MANY YEARS AGO, during the summer before my last school year as a seminarian, I took a six-week course at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., on the social teaching of the Church. The course was organized by Msgr. George Higgins, who was perhaps the most informed priest in the country.
Msgr. Higgins, who became a close friend years later, gave part of the course and also invited guest lecturers to teach some sections of the course. Not only was he extremely well read, but he also seemed to know everyone from churchmen to politicians. One of the guest lecturers he brought in was Bobby Kennedy.
The impression I received from the course was that the Catholic Church in the Midwest was the center of Catholic Action movements in this country. Groups such as Young Christian Workers, Young Christian Students and the Christian Family Movement were thriving in Chicago. When I was ordained a little over a year, my pastor gave me a two-week winter education and I decided to spend it in the Midwest in order to become more knowledgeable about Catholic Action. The experience made quite an impression on me. For several years, I worked in the parish with many Catholic Action groups.
One of the unexpected events that came from this experience happened on my flight out of South Bend, Ind., where the magazine Ave Maria was located. I had been visiting the magazine’s offices to speak with some people involved in Catholic Action.
When I took my seat on the plane out of South Bend, I discovered that the priest sitting next to me was Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh, C.S.C., president of Notre Dame University. I also happened to be reading the excellent novel, “The Edge of Sadness,” by Edwin O’Connor, a Notre Dame graduate. On that plane ride, Father Hesburgh and I talked about Notre Dame and O’Connor.
Many years later I got to know Father Hesburgh better because of some trips I made to Notre Dame football games. When he died on Feb. 26 of this year, the reaction of the thousands who were profoundly influenced by him and who loved him confirmed my opinion that he may have been the most influential American Catholic priest in the 20th century.
Father Hesburgh was 97 when he died and his legacy was amazing. He was very influential at Notre Dame, where he was president from 1952 to 1987, but also outside the university.
The following is from an essay entitled “An Eternal Notre Dame Treasure” by Lou Somogyi in the magazine Blue and Gold Illustrated:
“Taking over as the 15th president of the university in June 1952 at age 35, Hesburgh had an unparalleled 35-year run before retiring on June 1, 1987. …
“During Hesburgh’s reign, more than three-dozen buildings were erected, the annual operating budget grew from $9.7 million to $176.6 million, the university’s endowment rose from$9 million to $350 million, research funding from $735, 000 to $15 million, enrollment nearly doubled from 4,979 to 9,600, and faculty more than doubled from 389 to 950.
“All the while, Hesburgh held 16 presidential appointments, starting in 1954 under Dwight Eisenhower; earned the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor for his work on Civil Rights legislation; and received a United States Congressional Gold Medal in 2000, the first individual from post-secondary education to do so.” (p. 18)
Doing What Is Right
The following are two statements of Father Hesburgh that I very much like:
“My principle is that you don’t make decisions because they are easy; you don’t make them because they are cheap; you don’t make them because they’re popular; you make them because they’re right.”
“The Catholic university should be a place where all the great questions are asked, where an exciting conversation is continually in progress, where the mind constantly grows as the values and powers of intelligence and wisdom are cherished and exercised in full freedom.”
The present president of Notre Dame, Father John J. Jenkins, C.S.C., said the following of Father Hesburgh: “With his leadership, charisma and vision, he turned a relatively small Catholic College known for football into one of the nation’s great institutions for higher learning.”
Everyone has a vocation – a special role to play in the world in God’s plan. We are called to respond to God’s love, each and every one of us. I think Father Ted Hesburgh’s response helped many.
Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of the recently published “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).