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Hesburgh prepares for 90th birthday

Aaron Steiner | Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Father Theodore Hesburgh doesn’t have a complicated daily routine – just a phrase.

“La presence.”

Translated “the presence,” these two words – used often by a former archbishop of Paris – serve daily as a guideline for the former University president’s life, encouraging him to continue to be present as a priest and servant as he approaches his 90th birthday May 25.

As the date draws nearer and the University community prepares to celebrate the life and work of its most influential president since founder Father Edward Sorin, Hesburgh said he feels blessed to be alive and will continue to do what he can to serve Notre Dame and the world.

“I keep remembering a famous cardinal … who was archbishop of Paris, and he used to speak about “la presence” – just being there, that’s what life is about,” Hesburgh said in his office on the 13th floor of the library named after him. “And [former Dean of Arts and Letters Father] Charlie Sheedy put it put it even better in English by saying. ‘Life is mostly showing up.’ And if you can show up everyday and do what you can, it may not be a big deal, but each day is another day, another opportunity and I’m grateful for that.”

Celebrating the life of a leader

Notre Dame’s longest serving president will be the focus of celebration this month as three initiatives are planned in honor of Hesburgh, a priest for more than six decades and a servant to “God, country, and Notre Dame,” as his autobiography’s title says.

Heather Tonk, director of community services for the Alumni Association, said the Association began planning for Hesburgh’s birthday last fall in conjunction with the Department of Development.

“We were thinking about putting something together, as we knew that Father Hesburgh was going to be turning 90 in May,” Tonk said.

The two groups organized a service campaign, a collection of birthday greetings and an opportunity to make a monetary gift in Hesburgh’s name.

Tonk, responsible for coordinating the service campaign, said the goal was to get 90 groups – alumni clubs around world as well as offices and departments on campus – to commit to a service project during the month of May.

“Right now we have over 100,” Tonk said.

After each group completes its service project, it is asked to submit a picture of their work and perhaps a card for Hesburgh, she said. The pictures and notes will be compiled into a book for Hesburgh, Tonk said.

All of the greetings collected – both those submitted online and in the mail – will be compiled and presented to Hesburgh.

Hesburgh said he is honored to have people commit to the service work, something he said brings a “promise of hope” for a troubled world.

And he is looking forward to all the greetings that he will receive, and is appreciative to those who would donate their time and money in honor of him.

“I have a principle I’ve had all my life – I acknowledge everything I get, but this time I’m going to have to print up something and send everybody the same message,” Hesburgh said with a laugh. “I think they’ll understand, but I always thought that if people take time and think of you and pray for you and say something nice, you’ve got to respond.”

Perspectives at 90

While May’s month of service brings him joy, Hesburgh said that the service students and Catholics provide to others daily inspires him constantly.

“To me, it’s a great inspiration,” he said, adding that “one of my happiest thoughts these days” is anticipating the new building that will house the Center for Social Concerns and the Institute of Church Life.

“To think that now I will be able to look out my window and see a beautiful gothic building that will not only symbolize [service], but serve the students who want to learn about the world’s needs and learn about all the possibilities to do good, where ever they go in life, is wonderful,” he said.

Service that students undertake “all over the world” is a strong and distinctive quality of the Notre Dame family, Hesburgh said, a family that takes great care for all of humanity.

“I remember a great saying … ‘humani nil a me alienum puto’ – ‘nothing human is alien to me’ – which means we embrace our humanity and the world we inhabit, and we hope that we leave it a little better than when we arrived,” Hesburgh said.

As a priest, University president and public servant, Hesburgh has had a multitude of opportunities to serve others. Today, he said the greatest thing he does in service is prayer through offering daily Mass.

“It’s the best thing you can do as a priest because it’s for the whole world, and while I’m sitting here at Notre Dame, I’m thinking about the whole world out there,” Hesburgh said. “It’s a pretty messy world – you have to be grateful for the fact that there are over a billion Christians out there, trying to do something for the kingdom of the Lord. … Insofar as they do, the world is better each day.”

Dedication to bringing peace to our world like that, Hesburgh said, “is a very uplifting kind of thought about life.”

If dedicated service is uplifting, Hesburgh has lifted up many through his numerous accomplishments. Two of his proudest include admitting females to the University and his work on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, helping to pass “the toughest, roughest law we could write about equal opportunity for all Americans.”

Hesburgh also described a conversation he said he could have had with the Virgin Mary had he not admitted women to Notre Dame.

“[Mary would have said,] ‘You had a beautiful Catholic university, and you had me there on top, and I looked down, but all I could see was men, and I remember that half the universe is women. … It just doesn’t seem right that you have a university named after a woman but you have no women students, and very few women faculty,'” Hesburgh said. “Now we have great women students, women faculty, trustees and benefactors.”

More recent gazes to Mary’s statue on the dome lead Hesburgh to look toward the promise of eternal salvation.

“I look out there, and I figure I’m going to meet her someday soon – at least I hope [I meet her] – and I’m pretty sure I will,” he said.

Until that time, he said, he is grateful for the time he has been given.

“It’s a great thought that the Lord gives some people longer than others,” Hesburgh said, “but that’s just a great challenge to keep on going – or as Charlie Sheedy says, to show up each day – and to do what you can for the kingdom of God.”

For now, that includes prayer and being a counselor to students and other visitors. Hesburgh said he speaks with individual students every day, hoping to give them snippets of personal advice that serves both the counseled and the counselor.

“It’s kind of like a vitamin of my life, that these students constantly come, and we don’t have a lot of time, and yet to be able to spend a few minutes with them,” Hesburgh said.

Reflecting in those few minutes and throughout the day makes Hesburgh grateful “just to live in a place like this, to drink of the sense of service to humanity and the world,” he said.

“I thank God that I have my life here at Notre Dame, with some of the most wonderful people on earth – dedicated faculty, an alumni body in every state in the union and [many] countries in the world, students here from over a hundred countries, students from every state in the union, all of whom say it’s the best four years of their life,” Hesburgh said. “It’s a great blessing to spend your life in this kind of place. I don’t ask for anything else.”

Ken Fowler contributed to this report.