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God, Country and Notre Dame

Viewpoint Columnist | Monday, October 28, 2013

For the longest time, I imagined my conscience to be a small, top-hatted cricket always prepared for a rainstorm. Thank you, Walt Disney. While this is a cute image to remind kids to make good choices, I don’t think it really captures the gravity of conscience.
One of my favorite musicians, Brett Dennen, has a lyric that hits me every time I hear it. In one of the verses of “She’s Mine,” Dennen sings, “All my heroes have been slain/ exiled or put in prison/ because they rose above the mess/ because their power posed a threat/ and because they spoke of something else when everybody else didn’t.”
Let’s see – Jesus, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero and St. Marcellus … yup, they all check out. It is in the lives of people such as these that I began to understand conscience as a thing much more powerful than a little cricket. Conscience lights the lamp of truth and goodness in the world. It reminds us of what is most important.
But to my mom’s chagrin, this means that heeding our consciences will often get us into trouble. We will inevitably be asked to defy the powers that be or the mainstream in order to call each other back to the truth. This week, the Church celebrates the feast of a person whose mother was probably grieved by the result of his conscience-motivated action, St. Marcellus.
In 298 A.D., Marcellus, a centurion in the Roman army, was with his unit in northern Africa during the celebrations of the emperor’s birthday. Amidst the partying and revelry, something moved Marcellus to stand up in front of the banqueters, denounce the parties as heathen and cast off his weapons and military insignia, crying out, “I serve Jesus Christ, the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors, and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.”
Marcellus was then arrested and brought to trial. The centurion admitted that he said and did all of which he was accused. Marcellus chose God over country or kin. The motive for his actions was, as he said, that it is “not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Because of this stand, with great peace of mind and asking God to bless the judge who condemned him, Marcellus was deemed mad and beheaded.
Okay, so that is not exactly the nice, follow-your-conscience-and-become-a-real-boy story we find in Disney, but it is a story to which we should pay attention. I say this because it is a story embedded in our campus.
How is a third-century saint and martyr embedded in our campus, you ask?
First, his relics are literally embedded under the high altar of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Also, the spirit of his decision is implicit in the ranking within the motto over the east door of the Basilica: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”
It can be easy for us to confound our allegiances between these three because in our idealism we want them to be perfectly aligned. But when it comes down to it, there are instances when the priorities and practices of our country or of our school are not in line with our ultimate priority as Christians to love God and neighbor. This is when we must follow our consciences. So, in light of Saint Marcellus’ martyrdom and of placing God first, this motto begs us to ask several questions.
When does our allegiance to God come into conflict with our allegiance to country or even to our school?
How will we act in accord with our consciences when that conflict occurs?
I invite you, friends, to ponder these questions with me and members of the Notre Dame and South Bend communities at this year’s St. Marcellus Day Celebration on Wednesday. There will be a simple supper and a play reenacting the life of Marcellus in the ballroom of the LaFortune Student Center at 5:45 p.m., followed by a 7 p.m. prayer service and keynote address in the Basilica. The keynote address, titled “Marcellus: The Family Values Saint,” will be given by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, the founder and past director of Notre Dame’s program on the Study and Practice of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution.
It would be great to see you at some or all of the events. As always, if you want more information, just send me an email.

Jon Schommer is in his fifth year  studying civil engineering and the Program of Liberal Studies. He can be contacted at jschomme@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.