A Toast to Theodore Hesburgh


“Public religion,” our theme, involves publics; publics are made up of people; people act in response to leadership. This Memorial Day I am going to remember one leader, Father Theodore Hesburgh, who is very much with us, celebrating his 90th birthday on the day I write this. Prompting came from Eugene Cullen Kennedy’s column in the Chicago Tribune (May 27) and a host of other recognitions, for example, one by Michael O. Garvey in America (May 21). One can argue credibly that no religious figure in the past half-century did more to relate church-related higher education to the spheres of public life, and vice versa, than did Hesburgh.

One cannot deal with such a personable personage as Hesburgh without being personal, so as a sometime fly-on-the-wall, a frequent partner on stage, and a consistent eavesdropper and kibitzer at Hesburghian affairs, let me register a few close-ups. Take, for example, Christian ecumenical leadership. Before Vatican II, Catholics were not to talk theology with Protestants and others. Yet how could we deal, as our agendas would have us deal, with church-state and similar issues without reaching into theological sources? Somehow Father Ted (and a counterpart at St. John’s University in Minnesota) found a way to pioneer. To charter theological talk across boundaries, one had to have permission of the local bishop, the provincial of the sponsoring religious order, and the hosting university presidentin our case, Hesburgh.

So ten-on-ten we met, with a couple of media people present. At the end, the press was invited out, and we were given permission to light a candle and say the Lord’s Prayeras long as we did not tell anyone. That was the scene less than a half-century ago, a scene that is almost unimaginable today. From such candle-powered fragile beginnings Christians lined up ecumenically, to take new steps in public life. As Kennedy reminds us, at most turnsespecially when Civil Rights came up (Hesburgh chaired the U.S. Commission), or the immigration issue, or Third-World development, or peaceful uses of atomic energy, etc.Hesburgh was always the point man, making room for others, lesser.

And now person-to-person recollections. I was one of the first Protestant speakers at Notre Dame. Hesburgh, president of that university, having noted on my c.v. that there were five little boys at the Marty house, handed me a football while introducing me; it was signed by forty-eight Notre Dame players (the week they infamously settled for a 10-10 tie with Michigan State). The ball is now on its way to the College Football Hall of Fame. Harriet Marty remembers stepping with trepidation into his president’s office for the first time, her tremors quieting as he showed her pictures of nephews and nieces to whom he affectionately and generously attended. He knew all their birth dates and baptismal days. Being a public figure did not mean he could not remain emotionally, spiritually, and theologically close to home.

So, ecumenically, politically, educationally, and inter-faithedly, Hesburgh has been a leader for most of his ninety years. If this column looks like name-dropping, let me say that I can’t think of a more appropriate name to drop in the public religions sphere, as we celebrate, as he would say, with an ad multos annos toast.


_ Eugene Cullen Kennedy’s article “Happy Birthday to a Visionary Following His Faith” ( Chicago Tribune , May 25, 2007) can be read at: " http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/custom/religion/chi-oped0525hesburghmay25,1,5706574.story?coll=chi-religion-stories2 .p. Martin E. Marty’s biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com .

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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