Notre Dame Bids Farewell to Father Theodore Hesburgh

The Holy Cross priest, who died Feb. 26 at the age of 97, was an exemplar of the confident Catholicism of the post-war era, yet critics assert he opened the door to the university's secularization.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The University of Notre Dame bid farewell to Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, its beloved former president who exemplified the confident dynamism of Catholicism in America in the post-World War II era.

“In his historic service to the nation, the Church and the world, he was a steadfast champion for human rights, the cause of peace and care for the poor,” Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, said in a statement that marked Father Hesburgh’s death Feb. 26 at the age of 97.

“By their fruits you will know them, as the Gospel tells us,” said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus of Washington who knew the Holy Cross priest for 40 years and spoke at a tribute today.

“He left behind a very special institution, and when you look at Notre Dame today, you see an extraordinary Catholic university, known not only for its sports, but the research and scholarship of its faculty and a model for other Catholic universities,” Cardinal McCarrick told the Register.

Father Hesburgh served as the president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987. His primary mission was to strengthen the academic reputation of the university and build its endowment. He succeeded on both fronts.

Early in his tenure, he emerged as a national leader on Catholic higher education. He helped to forge the controversial 1967 Land O’Lakes statement, which was signed by many leading Catholic universities and effectively ended the Catholic Church’s formal oversight of university affairs.

During a period when university presidents often played an outsized role on the national stage, he helped a succession of U.S. presidents secure a bipartisan consensus on complex policy issues.

As the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he forged an agreement that paved the way for civil-rights legislation that ended the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. He played an equally important role as the chairman of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

And, as The Washington Post noted in its obituary for Father Hesburgh, “From 1956 to 1970, he was the Vatican’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which made him at times a broker between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”

For his service to the nation, the Holy Cross priest was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Humanitarian and Civil-Rights Champion

Father Hesburgh’s funeral Mass drew friends and admirers from across the country, including former President Jimmy Carter, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana.

“Father Hesburgh and the first lady [Rosalynn Carter] journeyed to Southeast Asia on a fact-finding mission in the 1970s that led to an effort that averted mass starvation among Cambodian refugees,” noted a statement on Notre Dame’s website that announced the tribute.

Retired U.S. lawmakers, who had worked with him on landmark civil rights and immigration policy, were also in attendance and were slated to speak at the tribute following the funeral Mass.

Harris Wofford, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who had previously served as Father Hesburgh’s legal assistant on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, recalled the priest’s irreplaceable role.

Wofford retold a famous story of Father Hesburgh’s decision in 1959 to invite commission members on a fishing trip, with the goal of finding common ground between those who represented Northern states and those representing Southern states.

The fishing trip followed the commission’s politically sensitive hearings, which reviewed claims that the black vote had been suppressed in parts of the South. Members were asked to summarize what they had learned and develop proposals that would be included in a report to Congress.

They gathered at Notre Dame’s Land O’Lakes retreat in Wisconsin. Before the members dispersed, Father Hesburgh had secured support for key recommendations that laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred racial discrimination in employment and education and prohibited racial segregation in public places, including schools and buses.

“President [Dwight] Eisenhower was amazed that Father Hesburgh had turned around what most people thought would be a fiasco,” Wofford told the Register.

“He believed that if you could get this commission to agree on basic facts and make recommendations it could help [advance] social justice and equality — and it did.”


Friend and Mentor

Similar recollections by national leaders were aired at the evening tribute to Father Hesburgh. But the day of his funeral was also a time to reflect on the legacy of a beloved friend and an inspiring mentor.

“I will remember his prayer, ‘Come, Holy Spirit,’ which he prayed when he got up in the morning, went to bed at night, picked up the phone or began a meeting,” Holy Cross Father Paul Doyle told the Register.

“He was good to the core. It was not a show. When he got involved [in an issue], it came from a rich inner life,” said Father Doyle, who grew closer to Father Hesburgh over the past decade, as macular degeneration slowly dimmed the priest’s eyesight but not his keen interest in Notre Dame students.

Groups of students visited his office daily, said Father Doyle, and one took the time to read the newspaper to him. But much of his later years were also devoted to prayer.

“He would drop by the grotto to talk to Our Lady, and when he couldn’t walk, he would sit in the car and talk to her. He said he always turned to her when we were in trouble,” noted Father Doyle, who was present when his friend made a final visit to his office and “commended” his successors and the university to the care of the Blessed Virgin.

Born in 1917 in Syracuse, N.Y., Theodore Hesburgh was raised in a Catholic home and attended Catholic schools.

“He was approached by a Holy Cross priest at a parish mission when he was in the eighth grade,” said Father Doyle.

“One of our priests told his mother that he thought her son had a vocation and that he should be in our high-school seminary or he might lose his vocation.

“His mother said, ‘Well, if he lives next to a church, goes to a Catholic high school and lives in a Catholic home and still loses his vocation, he probably doesn’t have one.’”

He was ordained at Notre Dame in 1943. And decades later, said Father Doyle, “You heard him say, ‘All I ever wanted was to be a priest.’”


Modernizing Notre Dame

After his ordination, Father Hesburgh completed a doctorate in sacred theology at The Catholic University of America. He had hoped to serve as a Navy chaplain but was ordered back to Notre Dame, where he briefly joined the faculty before he took on administrative duties and was appointed president at the age of 35.

Michael Novak, the Catholic author and public intellectual, was a seminary student at Notre Dame in the late ’40s, when Father Hesburgh began to make a stir.

“He was a big hero. He had just come to Notre Dame as a professor,” Novak told the Register, recalling the period of theological ferment that followed the Second World War, at a time when the institutional Church remained focused on protecting rather than advancing its intellectual legacy.

“What mattered to us was moving the Church out of its ghetto position — not being defensive — and changing the world in positive ways,” Novak said.

As Novak saw it, Father Hesburgh was interested in bringing the insights of St. Thomas and Augustine into wider circulation. Catholic intellectuals sought to lay the foundations for a “better world after the nihilism of the Nazi concentration camps at Dachau and Auschwitz.”

Jacques Maritain, a leading French Thomist philosopher, was brought to Notre Dame, as well as non-Catholic thinkers, and that excited young scholars like Novak.

“There had been no conversations between professors at Harvard or Columbia and the faculty at Notre Dame,” he said, noting the sea change at the South Bend campus after Father Hesburgh took the helm.


Too Fast, Too Far?

But Novak acknowledged that the young university president’s reformist agenda posed a potential threat to Notre Dame’s religious mission and thus required prudence.

“It is very difficult to make such changes without swamping your own identity. Notre Dame put in too few safeguards to prevent the secularization of the school,” said Novak.

“Almost everyone agrees it went too far.”

Critics who have raised questions about Father Hesburgh’s legacy at Notre Dame point to his decision to end the Congregation of Holy Cross’ oversight of the university and place that responsibility in the hands of a lay board.

They also object to his pivotal role in securing the 1967 Land O’Lakes statement that was signed by leaders of major Catholic universities who asserted their need for absolute autonomy from Catholic Church authorities as a matter of academic freedom.

“To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself,” the statement declared.

“At that time, [Father Hesburgh] personified the ambition of the leaders of Catholic higher education to improve the reputation of their universities, with the goal of making them as highly regarded as private secular universities,” said William Dempsey, who leads the Sycamore Trust, an alumni group that has pushed for a stronger Catholic identity at Notre Dame, including the hiring of more Catholic faculty, and school policies that adhere to Church teaching on life and marriage issues.

Father Hesburgh’s vision for Catholic higher education required the recruitment of many more secular faculty members, Dempsey told the Register, though the university has formally agreed that a majority of the faculty will be self-identified Catholics.

Father Hesburgh’s vision was reasonable, said Dempsey, but there was no mechanism in place to prevent a tipping point in academic departments, where the Catholic intellectual tradition, over time, might be ignored or even opposed.


‘A Great Americanizer’

Part of the problem, Dempsey added, is that American cultural elites have become more hostile to Catholic values since Father Hesburgh’s tenure.

“He was a great ‘Americanizer’ of the University of Notre Dame,” said Dempsey.

“That was typical of American Catholics during that time. To be American and to act American, as he did, was not in tension with the teaching of the Church. That has changed.”

Dempsey has pondered whether Notre Dame would be in a different place if Father Hesburgh served longer as president and had a chance to make a course correction.

“He was a dedicated priest. One can hope he would have,” said Dempsey.

However, some of Father Hesburgh’s friends see things differently.

“If you look at Notre Dame, it has many youngsters going to Mass every day,” said Cardinal McCarrick.

“There are priests to guide and challenge the students. You see a vital, active Catholic life, and that is a pretty good indication of what Father Hesburgh accomplished.”



Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.