Father Thomas Jones of Notre Dame: The Hope of the Fighting Irish

By Tom O'Toole
Father William Corby-source unknown

Arriving to campus early (if not early enough!) for the Notre DamePurdue game, my son John and I entered the crypt (the little underground church next to Sacred Heart Basilica) to catch the tail end of one of my favorite moments of football Saturdays: the morning Mass said by Fr. Thomas J. Jones, CSC. Desiring to linger in the unique vibes of this holy (and humorous!) Holy Cross priest, who loved both the University’s Faith and football team, we stayed after Mass to hear his talk on the beginnings of both, including how the “Fighting Irish” got their name.

“There are many theories on how the famous team in a school founded by French priests came to be called the Fighting Irish, but I think it all started with Father William Corby, CSC. Father Corby was not only a priest at Notre Dame, but was a chaplain during the Civil War. The statue of him in front of Corby Hall [which the students have dubbed ‘Fair Catch Corby’] is a replica of the famous one in Gettysburg, and depicts Father giving absolution to soldiers of the 69th Irish Brigade before that battle.”

“But if that’s where the term ‘the Fighting Irish’ started, its connection to the football team was forged during halftime of the Notre Dame-Michigan game in 1909. Legend has it that one of the ND players, frustrated at the team’s first-half performance, looked around the locker room composed largely of immigrants from Ireland and bellowed, “What’s the matter with you guys? You’re Irish and you’re not even fighting!” The team took his talk to heart, came back and beat the highly-favored Michigan team, and once the press got hold of it, the rest was history.”

After his talk, I asked Father, who was both a theology teacher at Notre Dame and the pastor of South Bend’s Sacred Heart Parish, about the unique connection between Notre Dame football and the Catholic Faith. “Although all Catholic teams have chaplains, ours is not only on the sidelines for all home games but travels with the team to all away games, and this helps form a special bond between the priest and the players,” Jones said.

“Also, the players attend Mass before all their games. Of course, the non-Catholics can’t receive Communion, but they all learn from the homilies the great responsibility they have representing Notre Dame, to work hard, play hard, and pray hard to promote good sound moral values. And I know the players used to all receive a medal of a saint before the game…”

“Really?” I asked, unaware of this custom.

“Yes, but I’m not sure which one. I know at one time it was St. Catherine of Siena…”

“The Italian saint who gave the pope a hard time when he moved to France!” I said, warming to the task.

“Yes she told him to get his butt back to Rome,” Father added. “One of my favorites.”

Agreeing this less-than-bashful saint was a good choice for the team, I asked Jones if he thought the team was again in good hands.

“Yes I think they’re headed in the right direction. I think [Brian] Kelly is a good coach, and a practicing Catholic, as far as we know. And we’re overdue for a national championship!” he joked.

“What about the University as a whole? Charlie Rice [professor emeritus of Law at Notre Dame] feels the level of solid Catholic teaching and commitment to a Catholic curriculum has fallen off dramatically, while [ND philosophy professor] Alfred Freddoso calls Notre Dame ‘a public school in a Catholic neighborhood,’ a Purdue with statues…”

“They are entitled to their opinions, but I don’t agree. Notre Dame can’t be Steubenville [a small Catholic college where all the professors uphold the Catholic Faith] but I think it does a good job strengthening the Faith of the students.”

“What about their decision to invite Obama to give the commencement against the directive of the bishops?”

“As Catholics, we have a responsibility to be involved politically,” Father said, without commenting directly on the morality of this decision. “For two hundred years we have tried to get to the table, and I think Father [John] Jenkins and the Board of Fellows used this opportunity to gain influence.”

“And yet, in the end, Obama double-crossed them,” I said, referring to the president’s decision to make Catholic institutions insure medical practices that go against the Catholic Faith. Jones had earlier told someone in our group that Obama had changed his mind on this question, but alone Father was more firm.

“Obama lied,” Jones said simply. “He told us that day [of the commencement] that he would make exceptions for Catholic institutions in the health care bill, but he didn’t. And that is why we are suing them.”

As I thanked Father for his time, I thought about an earlier moment in his talk, when he focused on the motto of the Holy Cross congregation, “Ave Crux Spes Unica” (Hail, the Cross, Our Only Hope). Father was a true Christian who lived to bring the hope of Christ to one and all, but when “crossed,” he did not mince words about someone who sought to damage the Faith. Both on and off the field, the real Notre Dame man must try to spread the Faith to all who will listen, but defend It to the death against all who attempt to take It away. Notre Dame will thrive or barely survive depending upon how many men like Jones are working and praying for Her.

In any event, Father’s Mass is a great way to start your Notre Dame football Saturday.

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