Victories -- and Defeats
The dictator, the maple trees, Notre Dame, the pope, and the atheist.


What a thrilling victory for democracy was wrought in Venezuela on Sunday, December 2. Despite being blacked out on television and nearly drowned in a smothering red sea of banners and signs exhorting, “Vote Si! for Chavez,” the people of Venezuela voted No! to virtual dictatorship. It was a brave vote. A vote that seemed to have had in advance little chance of success. Nonetheless, democracy won, and dictatorship lost. A very hopeful sign for the world.

A victory for beauty has also just occurred, just a block down the street from us, and also about three blocks away — the blazing dark red of two small sugar-maple trees, such a deep red and so late in the season as we have never seen before. On December 2, even under a grey sky, these perfectly shaped trees still carried a full complement of leaves, brilliant against the tall, dark trunks of the almost denuded trees around them. To be sure, even the taller trees bore a fire of leaves until just a week ago. Never have we seen the brave leaves hold out so long, displaying for us weeks of gradually intensifying color.

Defeats are what we fans of Notre Dame football suffered through in unprecedented numbers during the season of 2007. No Notre Dame team in more than a century had lost so many times — nine out of twelve. Nonetheless, in some ways this might have been the most impressive season yet. The team was very young. They made a slew of mistakes, too many in almost every game. Right up to the last game, which they won (against Stanford, at Stanford), the Blue and Gold fumbled three times during the first quarter, two of those near the Stanford goal line, and stopping cold two highly probable scores.

At the end, though, the freshman quarterback was at last infusing his own passion into the game, and demonstrating remarkable self-possession. The freshman tailback gained more than 100 yards for the third straight week. The freshmen on the defensive and offensive lines began to show patches of real strength. Coach Weiss seemed duly humbled, willing to learn, and protective of his guys. After a nerve-racking loss to Navy in the third overtime, the whole Notre Dame team trotted across the field to congratulate the Navy team and their delirious fans in the visitors’ corner of the stadium. That was a show of class and generosity of spirit quite moving to all who saw it.

And I did get to see it — plus the losses up at Penn State earlier in the year, and Boston College. This was the first time since my high-school years on the Notre Dame campus (1947-51) that I had seen so many games in one season.

One of the great things about sports is learning to lose. Anyone who has played a lot of games knows what it is like to lose a good share of them, including some heartbreaking important games. It is not so much that such experiences “build character” — rather, they let you live out the fact that what feels like death, the taste of ashes in one’s mouth, is, after the pain subsides, only an episode. Resurrection follows. One can at least strive mightily for that, even in this one arena.


For the first week of Advent, when the Christian calendar begins a New Year, one month before the secular calendar, the very learned and intelligent Pope Benedict XVI sent round a Letter on Hope, as the greatest gift Jewish and Christian faiths brought into Western (and now universal) history. The expectation of a future better than the past. The knowledge that the Creator of all things has invited human beings into His friendship, not by coercion but by their own free will. This gift is better than any other on earth.