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Hesburgh at 81: mellower, more liberal

NCR Staff
Notre Dame, Ind.

The elevator doors closed. Holy Cross Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh gave a slight tug at his blazer and fastened the button.

“Ordered it in San Francisco in 1980, picked it up in Hong Kong. Still fits,” he said as the elevator went down to the library lobby. Still fits a man of 81 -- 18 years after it was made, 11 years after “Ted” Hesburgh stepped down from 35 years as president of the University of Notre Dame and eight years after his best-selling autobiography, God, Country, Notre Dame.

He still works daily until 1:30 and 2 a.m. The students can still walk in to see him at any hour of the day or night, same as their fathers and mothers did. “I’ve become everybody’s grandfather,” he said in his clipped, no-nonsense way. “It’s a function of age. You get mellower, more forgiving.”

There are almost 10,000 students around, twice as many as when he became Notre Dame’s 15th president in 1952. As celebrant and preacher for weekend masses in the residence halls, he’s booked solid.

“They turn up, they know the prayers -- the kids who are not Catholics know the prayers, too. A lot of them are at Mass on dates. Who ever thought of a date as going to Mass together? Ninety-nine percent go to Communion.”

This priest, who believes the returning GIs were the finest students he knew, now knows their grandchildren. That juxtaposition of generations raises two areas of comparison. The first, which Hesburgh can answer for himself, is, What are these kids like? How do they compare? The second question, drawn as much from his life as his comments, is what does his generation represent to those youngsters and to the church today?

“I occasionally get pulled in for confessions, retreats. I must say they’re very frank, very honest, decent kids. Much broader in their perceptions of moral reality,” he’d said earlier, tipped back slightly in the leather chair behind his desk. “Like most college students, they drink too much. When you can sit down and talk seriously with them,” he continued, “they have a pretty good idea of what they like and don’t like.”

“My gripe is they’re too conservative. I’ve always thought you’d better be pretty liberal as a young man, because you’re going to get more conservative as you age.” That doesn’t apply to himself, he said. He’s becoming more liberal, not less.

Nonetheless, “If you start out conservative, God knows what you’re going to be like later. My constant pressure is to get them caught up with moral issues -- civil rights, human rights, world development, getting rid of the nukes. One thing I’ll say about them,” said this son of a German- American father and an Irish-American mother. “They have an almost religious sense of service. Eighty percent of the student body is doing something every week for the poor -- young, old, whatever. Twelve percent of our graduates are going to be working for a year or two overseas -- last year’s valedictorian, a woman, is teaching in Katmandu, [Nepal].”

He pauses for black coffee -- he hasn’t switched to decaf. “I’m not dumb enough to think these are your average students,” he said.

The Holy Cross priest was asked to bring some of his expertise, both moral and academic, to bear on helping to resolve a crisis in the honor system that erupted during the 1993-’94 school year at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

“These students were up against a highly secular world. ... They’re being asked to believe in honor, country, duty -- not exactly characteristics of our age. Being asked to do everything any other university student has to do and be in fine condition physically and, on top of that, own and operate the honor system -- which is not a simple thing to do.”

All this, he said, “at a time when we’re living in a country that’s being morally degraded -- the moral status of the country is descending.”

Of today’s Notre Dame students he said, “They’ve coped better with the almost utterly and totally vulgar downtrend we’ve been going through. It’s like swimming in filth -- the things that were taboo when I was a youngster are now all over the place -- I would have expected them to be degraded by it, but they survive in the face of it. Maybe they’re more sophisticated, maybe it goes over their heads.”

“I have great hopes for the country from these young people,” he said.

Immediately on retirement, at 70, Hesburgh and his pal -- next-door office-mate of 35 years and now friend of 46 years -- executive vice president Fr. Edmund “Ned” Joyce, took off for a year of travels, departing the campus in a motor home. Another, much lighter volume, Travels with Ted & Ned, followed.

Does it serve as a model of healthy friendship between priests and celibate men? Replied Hesburgh: “I don’t know what to say about it except that this is as celibate as it could be. I’m sure people at times may wonder.”

Did he ever regret not marrying, not having a family? “Oh, I have a family,” he replied. He means the six O’Grady children (and now their children). These were the Argentine-born O’Grady’s to whom, in the 1970s and ’80s, he became truly in loco parentis.

Hesburgh’s involvement in the family came about because, during a cocktail party at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, the Argentine-based American parents inveigled Hesburgh to take responsibility for their kids. He did so when the lad attended Notre Dame, the young women neighboring St. Mary’s. It’s in the book.

On a low bureau behind the president emeritus is a sepia-tone photograph -- the Hesburgh family in summer. His sister Mary’s there, the one he was closest to. She died of breast cancer. It’s 1937, and Ted is on his way to Rome after three years of seminary. There he learned to slaughter pigs, shovel manure, plant corn, harvest wheat, de-lice sheep, rebuild silos with 55-pound concrete blocks, remain silent -- except for an hour after lunch and dinner -- read Greek, Latin and study. (He later added excellent Italian, French and make-do German.) The strapping 20-year-old Ted in shorts, muscles bulging, not an ounce of fat, looks just like other families’ fading snapshots of the generation which, in four years, would be off to war.

When they returned, the Depression-raised ex-GIs came to Notre Dame and its temporary married quarters, Vetsville, to absorb lessons that fit with their self-discipline, honor, earnestness -- and the gnawing realization they’d survived a war when millions hadn’t.

Fr. Hesburgh was already there.

The GI-generation ultimately found and displayed tremendous self-confidence, these new American Catholics, liberal Catholics who welcomed Vatican II as religious commonsense. Humanae Vitae? Hear Hesburgh. His GIs and their brides -- the ones he collected money for door-to-door with a milk bottle to fund a funeral trip when one of their infants died -- were, are, he said the people of “the sensus fidelium. That’s where this should come from.”

Bishops and the Vatican should listen to them, he said. Two other aspects of Hesburgh’s jut-jawed, American Catholic liberal stance -- toward the laity and toward academic freedom -- came together in his 1960s’ successful drive to see Notre Dame turned over in its entirety to lay trustees. That move might yet be crucial, given the current Vatican- U.S. bishops’ canon law jousting over bishops’ involvement in their local Catholic colleges and universities.

Were their academic freedom threatened, he implied, the Fighting Irish would fight over more than just the pigskin -- and have the autonomy to do it.

In retirement, Hesburgh has continued to serve -- on the Harvard Board of Overseers (trustees) for six years, two as president at “a school that until this century a Catholic couldn’t even attend”; five years of grinding work as co-chairman of the committee that strove to end corruption in college athletics; years on the board of the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute of Peace and 50 other organizations.

He treasures his fully-funded Notre Dame institutes and centers -- on peace studies, international studies, Latin American studies, civil and human rights, environmental research and, in Jerusalem, ecumenism.

See Hesburgh and catch a glimpse of what John F. Kennedy might have looked like had he lived to 81. They were born only four days apart, Hesburgh on May 25, 1917, JFK on May 29. Listen to Hesburgh and catch an echo of their entire generation -- though with a Hesburghian twist: Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for God and country (and, yes, for those connected, Notre Dame).

The elevator opens. Hesburgh walks past the oil painting that bears his likeness, out of the library that bears his name and strides across the campus that bears his imprint.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998