For those who like a little — or a lot of — faith with their football, tonight’s national championship game is a classic Catholics (Notre Dame) vs. Protestants (Alabama) battle.
The University of Notre Dame, of course, is well known as “an independent, national Catholic research university.” It was founded in 1842 by a 28-year-old French priest, Rev. Edward Sorin of the Congregation of Holy Cross, in honor of the Virgin Mary. It was officially chartered in 1844 as “L’Universite´de Notre Dame du Lac,” or “the University of Our Lady of the Lake.” For all of its traditional athletic and academic clout, it is not a huge university, with a total current student population of just more than 12,000 students, according to the Notre Dame website, 83 percent of whom are Catholic.
Most of the Notre Dame players, however, are not. But Kevin Helliker of the Wall Street Journal reports that while the team is “unapologetically Catholic,” the university “is so nonpromotional that players of other faiths feel welcome on the team.”
“Before Monday night’s national championship game,” Helliker writes, “a University of Notre Dame football captain will lead the team through a prayer called Litany of the Blessed Virgin. ‘Mother of our Savior,’ a captain will say. ‘Pray for us,’ the team will respond.”
But will that team captain be Manti Te’o, an active and practicing Mormon?
That isn’t known. What is known, Helliker said, is that “following practice a few days ago, Te’o did something highly unusual for a devout Mormon: He sought and received a blessing from Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame.”
“Te’o couldn’t be reached for comment,” Helliker continued. “But (team chaplain Father Paul) Doyle said he has talked with the young man about religion. ‘This is not a place where you have to apologize for your spiritual interests, whatever they are, and Manti has said he feels supported here in his Mormon religion,’ Doyle said."
Helliker also pointed out that Notre Dame won’t be the only team in the National Championship Game with a religious presence on the sidelines. Alabama, he said, “will bring to Monday’s game a minister and a Catholic priest.”
The Gallup organization reports that Alabama has the highest proportion of Protestants of any state, and it is likely that Protestant Christianity is the predominant faith shared by the state-sponsored University of Alabama's 33,602 students. But there is also a strong Catholic presence on the Crimson Tide sideline: head coach Nick Saban. Greg Garrison of AL.com writes that Saban “includes Mass and pregame recitations of the Lord’s Prayer as part of his team’s game preparation.”
“I don’t think it’s my faith necessarily, but I think having faith is something that helps us all sort of keep our moral compass in the right direction,” Saban said in Garrison's article. “I think it reinforces a lot of things about being good, serving other people, trying to do the right things.”
Former Alabama coach Gene Stallings also points out that the Crimson Tide’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes program is the longest continuous chapter in the country.
“The (religious) perception leans toward Notre Dame,” Stallings said, “but I think they’re about the same.”
Which begs the question: Does God have a favorite in tonight’s contest?
“I don’t think God’s on the side of either one,” Stallings said in the AL.com story. “He’s got a lot more things to concern himself with than who wins a football game.”