Face to Face

Often he has said that if just one word were to be inscribed on his tombstone, he would like it to be priest. As Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, begins his 91st year on this side of that monument, it is obvious that he means it. Impressively taking in stride the afflictions of great age and near-total blindness, he willingly goes wherever he is asked to gonot infrequently with stole and holy oils to the bedsides of dying friends and colleagues years younger than himself.

Earlier this year, at a reception following the funeral of one of these friends, the Notre Dame ethicist Denis Goulet, I sat with Father Ted as he struggled through an oily hors d’oeuvre of smoked salmon. He had been asked to speak to the gathering, and, having trouble clearing his throat, asked me to fetch him a piece of sharp cheese or something from the buffet table. Delighted to oblige the university’s patriarch, I asked if he wouldn’t like me to get him a glass of white wine as well.

No, he said sadly, I can’t. In fact, I haven’t had anything alcoholic to drink for the last six months.

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Why is that, Father? I asked, remembering, as many Notre Dame people of a certain age do, how very trying his customary Lenten abstinence could be, and not only for Father Ted.

He shrugged and replied with a rueful smile, Wrong doctor.

Whether or not he is permitted champagne, the president emeritus will celebrate an evidently very happy 90th birthday on May 25. Three weeks beforehand, in his memento-packed office on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library, he ignited a massive cigar and reported with cheerful bemusement on his last medical checkup. You get to be 90, you’d think something would

start going wrong, he said, beneath a fragrant cloud of Cuban leaf smoke, but nothing is, evidently.

He spoke with similar satisfaction of the university that has been his home since he was 16 years old and over which he presided from 1952 to 1987. The institution was transformed while Father Hesburgh was at the helm. Its annual operating budget swelled to $176.6 million from $9.7 million and its endowment to $350 million from $9 million.

But the two most conspicuous institutional changes during the Hesburgh era, and the two of which he is conspicuously proud, were the transfer of Notre Dame’s governance from its founding religious community, the Priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross, to a predominantly lay board of trustees in 1967 and the admission of women to the undergraduate program in 1972.

The deadpan wit that seldom deserts him appeared as he recounted the history. Way back when I was studying in Rome, I wrote my dissertation on the role of laypeople in the church, and that was 35 years before the Second Vatican Council, he began. I was afraid I’d get in trouble for even writing the darn thing. So you can imagine how gratified I was when the council fathers stole it. Didn’t even give me a footnote.

But as he spoke of Notre Dame’s transition to coeducation, his tone became more ingenuous, even poignant. Several times every day, I look up at her, he said, waving familiarly and without turning around to face the window behind his desk, where the famous statue of Mary atop Notre Dame’s main building glowed brightly enough to hurt anyone’s eyes. And I know I’m going to meet her face to face some day. I mean soon. I ask her to take care of all of us, especially to take care of this place and this work that she’s always supported and that we’ve placed under her protection from day one. I can’t believe that she isn’t pleased to have daughters as well as sons.

We let a silence hang for a bit, and then Father Ted remembered a mutual friend who had died a few years ago. Why don’t we say a prayer for him right now? he suggested. It was, of course, a Hail Mary.

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