“Hesburgh” is a new film documenting the life of a giant who was one of the most important figures of social justice in the twentieth century, Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC. “Father Ted” was instrumental in shaping some of the most important social policies of our time and served as president of Notre Dame from 1952-1987. Among his many distinctions and honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Gold Medal of Congress, he is in the Guinness Book of World Records for most honorary degrees at 150.
Some years ago, I had the honor of sitting poolside with him at his grandniece’s house in Pacific Palisades, California. We’re both German/Irish. I being from Buffalo and Father Ted being from Syracuse, we hit it off right away. Father Ted waxed poetic about his life. We drank lemonade, ate fruit and talked about leadership, civil rights and social justice; he challenged me to learn Chinese and taught me the nuances of dialects in different regions. He regaled me with stories of MLK, presidents and popes he had the honor to work with and serve.
A few of my students were at the house as well. They were leaders in their own right, and I asked Father Ted for some advice to share with them. I hung on his every word as he pinpointed five lessons that day that stayed with me. One, “surround yourself with the best minds.” Two, “If you have power, use it”. Three, “The key to success in policy making is to get them talking”. Four, “Do the right thing”. Five, “Lean on your faith”.
Father Ted was humble. He said, “I couldn’t have done what I did without relying on Father Ned Joyce to help me”. Joyce was his assistant and served as a financial officer at the school during his tenure. They were a “dynamic duo”. Father Ted knew that surrounding himself with the best minds would make his life easier and lessen the burden if he was wrong with a decision.
Father Ted said, “Use your power if you have it”. He backed this up with his work on the Civil Rights Act of ’64. The Kennedys were politically aware that civil rights didn’t play well in the South. They were going to wait until after the first term to assert their authority and pass legislation. History forced President Kennedy’s hand, and the president had to address the issue earlier. President Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, knew that civil rights would cement his place in history. Hesbugh credited Johnson for asserting his power and ensuring that civil rights legislation was passed and used any means at his disposal. The old priest giggled as he impersonated Johnson’s political savvy and adroit powers of persuasion.
Hesburgh had a gift for bringing people together. There were times where it seemed impossible to find consensus on an issue, but he knew common ground existed and sought it out as best he could. He talked about the first commission for civil rights to which he was appointed by Eisenhower and noted that the parties were split equally and there were three northerners vs. three southerners tasked with working on drafting recommendations. Hesburgh learned that the one thing they all had in common was a love for fishing. He brought them up to a lake in Wisconsin, and they mixed business with pleasure. It worked. He said, “The trick was to get them talking and there’s no better place to talk than on a lake when you’re fishing”. Eisenhower was pleasantly surprised by the results of the common ground they established and enacted their uniform position.
Ironically, although he was registered an Independent, people from different political persuasions could not make out his real political beliefs. The liberals thought Hesburgh was conservative and the conservatives thought he was liberal. This centrist perspective served him well.
Father Ted knew that you needed to develop a conscience for understanding what is right and wrong. When you understand what is right, you have to act for the common good and do the right thing. This is not always going to be easy, but rest assured, it is the most important act a person can do. Father Ted was able to draw out through reasoning the best course of action and help others see the absurdity of a course that didn’t make sense. The film depicts a scene were his line of questioning challenges draconian isolationist thinking.
Lastly, the priest reminded me to “be true to Our Lady”. He knew in no uncertain terms that faith is critical to understanding all of the above. Faith gives us strength, faith helps us reason, faith brings us together and faith asserts actions which lead to just moral actions that benefit the common good.
Whenever he had to make a tough decision that would keep him up at night. Hesburgh would think about it, sleep on it, say the words “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, “Come Holy Spirit”, make the decision and be done with it.
President Obama credited Father Ted’s work for making it possible for an African American to become president of the United States. Father Ted’s leadership demonstrates truth and reason in conviction. He was standing with Martin Luther King, Jr. when other pastors refused. We underestimate the courage it took for a white cleric to stand with King. King could lean on Hesburgh for support and point to the priest’s example in asserting the path that Christ calls everyone to take. Hesburgh’s ability to bridge the divide was saintly. Boy, could we use his gifts in these tenuous and contentious times.
Photo of the Theodore Hesburgh Library by Dan Ertle