes.
I love this story because to me, it speaks of the transformative power of God-sized dreams coupled with heroic determination. When we allow the Holy Spirit to both inspire and guide our actions, we, too, can become a powerful force for good in our world.
I’m sure that at times, your work with inclusive education can feel as insurmountable as rebuilding something from scratch. I’m sure that sometimes your progress with a student or instituting a program or policy in your school to promote inclusive education can be interrupted or stifled, causing your efforts to spiral backwards.
\You have a God-sized dream of offering outstanding inclusive Catholic education to as many students and possible, and the work, at times, requires heroic effort.
The Catholic Church understands this. Our Catholic schools should be places open to all. A document from the Second Vatican Council entitled, Gravissimum Educationis, also known as the Declaration on Christian Education, declared, “All men of every race, condition and age, since they enjoy the dignity of a human being, have an inalienable right to an education that is in keeping with their ultimate goal” (#1). Another Church document called Lay Catholics in Schools, affirms this right: “Every person,” the document argues, “has a right to an integral education, an education which responds to all of the needs of the human person” (#3). This integral, complete education, according to 1977’s The Catholic School, “necessarily includes a religious dimension” (#19). In 1972, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a document on Catholic education entitled, To Teach As Jesus Did. Written almost 50 years ago, the Catholic Church explicitly recognized the right of students with exceptionalities to receive religious education that is adapted to their specific needs. But, almost in the same breath, this document acknowledges that meeting the needs of students with exceptionalities “challenges the ingenuity and commitment of the Catholic community” (#99). In short, the bishops recognized the importance of fighting for inclusive education in our Catholic schools and that this fight will require heroic determination.
The bishops said that we must meet the needs of all students within our Catholic schools. Admittedly, though, doing so will be hard.
But, we can do hard things.
This challenge is not one from which we should shrink. This challenge is not one that should cause us to bend, waiver, or crumble. We are made for greatness, built for holiness, and destined for sainthood. In the spirit of Fr. Sorin, we must boldly dream dreams within inclusive education that are worthy of Our Mother and set out to build systems and programs within our Catholic schools that meet the needs of all children. We must couple our God-sized dreams about inclusive education with heroic determination so that we can offer Catholic education to all children.
This is our call as Catholic educators. This is our mission. This is our opportunity to transform the world and this opportunity must be, according to the 1982 document Lay Catholics in Schools, “confronted with a healthy optimism, and with the forceful courage that Christian hope and a sharing in the mystery of the Cross demand of all believers” (#28).
So, today let us be confronted with a healthy optimism.
Let us act with the forceful courage that Christian hope and the mystery of the Cross demands of us as believers.
Let us, with God-sized dreams and Holy Spirit infused determination, galvanize our resolve to boldly provide high quality, unabashedly Catholic education to all children.
Let us be a force for good.
Our Golden Dome is waiting.
Let us get to work.