October 6, 2008
Popping in on Father Hesburgh
— Martin E. Marty
The Wall Street Journal editors had more things on their minds than tributes to great people, given the "whirl is king" world of markets this week. Yet the September 30th issue gave generous and deserved space to the 91-year-old nearly-blind seer Father Theodore Hesburgh, emeritus president at the University of Notre Dame du Lac. Headline: "A Veteran of the Fighting Irish on a Lifetime of Big Social Battles." An interview with him by Stephanie Capparell inspires me to go off-message for a week and provide a bit of escape from our "'tis all in pieces, all coherence gone" scene.
I can't do this without making some personal reference about this senior multi-tasker. He hosted the first "authorized" U.S. Catholic-Protestant theology conference at Notre Dame in 1961, and this thirty-three year old was invited to a "ten-and-ten" person colloquy. In 1966 he introduced me as I was to give the John XXIII lecture, the first Protestant to do so. Noting that my c.v. mentioned that the Martys had five sons, he assumed a strange posture with his hands behind his back, where he was hiding a football autographed to the Marty boys by ALL the Notre Dame footballers in the week of their hyper-controversial 10-10 tie with Michigan State, after which they were named national champs. For the last Commencement when he was president, the university's board asked Hesburgh to nominate ten candidates for honorary degrees, and he had me named for ecumenism. Late wife Elsa (d. 1981) and spouse Harriet both had and have stories to tell of his generosity and friendliness. Father Hesburgh is related positively to hundreds or thousands who could pay similar personal tributes, so I should step back now.
Sightings has no problem, of course, sighting religion in the career of a president who is a Holy Cross father, who has dealt, with fairness, in secular, inter-religious, Christian ecumenical, and, again "of course", Catholic life. Capparell's interview concentrated on the latter. The first pointed question: "Who are the Catholic leaders today...Are there any?" Hesburgh seemed to duck the question, but then scored, with a mix of regret and feistiness: Catholicism has to take "a very close look" at the people it is attracting, "because, whatever we're doing, let's say it's not working." Is the priestly scandal to blame? Hesburgh answered that "everything is part of an organic whole." By the way, "more and more, women have to be involved in this, and...in the long run, married people are going to be a lot more involved." He stops short of opening the topic of married priests and women priests, but...
Hesburgh had written favorably of modern popes who favor science; what about, asked the interviewer, some Catholics who fight the teaching of evolution? Tersely he commented on how his faith accommodates science (including evolution) and vice versa. Moving on, what problem would he like to get his hands on? "Immigration." Again, tersely, he outlined an approach to addressing it. What would he tell the next president to do? Take a "good look, a deep look, at all of our elementary and secondary education procedures," because we as we are now going, "we are putting failure at the heart of America, rather than success." Hesburgh has his detractors, but he doesn't detract: "I love people," and "the fact that people keep trying is the most important thing at all, and I'd like to be one of those who keep trying." He learned from Father Charlie Sheedy that "'life is mainly showing up.'" So, he added, "I figure as long as I show up every day and the door is open, and people pop in..." Thanks to the internet, we have "virtually" popped in on him today. Benisons, Father Ted!