Fr. Hesburgh homily (Inauguration Mass)

by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.

Your Eminence, Cardinal Archbishop ofTegucigalpa, dearest bishops, fellow priests and dear friends all. This is a happy occasion that doesn’t happen very often. But when it does happen, it marks a bright new day in the history of the institution. I thought today, rather than arrange the virtues required of a university president, it would be better to situate him where he is this day and how this place came to be and how he now assumes this leadership.

It really began, like many other things, inFrance, in the district of St. Croixe, Holy Cross. And a young priest was filled with zeal at the thought of coming to the new world and somehow bringing the light of the gospel into what was often darkness. Fortunately, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, to which he was one of the first members, Father Moreau, shared his dream and blessed him as he and six valiant brothers boarded a small sailing vessel and crossed a storm-embeddedAtlantic. We’re told that when he arrived in the new world atNew York, he knelt down and kissed the ground to say how happy he was to be here.

And then they took a long and often tortuous road up the Hudson River toAlbany, down the Erie Canal pastUtica,Syracuse,Rochester,Buffalo. In typical French fashion, Father Sorin took a side trip to seeNiagara Fallsand then they crossed Lake Erie toToledoand down the rivers and roads until at11 o’clockone Sunday morning they came to the site of the new cathedral inVincennes,Indiana, and this they thought would be their home.

They weren’t there very long when Father Sorin decided what he really wanted to do was to start a great school. And so he went to the bishop, young and eager as he was, and said “I want to start a school here.” And the bishop said, “Father, mon pere , we already have a school here, set up by the Utist fathers.” But he said, “On second thought, the first priest ordained in theUnited States of America, Father Badin, bought a patch of land, some 540 acres, up in the far northern reaches of this state.” They were far in the south. “And he said I could give this land to anyone who would go there and found a school.” Well, I need not tell you that Sorin didn’t hesitate, but he gathered his few belongings, borrowed an ox from the Sisters of St. Mary of the Woods, and he and his brothers of Holy Cross began a plodding trip from Vincennes to this place.

It happened that a blizzard descended upon him, the worst so far in the history ofIndiana. So for 11 days at that slow oxen pace, they walked through the snow and the drifts. And when they came within a few miles ofSouth Bend, a trading post on the St. Joseph River, Sorin simply couldn’t hold himself in anymore and he borrowed a horse from a passing farmer and he came galloping intoSouth Bend, cassock and all, flying in the breeze. And he went immediately to the house of the local French trader, Alexis Coquillard, and he said “I want to see my land.” And Coquillard said, " Mon pere , this is a cold, cold day and it’s the eleventh blizzard day in a row. Now come in and have some hot wine and we’ll get over to see your land tomorrow." But Sorin said, “I have to see it now.” Well, Coquillard accommodated his fellow Frenchman, trotted out his sleigh and his horse and they came to this spot not far from here where you now see the Log Cabin. It was a heavily wooded spot and the lakes were frozen, so Sorin thought it was only one lake. And yet he wasn’t here more than a few seconds when he named the place. " Je nom L’Universite de Notre Dame du Lac. I name you theUniversityofOur Ladyof theLake." It didn’t matter that there were two lakes actually, which came to be named St. Mary’s andSt. Joseph’s, he was at St. Mary’s. It didn’t matter that standing before him was a broken down log cabin, the roof broken in, the snow filling the building. It took them two days to clean it out enough to move in. It didn’t matter to him that he had only 300 dollars in his pocket and that somehow he had one might say the gall, or perhaps much better the zeal, not to call this dream of his an ecole , which would have been normal, a school, or even a lycee , a high school, or even a college , a college. No, not for Sorin. This dream spot of his had to be called L’Universite , and indeed his dream has come true in all the years that have followed.

But it didn’t come true easily. It was his faith and his endurance and his stubborn courage and this ideal of a great institution dedicated to the mother of God that kept him moving, and move he did. He was on his 55 th trip across the Atlantic trying to raise funds for this place inFrancewhen he had a terrible message. He learned that the University that he had given his life to build that had a magnificent Main Building as it does today, and he had already begun this very church and had spent many hours here offering Mass as the church began to pick up beauty through the stained glass windows and the arches above us and the beauty of the altar which he brought from Paris. But this day, everything seemed black. He came back to the spot, it was late spring, he gathered his fellow priests and nuns and brothers of Holy Cross, and they only had to walk a few steps to come into the side door of this church. The church was full of smoke, of course, being right next door to this conflagration. His whole University was there, smoking in ruins. And he gathered this little community around him and he said a rather startling thing. He said, “Brothers and sisters, this fire is my fault.” And they said “Father Sorin! You were inMontreal, how could this fire have been your fault?” He said, “I came here as a very young priest, not yet 30, and I had this great dream of a great university. And I built the biggest I could, and at the same time, built right next to it, a great cathedral of Notre Dame.” And he said, “My problem was that I was thinking too small. I was not enthusiastic enough about what I should build and name after notre dame, our Lady.” And so he said, “We’re going out there tomorrow and we’re going to clean up the ruins and save what bricks we can, and we’re going to make thousands and hundreds of thousands or more bricks out of the morel along the shores of the lake. And then we’re going to build a building worth of our lady and crown it with her.”

Well, work they did, dawn to dusk, June, July, August. Working on the scaffolding, sisters and brothers and priests and all the good citizens who came to help fromSouth Bend. Mightily they built, and on the last day of August, the final tiles were put on the roof and they gathered here to give thanks in this church. And everybody said, “Thank God we’re finished,” and Sorin said, “No, we’re not finished yet. We still have to put up the tower and the dome and crown that golden dome with a golden lady. And I’ve already ordered a replica of the wonderful statue of Our Lady on a pillar in the Piazza d’Espana inRome.” Well, they said, “You’re an old fool, you know? We have worked more than humans should have to work, from dawn to dusk, day after day, seven days a week including Sunday. And yet when we finally put the roof on, you say we’re not finished yet, you’ve got to put up some dome.” He said, “Well, I’m the only one who can sign checks, and eventually the cash money is going to run out, we don’t have that much of it,” so he said, “I’m going to get in my horse and buggy and go across to St. Mary’s. And I will be there until you come and get me. But you’re not just coming to get me, you’re coming to give me my golden dome and the golden statue atop it.” So he did, he jumped into his buggy and went down the path to St. Mary’s and the days passed and they began to get hungry and the groceries did run out, and finally they sent a delegation across to see him. And they said, “Well, you’re an old fool, but we’re hungry and you do have the checkbook.” So they said, “We will come back and you can have your golden dome.” Well, he came back readily enough and then the building was really finished, he had his golden dome, and atop it, that wonderful statue of Our Lady which looks over the Piazza inRome, called the Immaculate Conception.

I have to say, John, that this is a pretty rich history that you are inheriting. And there have been many after Sorin who have dreamed great dreams of this place and have wanted to see it be a worthy monument to its name. And I think it’s no small task to take over as the 17 th president of Notre Dame. And my strongest advice to you, if I give you only one piece of advice, is to say there’s only one way to do it and that’s to put yourself in the hands of the Holy Spirit and of the Blessed Mother and to say to the spirit “Tell me what I should do each day as I get up and give me the strength to do it.” And with those two things and Our Lady’s patronage, I promise you everything will go well. And still I must say to be honest that it’s a task that does have its trials and tribulations, its heartbreaks as well as its great days of joy like today. And there will be celebrating, and also mourning, in this very church as good and bad things happen here, as they will. But John, I think that with the Holy Spirit behind you and inspiring you and the mother of God inspiring you to new and higher tasks here, this is going to be a glorious set of years for you. And your family will be very proud of you, as all of us are. And you will have a faithful faculty and a faithful administration, and I might add, enthusiastic students behind you, and I promise you that all will go well.

But because we’re here not just to wish you well, but to bless you in the task you are about to undertake, I’d like to borrow a little ceremony from the ordination to the priesthood, which many of us received here in this sanctuary. And I would like to ask his eminence and our good bishops and all the priests in the community here and you too, John, to stand so that we might invoke upon you together, all bring the best wishes and prayers that we have for you on this spot at this time. Will everybody please stand and extend your hands as they do at the ordination of priests. Dear Father John, in the name of his eminence and these holy bishops and all these priests and many friends who wish you well, we ask this day that the holy spirit descend upon you and fill you with dreams and with strength. We ask that the Lord and his Mother may guide you through the days ahead. We ask that you be filled with the holy spirit and be inspired to educate as you lead. And finally we invoke upon you, dear John, the blessing of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, but more than that, we also ask the blessing of Our Lady, Notre Dame, amen.

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