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Live out Father Ted’s legacy

| Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Walking around Notre Dame, it is not hard to notice physical reminders of Fr. Hesburgh’s presence. Campus is covered with buildings named after him and constructed during his 35-year tenure as University President. Athletes continue to wear the black “Fr. Ted” patches on their jerseys while they play for Our Lady’s university. There is a mark of Fr. Hesburgh’s touch everywhere.

These tangible things signify Fr. Hesburgh’s influence on the Notre Dame community and serve as reminder of all he accomplished during his lifetime. Without his leadership, it is certain that this University would not be what it is today, and both our country and our world are most definitely a better because of him.

All it takes is a quick Google search to see Fr. Hesburgh’s seemingly infinite accomplishments. He served as chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, holds over 150 honorary degrees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, to name a few. When Fr. Hesburgh passed away this past March, countless articles recognized him for such achievements. When reading and hearing people tell stories about him, one gets the sense that there’s not a whole lot he didn’t do.

While there is something to be said for the physical things Fr. Ted left behind and the many titles and awards bestowed upon him, we must also recognize his immaterial legacy — one of kindness and inclusivity, and also one of spirit and fearlessness.

Gaining a more complete understanding of Fr. Ted’s legacy requires that we look beyond his accomplishments to the stories behind them. With every award and title, there is a story of great courage. He was not a leader because he stuck with the status quo, or kept his head low and avoided conflict. Father Ted willingly and directly confronted some of the largest issues of his time. It is this leadership that helped to create his enduring legacy.

Take, for example, his work on the Civil Rights Commission. He was appointed to be the politically independent member of the commission, part of a group that seemed guaranteed to result in a stalemate. However, he refused to let people’s assumptions about the commission’s purpose stop him from doing great work to advance civil rights. Fr. Ted used his platform as a member of the commission to spark debate and encourage discussion of the issues. He challenged everyone — Catholics and non-religious, northerners and southerners and all Americans — to recognize the injustices African Americans around the country faced.

Certainly, we cannot all be Fr. Ted. I do not mean to suggest that we are all called to follow exactly in his footsteps. However, we can all help to carry on the legacy he left us by embodying his kind, inclusive, and bold spirit in our everyday lives.

We can start by embracing the various conflicts we encounter on a daily basis. This is not to say that we should begin harassing anyone we encounter who may hold differing political or religious views from us. Instead, we should stop trying to skirt around topics that give rise to tension. We must push ourselves to listen to the things we don’t want to hear. Change will not happen and leaders will not emerge until we seriously consider and debate issues that likely make us uncomfortable.

We don’t have to look far to find topics that are awkward to talk about. Abortion, sexual assault and the upcoming presidential election are a few prevalent examples that most people choose not to discuss if they can avoid it. We can almost all acknowledge that there are great injustices in this world such as poverty and oppression, but we’d rather not mention those either.

If we are to carry on Fr. Ted’s legacy, we need to start acknowledging such issues more frequently in our everyday discourse. This means discussing them when appropriate and engaging in dignified discussion, and it also means not shying away from sensitive subjects when they arise in conversation.

Any good leader lives at least somewhere close to the edge of their comfort zone, but truly great leaders like Fr. Ted are always willing to wholeheartedly embrace life’s difficult questions. We will never make any progress if we limit ourselves to discussing topics like the weather, football and how busy we are. If we are to make our mark on this world, we must start by challenging one another to engage in discussions of the problems that our world faces today.

Let us strive to remember Fr. Ted by embodying his spirit of inclusivity and courageousness. Let us seek out the true value that lies in conflict.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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