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May 17, 2009

Barack Obama Inspires Upheaval at Notre Dame

Dome-basilica-1024x768 Whatever you think about him, Barack Obama is still the President of the United States.

Whatever your politics or religion, you live here, in the United States, and he is your president.  If you are graduating from the University of Notre Dame today, consider yourself part of a historical moment.

I graduated from Notre Dame in 1993.  Tom Brokaw was our commencement speaker.  "Or was it Peter Jennings?" I am embarrassed to ask myself.  A quick phone call or internet search will answer the question, but the fact that I wonder at all is telling:  I'm getting old and losing my memory, and/or even a famous and storied newsman wasn't an impressionable enough speaker that I would remember him for the rest of my life.  I doubt that any of the lucky young graduates who attend the ceremony today will ever forget that President Obama was there.  "Or was it President...?"  No.  There is only one.

Frankly, I consider the controversy and public babble surrounding the University's choice of Obama as commencement speaker sort of bewildering.  The Catholic church and many of its ardent supporters denounce the move as contradictory to the Church's standing on abortion and stem cell research (namely, they vote "no") and say that in choosing Obama, Notre Dame sets itself apart from its standing as a Catholic institution.

Catholic pundits (now there's a phrase I never thought I'd use) and students alike have raged against the Notre Dame machine - yes, the machine: as deserving of reverence as Our Lady's institution may be, it is still a university, and subject to administrative politics and whining just like every other educational body - and questioned its Catholic identity and protested against its decision and said they are ashamed and saddened to be a part of it and other such statements of unrest.  The university tried to address this in a sweeping PR move by offering the Laetare Medal - the school's highest award - to Mary Ann Glendon, a celebrated pro-life law professor.  Ms. Glendon declined the honor in a show of loyalty to Doctrine, but the university stood fast and the President speaks to the graduates nonetheless, likely as I write this post.

Notre Dame has experienced many changes during the years since I graduated - both physical and ephemeral.  There are more buildings, more grants, more funding, more projects.  Every year the study body changes by about 3,000 and as time goes by its makeup evolves - the kids are plugged in, worldly,  ready-made with more knowledge at that age than we had then.  But one thing, I believe, will never change, and that is the spirituality of the place.  Its very air is infused with the scent of God, of questioning, of something larger than the world.  Take a trip there, walk among the manicured quads, admire the architecture, marvel at the beauty of the lakes.  You'll feel it too, I promise.

I've been away from the school for many years, but as a graduate I find that it is part of me.  As such I have followed the brouhaha over Obama's appearance with a bemused consternation.  Although I am more of a detached Catholic now (working full-time and raising two young children are my feeble excuses) I do understand the protests.  When you believe in something so wholeheartedly, it pisses you off when your idol - in this case The University of Notre Dame itself - seems to demonstrate a huge departure from your morals.  On the other hand, I believe in respect.  I have written that Barack Obama is not Jesus;  well, he's not Saddam Hussein either.  He is the President of our country, a historical figure, the man in whom we've put our faith to lead us out of an ever-growing pit of despair.  Whether or not he leads us out or just makes it worse, he deserves a little respect.  Who better than our nation's leader to provoke the minds of a few thousand young men and women who will be called upon to make change in our country, in the world?

A political choice made for one day and one occasion is not going to sway the spiritual nature of Notre Dame.  Even if it can be considered a bold move for attention, the University's invitation to President Obama will ultimately fade into its centuries-old history as a blip of an event that provoked passionate discourse, not a straw on the camel's back that sent the school into heathen madness.  What he says during his speech today will ultimately be forgotten, but those kids and their families in the audience will look back years from now and remember exactly who their commencement speaker was.  Good for them.

This is an original post for Los Angeles Moms Blog.  Kim Tracy Prince works out life's bigger questions - and smaller ones - at House of Prince.

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