Father “Ted” Hesburgh went home to the Lord on Thursday, having lived 97 years and acting as an agent of change for many of those same years. Theodore Martin Hesburgh or simply “Father Ted” as he was affectionately referred to by thousands of Notre Dame alums was a proud member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious community dedicated to education, higher and secondary, and to parish work. For thirty-five years he led Notre Dame to becoming certainly one of the, if not the, most prestigious Catholic university in the United States. In that role alone he became an icon of Catholic Higher Education.
The Jesuits also founded many fine universities in the US but it was Father Ted who through faith, grit, and sheer force of personality changed the face of Catholic Higher Education. Within two years of the close of the Second Vatican Council, Father Hesburgh convened a landmark meeting of leaders of Catholic Education at Notre Dame’s Land-o-Lakes, Wisconsin property. Certain that tough days were in store for sectarian higher ed., he outlined a new “idea of the University” in which trustees, not religious orders, would own and control their respective campuses. The canonical term for what he proposed was titled “alienation of church property” and the idea caught on both in academe and in health care. It was not well received by some in the hierarchy who smelled “loss of control” and “loss of Catholic identity.”
There are endless theories about what actually led Father Ted’s thinking. The ‘mid-60’s also were a time when the litigious nature of life in these United States was rearing its sometimes-ugly head and the potential of lawsuits against the university might bankrupt Notre Dame or the Congregation of Holy Cross. But I think he saw that with the close of the Second Vatican Council the Church was wrestling with its new openness to the modern world and nowhere better should such debates take place than in a Catholic institution of research and education. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman toyed with this notion in his The Idea of a University but it remained for Father Hesburgh and a few other Catholic University presidents to put flesh on Newman’s intellectual bones. Father Hesburgh was also aware that opening governance to the laity would bring to decision making for the future a world of worldly experience and wisdom and he was right.
Today Notre Dame has the largest endowment of all the Catholic schools and is closing in on Harvard and Yale. It has not lost its Catholic identity and I would argue that Father Hesburgh’s foresight strengthened the same and did not weaken it. It makes good sense to me that a university is exactly the right place where ideas are debated, research is pursued, and ideas and ideals are spread throughout the Church. ND has given much back to the larger Church since Father Ted began his presidency and it still does, in programs, which strengthen Catholic education, church life, and leadership in ethics through its business and law schools. If there were not the strong university which exists today precisely because of the Hesburgh vision, our beloved Church would be the worse for wear. It has perhaps the nation’s finest theology and philosophy departments among the major Catholic universities with Boston College in hot pursuit.
There used to be a saying about the difference between God and Father Hesburgh – God is everywhere including on the Notre Dame campus and Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame. A tireless traveller on behalf of his beloved university, Father Ted was also an icon in the civil rights movement, thrust into that by appointment of President Lyndon B. Johnson to chair the nation’s new Civil Right’s Commission following Selma and Montgomery and whenever a President needed a mediator for some sticky wicket, they called on him. But coming back to South Bend was ever a joy for him and while away the University was watched over with diligence and care by his longtime priest friend, Father Ned Joyce.
One time Father Hesburgh was in Paris and visited that city’s Cardinal Archbishop, Jean Marie Lustiger, himself a convert from Judaism. Father Ted bragged that his university’s Lourdes grotto was never without at least a hundred students praying the rosary to Our Lady. Lustiger disputed that assertion saying that young people of that era did not have great devotion to the mother of Jesus. Upon returning Hesburgh invited the Cardinal to come to South Bend for an honorary degree or something and on the way from the airport, keeping his fingers crossed or having pre-arranged it, no one knows for sure, the two drove right to the Grotto. There were hundreds of young people kneeling in prayer, lighting candles and Lustiger could not believe his eyes.
In the end, Father Ted’s eyes began to fail him and blindness enveloped him but it did not stop the inquisitive mind, which remained alert, bright and informed till near the end. Father Ted died a humble priest of his beloved Holy Cross. Always approachable, ever faithful to his priesthood and to his Church, he richly deserves the accolades, which are today coming his way. His two successors, Father Edmund “Monk” Malloy and Father John Jenkins know well of their predecessors shoes and they have measured up to the task admirably and the Irish remain a storied past, a very rich present, and a great future. He lived simply and died humbly as many of his contemporary Holy Cross brother priests had done. He knew his stature was high but he maintained a low profile in retirement. Father Ted, you served your Lord, your community and the Church brilliantly, now rest in eternal peace.