Father Hesburgh, legacy-building Notre Dame president, dies at 97

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Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. Credit: University of Notre Dame.

The University of Notre Dame mourned the death of its former president Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., prompting outpourings of appreciation and remembrance for his deeply influential and sometimes controversial legacy.

“Although saddened by his loss, I cherish the memory of a mentor, friend and brother in Holy Cross and am consoled that he is now at peace with the God he served so well,” the university’s current president, Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said Feb. 27.

“In his historic service to the nation, the Church and the world, he was a steadfast champion for human rights, the cause of peace and care for the poor,” Fr. Jenkins continued. “Perhaps his greatest influence, though, was on the lives of generations of Notre Dame students, whom he taught, counseled and befriended.”

Fr. Hesburgh died Feb. 26 at the age of 97 at Holy Cross House in Notre Dame, Indiana.

He was born in Syracuse, New York on May 25, 1917. He studied at the University of Notre Dame and at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1939.

He was ordained a priest for the Congregation of Holy Cross at Sacred Heart Church on the university campus in in June 1943. He received a doctorate in sacred theology at the Catholic University of America in 1945. He joined the Notre Dame’s religion department that year and served as a chaplain for war veterans on campus, reports an obituary published by the university.

He became head of the religion department in 1948 and then was named executive vice president for the university. He became the university’s 15th president in June 1952, at the age of 35.

Fr. Hesburgh served as president until 1987. He was one of the longest-serving presidents of any U.S. university. During his tenure, Notre Dame’s enrollment grew from about 5,000 students to 9,600, while the number of faculty more than doubled from 389 to 950.

U.S. presidents appointed him to 16 positions dealing with civil rights, atomic energy, campus unrest, humanitarian development, and immigration.

At a 1964 civil rights rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Fr. Hesburgh joined hands with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and sang “We Shall Overcome.” President Richard Nixon later removed the priest from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which he had served as a charter member, due to his criticism of the Nixon administration on the issue.

President Lyndon Johnson awarded Fr. Hesburgh the Medal of Freedom in 1964. He received the American Association of University Professors’ Meiklejohn Award in 1970 for his opposition to the Nixon administration’s attempt to use federal troops to break up campus demonstrations. He also served on President Gerald Ford’s clemency board which ruled on cases of Vietnam draft dodgers.

He was the first Catholic priest to serve in a formal diplomatic role for the U.S. government, as U.S. ambassador to the 1979 United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development.

As part of the Overseas Development Council, Fr. Hesburgh help fundraising efforts to avert starvation in Cambodia in 1979 and 1980. He also worked in nuclear disarmament and college athletics.

Fr. Hesburgh also served four Popes. He was the Holy See’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1956 to 1970. He built the Notre Dame-operated Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, Jerusalem in 1972 at the request of Paul VI and headed the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations in the 1970s. Pope John Paul II appointed Fr. Hesburgh to the Pontifical Council for Culture in 1983.

Fr. Hesburgh served as a director of the Chase Manhattan Bank and was president of the Board of Overseers at Harvard University.

His influence was not without controversy.

During his time as chairman of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, Fr. Hesburgh led academics and over two dozen Catholic university presidents in signing the 1967 “Land O’Lakes Statement” which asserted the Catholic university’s “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Critics of the statement have said it distorted the role of the Church in Catholic university life and functioned as a “declaration of independence” from the Catholic hierarchy, undermining universities’ Catholic identity.

Under Fr. Hesburgh, the University of Notre Dame played a significant role in the run-up to one of the major Catholic controversies of the 1960s: Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed Catholic teaching on the immorality of contraception.

With the involvement of Fr. Hesburgh’s personal assistant George Shuster, a series of meetings on human population growth were held at Notre Dame from 1963 to 1967 under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation. They brought together selected Catholic leaders to meet with leaders of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Population Council, as well as with leaders of the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

Donald T. Critchlow, in his 1999 Oxford University Press book “Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America,” said John D. Rockefeller III and others within the foundation community were “astutely aware of the importance of changing the Catholic Church’s position on birth control” and saw the meetings as an opportunity to ally with Catholic leaders who could “help change opinion within the hierarchy.”

According to Critchlow, Fr. Hesburgh arranged for a 1965 meeting between Rockefeller and Pope Paul VI to discuss population control issues. The same year, 37 scholars who attended a conference at Notre Dame signed a confidential statement to the papal commission examining the morality of new forms of artificial birth control. Their statement lobbied for a change in the Catholic Church’s view of contraception.

Rockefeller appointed Fr. Hesburgh to the Rockefeller Foundation’s executive committee in 1966, with the understanding that he would abstain from voting on issues involving contraception, sterilization and abortion. Fr. Hesburgh served as the foundation’s chairman from 1977 to 1982.

The university president received 150 honorary degrees. His books include a 1990 autobiography “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Notre Dame’s library, whose 13-story building towers over the campus, bears his name.

In a Feb. 27 statement, President Barack Obama praised Fr. Hesburgh’s “lifetime of service.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his friends, and the Notre Dame community that loved him so dearly,” the president said.

Fr. Jenkins said Fr. Hesburgh “turned a relatively small Catholic college known for football into one of the nation’s great institutions for higher learning.”

The university will hold public visitation at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart beginning on March 3. A funeral Mass for Fr. Hesburgh will be held at the basilica on March 4 at 2 p.m., with live video available at the website hesburgh.nd.edu.

Fr. Hesburgh’s body will be interred at Holy Cross Community Cemetery.

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