‘First and foremost a priest’
Ann Marie Jakubowski | Thursday, March 5, 2015
The funeral Mass celebrating the life of University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh on Wednesday afternoon commended him to heaven with the strength of more than 1,000 participants.
At the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where he was first ordained in 1943, more than 100 of his brother priests from the Congregation of Holy Cross processed through the Basilica and gathered behind the altar. They were joined by six bishops as well as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington D.C. and Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles.
The top leaders of the Congregation of Holy Cross also led the celebration of his life. Fr. Richard V. Warner, superior general of the Congregation, came from Rome, and Fr. Thomas J. O’Hara, provincial superior of the U.S. province of the Congregation, was the principal celebrant. University President Fr. John Jenkins delivered the homily.
A congregation made up of family, friends, University administrators, trustees, faculty, staff and students prayed over Hesburgh’s casket during the ceremony, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes. The Gospel reading focused on social justice, a theme central to Hesburgh’s 97-year-long legacy.
“At Notre Dame, I’m often faced with daunting tasks. None are more difficult than the one before me: finding words to do justice to the life of Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.,” Jenkins said at the beginning of the homily. “We should begin with what was central to his life. … For all the momentous events in which he played a role, all the honors he received, Fr. Ted always said that the most important day of his life was when he was ordained a priest, here in this church on Notre Dame’s campus.”
All Hesburgh wanted was a simple funeral in the Holy Cross tradition, Jenkins said, and after the ceremony he would be “laid to rest under a simple cross, undistinguishable from the graves of the Holy Cross brethren who lay with him.”
Jenkins’ homily addressed the key milestones in Hesburgh’s life, from growing and expanding the University into what it is today to accepting the invitation to stand alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally in Chicago to fighting for human rights in Cambodia.
“How can we draw together the strands of a life that spans so many years, served in so many ways, touched so many lives? Fr. Ted gave us the answer,” Jenkins said. “He was first and foremost a priest. That vocation drove him to build a great Catholic university; it gave his work in the public life its moral focus; it shaped his generosity in all his personal interactions.”
Hesburgh’s younger brother Jim spoke at the end of the ceremony, remarking that “good brothers and good friends are God’s special dividends in life. Ted was a wonderful brother, good friend, counselor and mentor.”
“Today we celebrate his life, and all that we had for so long taken for granted with Ted suddenly comes into focus,” Jim Hesburgh said. “Today we think of the totality of Ted’s life here on earth.”
He said his brother’s appointment as University president came during his own freshman year at Notre Dame, and “that gave me pause, I’ll tell you.”
“He only wanted to serve, and serve he did, with all his energy and all his considerable talent, in every way he knew how,” Jim Hesburgh said. “Ted took his God-given gifts, his intelligence, good health, leadership ability and his pursuit of excellence and brought major change to Notre Dame, to this country and to the world.”
But beyond the national and international impact Hesburgh had, Jenkins said the countless personal acts of kindness are an equally important part of his legacy. He reflected on the support Hesburgh offered him during the tumultuous time following the University’s invitation to President Obama to deliver the 2009 Commencement address.
“When my invitation to President Obama to speak at our Commencement caused an uproar, a number of people approached my mother and criticized my decision,” Jenkins said.
She was anxious, he said, but Fr. Ted “got wind of that” and took action.
“Without mentioning anything to me, he called my mother to reassure her. … There were no more worries after that, and from that day forward she and Fr. Ted were fast friends. I can’t begin to tell you all the kindnesses he showed me personally.”
At the end of his homily, Jenkins said Hesburgh’s last day on earth was the fulfillment of his lifelong prayer.
“Fr. Ted prayed that on the last day of his life, he would be able to celebrate Mass. At 11 a.m. at Holy Cross House last Thursday, Fr. Ted joined the community and concelebrated Mass,” Jenkins said. “In the evening he was struggling to breathe. … He was surrounded by people who loved him. He passed away quietly, just before midnight.”
“Today, we gather to celebrate the Mass Fr. Ted so loved and to commend him to God. … We cannot but believe that the Lord will respond with the words of today’s Gospel reading: ‘Come, you who were blessed by my Father.’ We love you Ted. …We will miss you.
“We know you now rest in the arms of Notre Dame, our Lady. Throughout your life, you drew strength, sustenance and guidance [from her].”
After Jim Hesburgh’s speech and the final prayers over the casket, the family processed out of the Basilica, where a crowd had gathered to line the path to Holy Cross cemetery.
“For Ted, problems were challenges, and his forte was in finding solutions,” Jim Hesburgh said. “His friends were endless, of every religion, every nation, every class and every profession. His life was amazing.
“His faith, his hope, his dedication and his achievements speak for themselves.”