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Fr. Thesing helps lead Notre Dame to victory through faith

| Wednesday, October 3, 2018

As Fr. Mark Thesing prepared to start up a movie for the Notre Dame football team in 1977, he likely never would have predicted the way his life would come full circle. Then a freshman at Moreau seminary, Fr. Thesing was in charge of playing movies for the team, who made their way over to the seminary after attending the pep rally in the Stepan center. Now, 41 years later, Fr. Thesing has become an integral part of the team’s growth, serving as its chaplain since 2008.

“They stayed at Moreau seminary the night before the game and then had mass the next morning … [they’d] head over to north dining hall for their pregame meal before heading to the stadium,” he recalled. 

Entering his tenth season as chaplain, Thesing has seen his role evolve depending on the needs of the team. Following a vacancy in 2008, Thesing said Campus Ministry looked at a number of different options for how to structure the chaplaincy model before settling on two chaplains – one for home games and one for away game — not wanting hall rectors to be gone from campus for extended periods of time.

“I was transitioning from rector of Keenan to Business Manager of Student Affairs and they approached me and said ‘Would you be interested?’ and I said ‘Sure’,” Thesing said. “I kind of slowly went into it, the first year I did a few games and then the next year I did all the away games … and Fr. Paul Doyle did all the home games, as he had done for a good number of years.”

After the 2012 national runner-up season, Doyle stepped down entirely from his role with the football team and Thesing took over the entire operation.

“My thought at that time was I’m here anyway, it’s the mass and then it’s the game, and that’s that,” he said.

Anna Mason | The Observer
Notre Dame football chaplain Fr. Mark Thesing, left, cheers on the team during Notre Dame’s 38-17 win over Stanford on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Having served solo from 2013 through last season, Thesing was appointed Assistant Provincial and Steward of the Congregation of the Holy Cross’s U.S. Provincial Council, making him unavailable for certain away game weekends, depending on the meeting schedule.

After talking to Fr. Pete McCormick and other people involved, Thesing said they reached out to Fr. Nate Wills, a faculty member of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, to work alongside Thesing and serve the football program in four games this season.

“This year, there was only one game that conflicted with my schedule,” Thesing said. “I said ‘It doesn’t do you any good or the team any good for you to just show up once in a while, you kind of need to be seen.”

Thesing said due to the size of the football program, he and Wills’ relationship with the team is very different from that of McCormick and the men’s basketball team.

“We don’t have as much interaction with the players as some might think,” he said. “ … most of the time when we’re around the team, they’re focused on something else … I’m welcome to attend a lot of different things with the football team … If I go over to practice, their attention is on the coaches, and the drills that they’re running … and the schemes and the plays … When football travels there are four or five buses and everyone is assigned to their specific bus.”

At the same time, Thesing is still aware of and appreciates the players he serves as chaplain, and recalled individuals that have especially stood out to him during is time at chaplain.

“[Former offensive lineman] Chris Stewart, partly because I was rector of Keenan at the time,” Thesing said. “I always admired him because of his dedication not only to football but to academics. There aren’t too many NCAA football players who are in law school. He went on for a year of grad school at Mendoza. Finished that and went on to law school with his final year of eligibility, while still playing on the team.

“ … [Former linebacker Joe Schmidt] just had enthusiasm and ended up being a leader on the team … he always was looking for ways to be engaged and to get other people engaged.”

Thesing was quick to also point out the benefits that come with working within such a large team.

“They have a lot more staff dedicated,” he said. “… There are people specifically involved with player development. They are organizing their community service activities.” 

Thesing said in his ten seasons with the team, both under Charlie Weiss and Brian Kelly, he’s figured out the times when he can be most useful.

“[A] tradition that we continue is the saint medal,” Thesing said. “It’s now my responsibility to chose and order those medals. when we were getting ready to go to the BCS championships in 2012, a member of the football program called … and said ‘you got to get Saint Sebastian, that was the saint we had in the 1973 game when we beat Alabama and won the national championship.’ You’re talking nearly 40 years.

“ … There are also other times when it becomes crucial to be part of what’s going on and to be available. When somebody gets sad news about the death of a family member, when somebody gets diagnosed … with a significant illness. Those are important times to be present … and to be a comfort.”

Additionally, after the struggles of the 2016 season, Brian Kelly and the football program started to introduce a more spiritual routine to help the team overcome their personal and communal struggles.

“Coach Brian Kelly … took that experience of ‘I can never let that happen again and what can we do,’” Thesing said. “There were some changes made, one of those changes was he brought somebody in and she and I meet every week before the mass with the team and we talk about what they’re going through, and we look for scripture readings that we can use in the mass to emphasize and help them and support them on their struggles for what’s going on.”

In addition to being an emotional and spiritual support system during tough times, Thesing said he is also there to celebrate the success of the team. He’s even found himself a distinguishing quality to win over the entire program — card tricks.

“On home games, the team marches over to the stadium from the Gug,” he said. I go with them, a part of the team, primarily defense, and go out on the field — this is before the stadium’s even opened — to say a prayer. I join them with that. It’s a player-led prayer. Following that, I go over to the student managers and do a card trick for them. They all kind of wait … some actually take their phones out and record it.”

At the end of the day, Thesing’s greatest impact is his ministry to the team — an effort that he believes often bears fruit down the line.

“I always look at ministry, especially with youth, as planting seeds,” Thesing said. “My hope is that there’s something that I say, something they observe, something they participate in that makes a difference to them. Not today or tomorrow, but maybe two years, or four years or 10 years. It’s amazing how that happens, not just as chaplain … they’re getting so much support, not just from the chaplain but other resources in supporting their faith.”

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