By Chaz Muth Catholic News Service
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (CNS) — Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh frequently told friends and colleagues that his greatest ambition was to be a humble servant to God.
When those same friends and colleagues joined thousands of admirers from across the U.S. at the University of Notre Dame to pay tribute to the longest-serving president of the nation’s most recognized Catholic school during two days of funeral and memorial services ending March 4, they recalled a man whose impact on the world was as great as that of a world leader.
A former U.S. president, a former U.S. secretary of state, politicians, cardinals, bishops and clergy joined Notre Dame officials, students and faculty in campus-wide tributes, processions and liturgical services as the world-renowned priest was laid to rest.
Before Father Ted, as he was affectionately called, died Feb. 26 at the age of 97, he requested a simple funeral that would be characteristic for priests in his religious community, said Dennis K. Brown, spokesman for Notre Dame.
The Congregation of Holy Cross kept the services in line with what is customary for other priests, but Father Hesburgh’s world stature was much larger than most clergy and interest in paying last respects has been enormous, Brown said.
So, the memorial tributes arranged by Notre Dame were large in scale and fitting for the world figure that he was.
“He was not only celebrated, he was beloved,” said Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, the current president of Notre Dame, in the homily he gave during the March 4 funeral Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Notre Dame campus.
Father Hesburgh has been credited with transforming the small Catholic college of the 1950s known for its football team into the world-class academic research institution that it is today.
He’s also recognized as a champion for world peace, immigration reform, nuclear disarmament, civil and human rights, who advised several popes and U.S. presidents on a wide array of social concerns.
Father Hesburgh, who headed Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, had the ability to help people who didn’t share viewpoints find common ground, a trait that served him well while serving on the many presidential commissions for which he was appointed, said R. Scott Appleby, dean of the Donald R. Keough School of Global Affairs at Notre Dame.
“Father Hesburgh was a genius in investing in human beings,” Appleby told Catholic News Service during a March 4 interview at the university. “He invested in people who are now leaders in a variety of academic disciplines and industries that will say today that ‘he took an interest in me and he helped develop my career.’
“It was absolutely brilliant and it wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t have been sincere, and he was deeply sincere,” Appleby said.
One of the most influential marks he left on Catholic higher education happened in 1967 when he assembled several of the country’s leading university presidents at the Congregation of Holy Cross retreat center at Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, which produced a document titled “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University,” better known as the Land O’Lakes statement, Appleby said.
That document emphasized that Catholic universities must have autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.
“That was controversial at the time,” with critics charging that it made Catholic universities too secular in its approach, made them not sufficiently faith filled, and created institutions that were too similar to schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, Appleby said.
“Some said Father Ted contributed to secularization” of Catholic universities,” Father Jenkins said during his homily, “but he maintained true fidelity to the church. However, he was always convinced that Notre Dame couldn’t fully give to the church if it didn’t become a truly great university.”
Appleby says the Land O’Lakes statement offered Catholic universities the freedom to hold academic discussions on topics that sometimes challenged church teaching, but didn’t take away from the schools’ Catholic identities.
Some critics of that document maintain that it has caused confusion on some Catholic university campuses about what the church teaches.
“Father Ted said Notre Dame should serve as a crossroads of people of every faith who could come together to discuss controversial issues,” said William G. Bowen, retired president of Princeton University.
More than 12,000 people stopped by the basilica between March 3 and 4 to pay their respects to Father Hesburgh, more than 1,000 attended the wake, about the same number of people attended the funeral services and about 10,000 people gathered for the March 4 memorial tribute, where former President Jimmy Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered their own homages.
A video message from President Barack Obama was played during the memorial tribute, in which he called Father Ted a “thinking man who always saw that we were all children of God.”
Jimmy Carter told the gathering that he once asked Father Hesburgh for advice on how to be a good world leader, “and he said ‘be human.'”
Father Ted’s brother, Jim Hesburgh, said he was overwhelmed by the “tremendous show of affection for this very special person.”
“He was first and foremost a priest,” Father Jenkins said. “That vocation drove him to build a great university. It shaped his personal generosity.”