For decades students and visitors who ascended to the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame would find a scene seemingly as constant as the library itself. Emerging from the elevator and passing straight ahead through the stacks, they would come to a glass door. Stepping inside, they would be warmly greeted by a receptionist and invited to take a seat, inevitably noticing the Olympic torch proudly on display. After a minute or two, the receptionist would usher them into an office overlooking the golden dome and the North Quad of campus. At the center of the room the university seal dominates the floor. Shelves line the walls, holding countless volumes as well as artifacts from around the world and pictures of popes, presidents, and celebrities. Smoke would likely be drifting upward from a cigar resting in an ashtray on a simple wooden desk. And sitting behind the desk with a patient, welcoming smile was their host.
Today, however, that office is empty. After 97 years, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, has gone home to God.
Fr. Hesburgh’s life was an extraordinary one by any account. He would want us to recall that, first and foremost, he was a priest. Fr. Ted would often say, “I never wanted to be anything but a priest…I hope to live and die a priest, nothing more, but nothing less either.” He was ordained in the Congregation of Holy Cross (which sponsors Notre Dame and five other universities and colleges) in 1943, and remained devout in his priestly duties through the whole of his long life.
While Fr. Ted may have always seen a priest when he looked in the mirror, most other people saw many other things. They saw Notre Dame’s longest serving president and an innovator in Catholic higher education, the man who finally enrolled women at ND 130 years after its founding. They saw an original member of the Civil Rights Commission and an iconic figure who had clasped hands with Martin Luther King, Jr., at the 1964 civil rights rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field. They saw an intrepid adventurer who had traveled to over 100 countries, celebrated Mass on Antarctica, and twice broken the sound barrier aboard the SR-71.
It is hardly surprising that this extraordinary man should have been widely consulted and honored throughout his lifetime. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Fr. Hesburgh as the holder of more honorary degrees (150) than any other person in history. Time Magazine put Fr. Ted on its cover in 1962. Nine U.S. presidents called upon him for 16 different appointments, and four popes requested his service on various commissions and delegations.
As impressive a biography as Fr. Hesburgh has, we hardly begin to do justice to his extraordinary life by listing his accomplishments and honors, as so many journalists around the world are doing this week. To truly appreciate what made this man so extraordinary one has to hear about how he changed people’s lives away from the spotlight and how he spent his quiet hours.
For example, many people who attended Notre Dame around the time I did have heard the story of how Fr. Ted aided a couple who confided in him in their hour of need. Having endured the pain of multiple miscarriages, the couple came to pray and talk about their ordeal with Fr. Hesburgh. After talking for a while, Fr. Ted prayed over the couple, invoking the Holy Spirit on their behalf. Some months later the couple welcomed their first baby into their lives. When the couple endured yet another miscarriage, they returned to Fr. Hesburgh. He prayed with them, and a while later they delivered another baby boy. Taking no more risks after that, they were sure to ask his blessing upon all pregnancies that followed (all of which resulted in healthy children).
While this story demonstrates in dramatic fashion Fr. Ted’s special relationship with the Holy Spirit, the fruits of that relationship were equally present in his more ordinary dealings with friends, students, and visitors. After retiring and establishing himself in his office on the 13th floor of the library, Fr. Ted opened his doors to the students of his beloved university. Any student who wanted to chat with this revered figure, who had spent much of his life meeting with dignitaries and world leaders, needed only to call his receptionist and set up an appointment. Over the course of several decades, Fr. Ted spent countless hours sitting with students, listening to their questions and concerns, and sharing his hard-earned wisdom. Through it all, his most reliable piece of advice was to pray often, “Come, Holy Spirit.”
Most of us will never head a major university, serve a papal appointment, or challenge a president on race issues. But every one of us can sit and pray with a friend in need. Every one of us can open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. In the end, that’s what empowered Fr. Ted to effect so much positive change in the world, and that’s what will enable us to do the same.