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Hesburgh discusses role of laity with group

Molly Madden | Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Last night, a group of 20 students joined University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh in his office in the library named after him to hear him talk about his life and to discuss his views about the laity’s changing role in the Church.

The talk was organized by the Orestes Brownson Council, a club that started as a reading group, but has emerged into a discussion society that focuses on discussing documents that deal with Catholicism and American Politics.

Hesburgh began his talk by telling the group about his time at Notre Dame as a seminarian in the 1930s.

“The Seminary was very different in those days,” he said. “We were only allowed to talk for one hour after lunch and one hour after supper. For a guy who was used to talking all the time, that was rather tough.”

Despite this, Hesburgh said that the lack of communication helped him spiritually.

“It was actually a good experience; you really got to think about the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life,” he said.

Hesburgh remained at the Seminary at Notre Dame until the late 1930s when he received instruction to continue his studies at the Gregorian University in Rome. Hesburgh remained in Rome until May of 1940.

“World War II was really heating up,” he recalled of his time there. “I was supposed to be in Rome completing my schooling for eight years. But in 1940, right before the Nazis took Paris, a man from the American Consulate showed up in my lecture hall, right in the middle of class.”

Hesburgh said he remembers the official telling all the Americans in the class that the Nazis would have control of France soon, and that all the American seminarians would have to leave Rome in a week.

“They told us that the last boat would be leaving that coming Saturday,” Hesburgh said. “It put a lot of pressure on us academically, because we had to finish our studies quickly, but it was also exciting.”

After returning to the United States, Hesburgh resumed his studies at the Catholic University in Washington D.C. In 1944, when it was time for him to write his thesis for his doctorate, Hesburgh presented a topic that his professors found incredibly unusual.

“I wanted to do my thesis on the theology of the laity in the Church,” Hesburgh said. “But the three professors that I presented my topic to said that the laity was not a serious subject.”

“I told them that if they though that 99 percent of the Church in the world was not ‘serious’ then they needed to take another look,” Hesburgh said.

Hesburgh’s thesis was one of the first documents ever written on the laity’s role in the Church.

“At that time, there was very little theological background on the laity, so I was really breaking new ground,” he said.

Hesburgh said that until his thesis, the only thing that had really been written on the laity was about Catholic Action, which the Vatican had defined as “the participation of laity in the hierarchy apostolate.”

“I thought this was a rather poor definition,” Hesburgh said. “I believed that the laity had their own apostolate because they participate in Baptism and Confirmation, two of the three sacraments that leave an indelible mark on our souls.

“The point I was trying to make was that because of the laity’s participation in these two sacraments, this gives them a special place in the Church.”

When Hesburgh finished the writing of his thesis, he published it as a book under the title of “Theology of Catholic Action.”

Hesburgh said although there was a limited printing of the book, all the books were sold within a matter of weeks.

“A few weeks after I published the book, I got a call from the Pope’s delegate,” Hesburgh said. “He asked me about the book and said that a friend in Rome wanted a few copies.”

Hesburgh said he sent over two copies, and never heard about the book again, or even who received the copies.

“Thirty-five years later, Vatican II puts out their statement on the laity,” Hesburgh said. “When I received the official document from Rome, a lot of it was right out of my thesis.”

Hesburgh emphasized how the role of the laity has changed dramatically since Vatican II.

“Today, the laity is much more significant in the Church,” he said. “It is terribly important that the laity know they have a special place as they emerge more and more.”

Hesburgh finished with an instruction to all the lay people of the Church.

“If you’re laity, be good laity,” he said. “You’re 99 percent of the Church so don’t just sit there.”