The past year and a half have been challenging for everyone, but particularly for those away from home and whose work is affected by the drastic reduction in international travel. Robert Black, 26, from Long Island, New York is one of these, as both an American and the Project Manager for undergraduate academics for the University of Notre Dame, based here in Dublin.
Despite this, things are looking up, with students of the famed university set to return to Ireland soon. As well as this, Robert has taken solace in the Catholic community Dublin boasts, being a “cradle Catholic” himself.
“I am what they would call a cradle Catholic, so baptised on New Year’s day, two months old. We would be at Mass every Sunday, from every age. There was no aversion ever to having us at Mass. Normally front row, because we were always getting in just as the entrance hymn was ending or just as the priest was saying the opening prayer,” he laughs as he tells The Irish Catholic.
“So yeah, a lot of Sundays spent in the first pew. Church was always seen as part of our community, and I was really lucky growing up in a town where so many of my classmates and peers and neighbours would have all gone to the same church. The church was the centrepiece of that community.”
From a closely connected Catholic community at home, he moved to another as he grew up and went on the attend Notre Dame.
“Yeah, so I think we always talk about Catholicism at Notre Dame as a ‘Hot Catholicism’ [active Catholicism], so I think the thing to remember about the American church is that it’s still a ‘big tent’ church in a way that maybe the Church in Ireland isn’t anymore, or European churches in general aren’t,” he explains.
“It’s just not a big-tent church anymore, it is a minority practice. But in America, certainly at Notre Dame, I believe it’s a slight majority of students are actually practicing, and when I say practicing, I mean going to Mass probably once a month at a minimum.”
Despite this being the environment at the university, tending to the flame of faith in yourself, as always in this life, requires an active choice.
“So it was really interesting going in, because you do go into that university environment having – choice is probably too strong a word – but you don’t have that familial structure where the tradition is that you go to Mass every Sunday, so you do have that freedom not to,” he says.
Still, the Notre Dame campus presents a marked change in some ways from the wider cultural setting of the day, Robert explaining that the Catholic heritage is something that the university is “proud of”.
“I think it’s [Catholic heritage] not something that they shy away from. I think that certainly the dorm Mass tradition is something that is something that they’re proud of, something that we’re proud of.
“It’s something that we view as important to community-building, and I think that element of, that kind of ecumenism of having people who are not practicing Catholics at Mass and being up front and open about the celebration of the Eucharist and what that means and who should and who shouldn’t receive, obviously, but I think that the fact that the church doors are open for everyone regardless of their religious background is an important part of centring the church in the community, if that makes sense. It is open for everyone.”
Why leave such a tightly-knit community? In a sense, it was always on the cards for Robert, being drawn to Ireland long before he moved here for work.
“I did a semester myself here while I was a student, and I also worked here for a few summers. I had done Irish dance since I was really young, competed and did all that kind of stuff. And so, there was always that cultural element that I always felt kind of connected to, and I think here in Ireland, what’s kind of rich about that tradition is that it’s really preserved these days in more rural parts of the country, rural Ulster and then on the West Coast.
“When I was here, I was always taking opportunities to get out of Dublin into the country and be in parish halls dancing or listening to traditional music, so there was a really rich cultural connection that always was drawing me back,” he says.
Getting the job here he’d longed for with the university, Robert now looks after the academic and pastoral needs of the students in his charge – a work his faith informs.
“I had an interview for another job that was in a pastoral space a couple of years ago and I was asked a similar question about how faith informs your work, especially in a world where I think we’re very cognisant of the Faith perhaps not holding the same weight that it used to…it seems to me that our role as faith-filled individuals is not to be yanking on people’s leashes and trying to lead them to the oasis, but to be the example of your faith that you would want people to see, and want people to think about when they think about the Faith. And so I think that was what’s guides me in this role.
“My job is not to ensure that all 50 or all 70 students are attending Mass weekly, if they are Catholic, if they’re not Catholic…my role is to be the best example of a Catholic that I can be, and hopefully then God can use me in that capacity,” he says, emphasising the importance of
“When you force people to try and see God in a certain place – they’re very unlikely to see him the way you do. And so, I think you have to be cautious with those efforts,” he adds.
Guided and surrounded by faith, it’s likely his students and Ireland will benefit from his time here.