One summer in the early 90’s, Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, Ill., which at that time was Notre Dame High School for Boys and run by the Congregation of Holy Cross, was going through some renovation projects. As a poor, Catholic institution running a tight budget should, the high school was looking for ways to do things cheaply and so asked for volunteers to come and paint renovated classrooms that summer.
I am not surprised that my mother quickly volunteered me to go help as she was always looking for ways to get her four children out of the house and occupied during the summer months. Plus, for years as a kid I had taken carpentry classes at the local Chicago Park District, and so painting for me was an enjoyable past time that I was at least moderately good at. I was not a student yet at Notre Dame High School, but both of my older brothers were, and so I was somewhat familiar with the place.
I felt a bit strange and uneasy and probably a bit nervous walking up to ring the doorbell on the far wing of the school that people called “the priests’ residence.” It was a Tuesday evening at 6:00 p.m., and at my side was my trusty homemade wooden tool box stocked with new paint brushes. One of those guys dressed in black with a white collar opened the door, and I mumbled, “I’m Dan and Chris’ little brother Andrew, and I'm here to paint". I looked up at the large grin of my greeter as he stepped to the side and said, “Ah good. I’m Father Ken. Let me get you set up in a classroom. Do you need a coke?”
That Tuesday evening, as I walked down the hallway next to Fr. Ken Molinaro, C.S.C., was the first time I intimately shared in the workings and mission of the Congregation of Holy Cross, except for my 6 year stint where I was being educated by and working for the Jesuits, I have been learning from or working with Holy Cross ever since.
Like many others, I have spent countless hours in thought and conversation trying to figure out exactly what it was that drew me into this life, in which I basically see as my vocation to be using my gifts and talents to work with the Congregation of Holy Cross and support its mission of educating minds and hearts.
Of course, there are all kinds of moments and experiences and interactions that touch at the heart of being drawn into the Holy Cross mission, but I would like to share with you something I heard a Holy Cross priest say just a few weeks back regarding how Blessed Basil Moreau understood the growth of faith. I think this insight very clearly gets at what Holy Cross means to me and why I feel called to work side by side with Holy Cross.
The priest explained that Basil Moreau saw people discovering faith through the person of Christ, and specifically through the person of Christ that is modeled in individuals. In other words, faith for Moreau can’t grow in a vacuum or because of some well-articulated, rational theological argument. But, rather, faith grows when one encounters Christ within individuals that are role models.
Looking back at my Notre Dame High School experiences, I can recall a group of joyful men who taught me, coached me, shared meals with me. They asked me about my family, they cared for me, they loved me. They taught me about God, not just in theology class, but by the way they lived, the way they worked and the way they laughed.
I saw these men as smart men, and some of them were even the first geniuses that I had ever met; they were all good teachers. Some were a bit crustier than others, but I always felt and believed that they all had a genuine interest in me as a person. These men were my heroes and, although I might not have thought about it this way at the time, they were saintly heroes – for, in them, I was finding Christ and learning to love Him and His Church.
I remember going home one day during Lent of my junior year and saying to myself as a 16-year old-kid, “These guys have something, something special, and I want it too.” It was this desire that led me to Old College, where I was able to discern a religious life with the Congregation in a formal way. During my college years, as I grew in a life of faith and prayer, my discernment led me away from religious life and ultimately to marriage, but I realized that what I saw in Holy Cross was something that I could still share in as a layperson.
I learned that I could still be a student and spiritual son of Moreau and embrace some of these traits that make up the charism of Holy Cross. Like the C.S.C.’s that I have encountered throughout my life, I have grown to try and be a man who is zealous in my work of sharing the Gospel; I try place my trust in Divine Providence; I attempt to be generous and hospitable, I model my own family life after the Holy Family; I have a genuine interest in people, particularly the students who I work with on daily basis at Holy Cross College; and of course every day I pray to have the strength to place all my hope at the feet of Jesus on the Cross. Ave Crux, Spes Unica. I try to model Christ in the way and manner that Holy Cross religious modeled Christ during my formative and transformative years of high school and college.
Men and women religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross, thank you for modeling Christ in your life, thank you for walking the streets side by side with ordinary people, thank you for coming to my home to share a meal or to play baseball in the backyard with my boys, thank you for meeting the needs of the day, whatever those needs may be, thank you for being a visible sign of God’s love in the world, thank you for helping me and teaching me to not just be a successful citizen of this world, but also, hopefully with God’s good grace, putting me on the straight path to be a successful citizen of the next world.
We gather today in the shadow of the golden dome here on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. People say this place is special. They say that anyone who spends time here, even if it is brief, they leave changed. Some explain this and call it the Notre Dame spirit, or the Notre Dame family. Well, those are fine and I get those, but I believe, resting at the heart and foundation of all that is true, good and beautiful about Notre Dame is the Holy Cross spirit and the Holy Cross family.
And what makes this place unique you'll find at every Holy Cross parish, ministry and institution across this country and around the globe. It is because of the Holy Cross spirit and the Holy Cross family that I work at Holy Cross College and particularly why I find meaning and fulfillment in my life and work.
I have one final story that I would like to share. During the month of May of 2011, I traveled with 16 Holy Cross students to Ghana, West Africa. Holy Cross students participate in a global experience where they have the opportunity to work and live with Holy Cross religious in various parts of the world, and I was ecstatic to be a part of this trip as I was eager to see for the first time the Congregation of Holy Cross working in the missions.
Many of us have stories of difficult travel experiences, but I am willing to bet the journey to the Holy Cross District Center in Brafuyaw, Ghana, ranks up there as one of the most exhaustive and draining. There was the bus ride to O’Hare, then a flight to Germany, then a nine hour layover, then a long flight to Accra, the capital of Ghana. There was the nearly four hours of night travel on a bumpy, pot-hole-infested road. To say I was quite hungry at that point is an understatement, and my lungs were hurting from breathing hot and humid air that was thick and nasty from diesel exhaust.
It was the middle of the night, and we unpacked the vans in a downpour. Before heading to bed, we were offered a snack, which initially gave me hope, but whatever it was that we were offered didn’t match the MickeyD’s fries and cheeseburger that my mouth was watering for. As I lay on my bed with a wet towel on my chest to try and make the hot room a bit more bearable, I eventually drifted off to sleep, feeling decently miserable and just a bit guilty that I had left my pregnant wife home with our two boys to fend for herself for next 17 days.
I hate to sound like a wimp as I tend to think of myself as pretty tough. After all, I played sports, backpacked in the northern jungles of Thailand, lived with an Aboriginal community in the Outback of Australia, and survived six years of teaching high school.
Anyway, I woke up the next morning with the sun shining into my room and a fairly decent breeze coming through the open windows. I walked out on the third floor veranda and was struck by the beauty of the place.
I looked out at the well-landscaped property of the District Center and then glanced over to the entrance way we had driven through the previous night. My heart leapt for joy and a grin came across my face as I realized that standing there welcoming me to that far away land was my good and dear friend, Saint André. The darkness of the previous evening had kept the statue hidden, but that next morning I could see him standing there as the greeter and friend of all who entered that place.
Flashes of his statue at Notre Dame High School raced through my head as did his gentle and tender hands that reach out to you as you approach him here at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. I recalled the many times I had knelt and put my forehead on the cold marble of his tomb at the Oratory in Montreal and almost could feel my wife’s hand in mine as I remembered standing with her in Saint Peter’s Square as he was raised to the altar by Pope Benedict.
With new vigor I bounded down the stairs to the meal room on the first floor. As I went in the door there were Br. Ken Goode, C.S.C., and Br. Daniel Dardoe, C.S.C., sitting there sipping their coffee with their familiar metallic cross and anchors hanging around their necks. Br. Ken smiled, greeted me, told me to grab some coffee and have a seat. As I settled into the chair at their table I was able to relax and make myself comfortable, for this foreign place was now home as I could sense its Holy Cross spirit and found the Holy Cross family living there.
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you and share with you. I finish with these words that come from a circular letter of Blessed Moreau: “Such are our plans, my dear sons and daughters in Jesus Christ. If we put no obstacles in the way of his designs, God will bless them, for he himself has inspired whatever has been undertaken up to the present for the completion of this important work. Yes, I have the firm confidence that God will bless our educational program since he is giving us the means to realize it.”
Mr. Andrew Polaniecki is the Director of Campus Ministry at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Ind. He gave this talk as part of the Holy Cross Pre-Conference at the Association for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities (ASACCU) Conference held at Notre Dame this July. Andrew previously wrote for the Spes Unica Blog about Blessed Basil Moreau. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross as educators in the faith.