Fr. Pete McCormick on Fr. Hesburgh
Letter to the Editor | Saturday, February 28, 2015
In truth, I don’t know Fr. Hesburgh very well. Have I listened to some of his incredible stories, marveled at the number of years he served as president of Notre Dame, pondered how he kept track of the 150 honorary degrees he received or gushed with pride every time I see him standing arm and arm with Dr. King? Absolutely.
For those of us who did not have semi-regular interactions with him, attend one of his Masses or recall a personal anecdote, how are we to situate these days? Intentionally. Look, I understand that these are really busy days. Mid-terms, group projects, papers, travel plans and the need for sleep are all presenting themselves as much more pressing matters.
Here’s the deal: significant history happens when people are present in the moment. Each of us have it within ourselves to refuse to allow the malaise of life or the stress we encounter to prevent us from seeing the beauty of an unexpected opportunity. All too often we move through life with this feeling that when times get better, less stressful or more ideal, then we’ll start working toward the things that matter. Until then it’s time to batten down the hatches and just get by. But the truth of the matter is that the holy trifecta of things becoming better, less stressful and more ideal rarely lines up.
What are we to do? Here’s my strong recommendation: slow down this week and learn from a man who repeatedly refused to accept the malaise and stress of life as normative, but instead sought to share the joy of faith and humanity with those most in need.
Let me offer an example. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for his nonviolent resistance in Birmingham, Alabama. During his time in jail, Dr. King wrote a letter titled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he outlined the struggle up to that point and his reasons for continuing to defy the law. Here’s just a paragraph from Dr. King’s impactful letter:
“I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right, and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.”
It was in April 1964, with the struggle for civil rights still raging on, that the now famous picture of Dr. King and Fr. Hesburgh was taken at a rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field. There were no doubt other things Fr. Ted could have been doing that day. Further, his very presence at such a rally would have brought forth risks to both his own reputation and quite possibly that of the University he represented. But it did not prevent him from taking action. Fr. Ted willingly embraced the uncertainty of the moment because he knew it mattered. He knew it mattered for him as a priest to represent the love of God for all people, and he knew it mattered to demonstrate his solidarity with the African-American community.
Today, we are faced with any number of challenges that must be thought through, prayed about and faithfully acted upon. In the death of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, we have an example of how living in response to the world’s need and refusing to accept injustice, inequality and daily malaise does make a difference.
As a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, I am proud of my brother. As a member of the Notre Dame family, I am grateful that we have the opportunity to honor this faithful priest.
Fr. Pete McCormick
Director of Campus Ministry