Student Finds God at Notre Dame

A Faith to Die For

by Michael Hennessey

Michael Hennessey is a sophomore sociology major at the University of Notre Dame

After the first day of class this year, I decided I didn't want to remain in my sophomore-level, relatively generic-"Ethics 200" philosophy class. In search of another class to replace this intensely classical approach to living a good life, I flipped through the book of university course offerings. The book I was using to select a class provided only the course's title, its professor, and the time of day. In all likelihood, I knew I would be signing up for a class based solely on how the instructor chose to name his/her classs. The title which caught my attention was a theology class called "A Faith to Die For," taught by someone named Professor Michael J. Baxter. I realize now that in registering for this class I was responding to the urgency which the title conveyed and the implication that this particular theology class would appeal to my own sense of urgency concerning moral and religious issues.

I believe my hunch turned out to be correct. Ethics 200 might have tested my ability to reflect on Socrates, Kant, and Aquinas; Professor Baxter challenged me to decide how I should live and die. The former class was one of ideology, the latter one of action and application.

The syllabus of Fr. Baxter's course indicated that we would first examine a tradition and theology behind the sacraments and then go on to discuss a Catholic approach to specific social issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, war, the poor, etc. Not being a doctrinal Christian, I admit that I found myself at odds with a lot of the material for the first few months. But I always appreciated Professor Baxter's commitment to his beliefs, and more importantly I respected him immensely. This was because he himself respected us as students.

Fr. Baxter began every class by asking one of his students to lead everyone in prayer. At the beginning of one of the first class meetings, Fr. Baxter asked politely if I would.say a prayer, and I declined, mentioning that "1 couldn't do that." Obviously, I had no fear that I. would be looked down upon by my instructor for doing so, but I somewhat expected that he might, in the future, forget my particular convictions and call upon me once again. Professor Baxter taught a lot of students that semester, but my class was particularly small. Week after week passed, and everyone else offered prayers multiple times, and Fr. Baxter was considerate enough to remember my individua belief and not to isolate me by making me once more refuse. I respected him for that then, but now I have so much more to thank him for, which is what I'd like to expand upon.

One day I was outside reading from Professor Baxter's compilation of assigned articles and book excerpts. The subject of the reading was the lives of the martyrs, and the conversion process of the early Christians. We were studying closely the beliefs and lifestyles of the Church Fathers and the very first men and women who dared to emulate the life of Christ. Fr. Baxter had been impressing upon us in class, meanwhile, that the message of the Gospel is a radical one, and that these early Christians were willing to take their faith to its fullest extent. What struck me on that particular day, as I sat alone in a small walled garden, was that these early martyrs had something right. In my opinion, these Christians, who would sooner be made beggars, stripped, beaten, and burned at the stake rather than renounce their faith, were living out what they believed to be right. Now I may have my differences over what to believe, but I deeply admired their simplicity. Their religion heavily emphasized community and lifestyle, along with faith. And I think that this understanding was part of what Professor Baxter was trying to convey.

I distinctly recall what was one of the more defining moments in my life as it occurred that day, while reading and reflecting on Professor Baxter's lectures and course material. Fr Baxter gave us an account of how men and women went about becoming Christian in the first centuries after Christ's crucifixion. The crucial image, to me, was of a catechumen giving up his possessions to the community of followers and keeping for him/herself only one "outfit," in today's terminology. That simple gesture tapped into my own need for simplicity and for consistency between action and belief. In other words, these early Christians possessed "a faith to die for," and they made no distinction between the Gospel and their own mode of life.

Sitting there with Fr. Baxter's syllabus, and reflecting on his lectures, I was given a little clarity. I first decided-for myself that most, or close to all, of my clothes.and possessions were extraneous, unnecessary, distracting, and actually in conflict with my concern for the poor. I'll leave my personal history at that, and simply add that thanks to Fr. Baxter's influence and his challenging discussions, I found people within the Church, like Francis of Assisi, whom I could genuinely honor and study with the intent of emulating. Without Fr. Baxter, I have no reason to believe that I would have taken such an active interest in principles of voluntary poverty. Another of these important Catholic figures, whom Professor Baxter presented to us and from whom I received a further portion of clarity was Dorothy Day.

Fr. Baxter set aside an entire class period to chronicle 20th century Catholic social thought, concentrating on Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus and the Catholic Worker movement. I was absolutely mesmerized by Fr. Baxter's lecture as he talked about Dorothy Day's socialist roots before her conversion, her extreme activism, her tireless devotion, and her willingness to live as she believed. To Dorothy Day, the Gospel represented a "faith to die for," and Fr. Baxter made sure we understood the importance of acting in accordance with belief.

Furthermore, Professor Baxter made clear that we can't just take for granted that one's Catholicism is compatible with being American or with particular decisions of the American government. The former statement of identity is irrevocably the ultimate arbiter of action, hence the Catholic Worker's call to non-violence and social justice despite public policy. Fr. Baxter made me finally understand that we have a personal responsibility to live according to principles of right and wrong which aren't dictated by Congress, or by the draft board, or whether capitalism tells people, including Christians, that economics is "survival of the fittest. I walked out of that class determined to give away more of my clothes.

When Professor Baxter decided to call his course "A Faith to Die For," he profoundly impacted the course of my life. I'm one ordinary student among thousands here at Notre Dame, but I've learned that individual teachers affect individual lives.

It is disappointing and frustrating to a student who had this profound theology class to find that the theology department of Notre Dame has been campaigning against Fr. Baxter, a Holy Cross priest of the founding religious order of Notre Dame, a priest who has given distinguished service to the poor.

Has Notre Dame's theology department and the university faculty itself become only nominally Catholic, so that it cannot accept the concept of a faith to die for or that of following the Gospel like St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day?

If these things are true it might not be surprising that they would undervalue such a tremendous Catholic and impressive educator.

Undergraduates need, and deserve, men and women like Professor Baxter. He is a teacher who is alive, who is a wealth of information as well as personal experience. I, for one, never missed a class, and towards the end of the semester, I walked to "A Faith to Die For" with the feeling that I might decide to change the way I live, and die, before I walked out.

On a more personal note, one day I was out running around one of the lakes on campus and I saw Fr. Baxter running along in the opposite direction. I can assure you that had I seen any of my other professors I probably .would have sneaked by without being recognized, or I at most would have hurriedly said "hi" and continued on. Instead, I turned about and ran with Fr. Baxter for several minutes discussing his exercise routine, his time at Princeton, and our class discussions of faith, hope and charity. Whether meeting students after class, talking with me about a paper in the on-campus video store, or inviting us to join him for pizza, Fr. Baxter was a man among his students. He lives on-campus as a Holy Cross priest, and he is incredibly accessible for instruction or for discussion. Not only that, but I, at least, was compelled to listen to everything he had to say because so often he spoke of urgent issues such as social teachings and one's place in a larger society.

Undergraduates don't often have the opportunity to learn so much from so personable an instructor. The University faculty, however, need to value the Catholic, practical impact a Professor Baxter can have on young minds over bureaucratic matters of tenure and academic snobbery.