Merging Faith and Fields of Play
For several years now the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball student managers have attempted to arrange impromptu basketball games in conjunction with both home and road games with their counterparts from whatever team is facing Mike Brey’s Irish.
Little does the opposition know that one of the guys on the Notre Dame side just happens to be a priest. And that creates some interesting byplay.
“There are times when the other team tends to back off and give me my space. And sometimes they don’t exactly know what to do. They’re unsure if it’s okay to get physical and foul me—or not,” says Rev. Pete McCormick, C.S.C., team chaplain for the Irish squad.
It’s all a part of McCormick’s primary role as director of Notre Dame’s Department of Campus Ministry. It started five years back when he first became associated with Brey’s program.
“I signed up to be involved as a team chaplain, but my sense was that though the guys on the team were appreciative they didn’t have any real relationship with anyone in particular because there were so many people cycling in and out of that role,” he says.
“So I thought, ‘We’re probably doing some good work here, but maybe we could be better at this.’ I said to Father Joe Carey, who was head of Campus Ministry at the time, ‘I think there’s some benefit to shrinking the number of chaplains to just a few guys.’
“After about a year, he called and said he had spent a lot of time thinking about what I said and he thought I was right—and he wanted to know if I would be the men’s basketball chaplain. So to be able to establish those relationships has been a lot of fun.”
McCormick firmly believes he can play some key role in the development of Notre Dame’s student-athlete population.
“What you realize behind the scenes is how good Coach Brey is at working with his guys to mature basketball players into young men. He is well aware that that can be a slow process. And that’s why I love the system that’s been built,” McCormick says.
“Our guys are going to stay for four years and get their degrees and they become more worldly and prepared for what’s to come. I love watching that development.
“I love watching how a freshman like Matt Farrell evolves. I loved seeing the way Jerian Grant stepped away for a semester and then the humility with which he came back. There was some real growth that occurred in that moment.
“I understand how we get caught up in the wins and losses, but sometimes we miss the development by these guys and that to me is what’s most fascinating.
McCormick takes his role seriously, yet he appreciates that it is one part of a much wider narrative.
“What I love about the role of faith here at Notre Dame is this—we recognize the role of the physical, the importance of the academics and the mental part, and we also recognize the spiritual aspect. Being able to bring those items together creates some of the best moments when I speak to the guys at our pregame Mass.
“I absolutely know I’ve got about a two-and-a-half-minute window. You’ve got to make your point and get out. It’s a chance to speak to the benefits of the spiritual life and why we take this time at our pregame team Mass to settle ourselves and consider our good graces because we’re in the holy and loving presence of God.
“At the first Mass of the season every year I tell them there is probably no other Division I basketball team that makes this sort of spiritual commitment. It’s part of the fabric that exists here. Part of my responsibility is to ensure that when they leave here, they can say, yes, I got to know a priest, yes, I attended Mass, and, yes, I had the opportunity to reflect on the Scriptures while I was involved in my sport. If I can do those things and get to know them in the process, I’m thrilled.”
McCormick is a 2000 Grand Valley State graduate and Grand Rapids, Michigan, native who then entered Notre Dame’s Moreau Seminary, earned a master’s degree in divinity at Notre Dame in 2006, was ordained a Holy Cross priest a year later and went on to earn an executive MBA degree.
His work with the Irish men’s basketball program is just a small part of the campus ministry oversight he took on in 2015—and yet it intersects perfectly with Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s core values of education, tradition, excellence, community and faith.
Under McCormick’s watch athletics recently has added chaplains for the fencing, softball and baseball squads. Rev. Mark Thesing, C.S.C., remains in place as the football chaplain, while Rev. John Conley, C.S.C., works with the hockey program. Rev. Jim Bracke, C.S.C., is the University staff chaplain, so he is available to work with athletics staff members.
“How can Campus Ministry be involved or more involved with athletics?” asks McCormick. “It’s one of those areas where you benchmark against other schools in terms of how you are thinking about faith, yet there’s not a lot to benchmark against. This is where I think Notre Dame has the chance to be the lighthouse for what we could look like.
“How do we introduce our students to an institution that has a rich tradition of faith? We worked this year on a partnership with Notre Dame Christian Athletes, so one member of my staff (Kayla August, assistant director of evangelization) is embedded with that group, meeting weekly to talk about their faith. These are the types of steps slowly being made.
“I have a great passion for athletics and I think there are some opportunities here. There are 750 athletes with intense pressures placed on them. When their grandmother dies or their boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with them or they do not do well on an exam, they still have to get out on the field of play and compete at a high level. So there’s got to be a place where they can step back and reflect and be reminded that the love of God is with them whether or not they scored or whether or not they passed a class. Those moments can be critical.”
McCormick laughs when he recalls his own father quizzing him about his new Campus Ministry assignment.
“My dad looks at me and says, ‘So, what exactly do you do?’ To me, our role is insuring through our work that student staff and faculty recognize that this University is a place of faith. And to do so in an invitational way. To preach and proclaim this person of Jesus Christ in a manner that draws people into the beauty of faith. That’s the lofty goal. It may come about through a single interaction or in a group program.”
A former rector at Notre Dame’s Keough Hall from 2007-13 and now a resident of Stanford Hall, McCormick recalls hearing confessions at the Basilica the weekend of the 2017 Georgia football game and, by accident, overhearing dozens of visiting fans.
“One after one walked into the Basilica and said things like, ‘wow,’ ‘beautiful’ and ‘amazing.’ That has to be how we think about every point of engagement. You need a lot of trust to engage in faith—but if we do it well it can be really compelling.”
Many of McCormick’s days are long ones. He meets regularly with a series of direct reports and works with his professional staff during the day. Then in the evenings he switches over to work with students, including 10 p.m. Masses Monday and Thursday at Stanford.
“You can’t put yourself in a situation where you need to be needed. My whole approach with the basketball team, for example, is that I’m going to be present. I’m going to try not to talk to them about hoops—there are plenty of people for that.
“I’m more fascinated by who they are as people, what they are going through, what motivates them, what the points of intersection are where I could be of help. I’m there to support them. These are young men who have to learn how to strive amid some complicated circumstances. How can we be there for them? You marvel even more at the splendor you see within all this swirl. And they get up every day and go to class in the middle of all this.”
McCormick recently stepped away from hoops for a while while training for a half-ironman triathlon, but he’ll be back.
“I just love the game (of basketball),” he says. “I just love to play.”
Meanwhile, he spends his time looking for more and better ways for his spiritual world to intersect with Notre Dame’s athletics world.
“I always come back to this,” he says.
“I believe that Notre Dame is uniquely positioned to merge faith and athletics in a way that’s beautiful and meaningful and compelling.
“I’m honored to be part of this—if we put our heads together, we’ve proven we can do great things.
“People love Notre Dame for what it stands for and so for us to demonstrate that faith component in a myriad of ways is really, really great.”