The Fighting Irish are proud of their Catholic heritage, and when Notre Dame's celebrated football team takes the field against the Alabama Crimson Tide Monday night, this Catholicism will be on full display -- despite the fact that the majority of the team members are not actually Catholic.
Notre Dame is one of only a few American Catholic universities with a top-tier college football program, and Monday night the school's traditions -- steeped in the Catholic Church -- will be televised to a national audience.
The Wall Street Journal reports that since 1920, Notre Dame teams have attended a Mass before each game, received a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint and had the opportunity to kiss a shrine containing two slivers Notre Dame believes came from Jesus' cross.
The Journal writes, however, that, "Notre Dame is so nonpromotional that players of other faiths feel welcome on the team, never receiving so much as an invitation to convert, let alone pressure to do so. As a result, many feel comfortable participating in distinctly Catholic rituals."
Senior linebacker Manti Te'o, for example, is a star on the team, and also a devout Mormon who does not believe in many of the tenets of Catholicism, including the veneration of the Virgin Mary.
Speaking to CNN, Notre Dame Athletics spokesman John Heisler said that Notre Dame looked to emphasize faith in general, rendering any significance of Te'o's specific beliefs a moot point.
"It hasn’t been an issue," Heisler said of the star linebacker's Mormonism. "I think there was more an issue when he was being recruited to him having access to his religion in South Bend and here on campus."
“The emphasis here is that this is a place of faith and it really doesn’t matter what your faith is,” Heisler, not a Catholic himself, told CNN. “Faith is really important to people here. Whether you’re a Catholic or a Mormon, it’s a place of great faith.”
Prayer has long been a part of competitive sports. In fact, even though the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that student-led prayers at public high school football games violate the separation of church and state, some teams have fought back, holding prayers anyway.
Forced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to end their prayer tradition in September, fans of Georgia's Haralson County High School Rebels decided to pray vocally during the weekly "moment of silence" instead. In the Birdville Independent School District near Fort Worth, Texas, students lead the crowd in prayer before games, while a legal disclaimer flashes on the scoreboard.
Nick Saban, head coach of Notre Dame's opponent, the Crimson Tide, is himself a devout Catholic, and his team's pre-game ritual also includes a Mass and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, reports AL.com.
“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. “I think it reinforces a lot of things about being good, serving other people, trying to do the right things.”
But Wayne Atcheson, author of “Faith of the Crimson Tide," told the site that coaches are not necessarily praying for their team to win.
"We never prayed for a win, that we were going to win this game,” Atcheson said. “I know some fans do. I think it’s fine to pray to do your best and may the best team win. I never have felt the Lord cared about who wins a game. It’s important for players and coaches to pray and to call on the Lord to do their best."
Gathered together for Sunday mass at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in the heart of Notre Dame country, parishioners told WSBT-TV that God may not care about the outcome of the BCS Championship game -- but a few prayers surely won't hurt.
“I’d have to say about 50 percent of the people walk in here right now, their minds and their thoughts are about Notre Dame,” parishioner Joe Lazzara told the station. “So, we are praying (Monday night) is a big night for Notre Dame.”