Funeral Mass Basilica of the Sacred Heart March 4, 2015
Hundreds of Notre Dame students endured bitter cold Wednesday (March 4, 2015) to line the half-mile road from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to the Holy Cross cemetery and pay their final respects to Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.
At the funeral Mass before the procession, more than a hundred Holy Cross religious and about a thousand mourners gathered in the Basilica where Fr. Hesburgh was ordained a priest in 1943. 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.
All came to celebrate the priest, university president, human rights leader and personal inspiration, who died last Thursday at the age of 97. Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said his predecessor would be remembered for these four areas of his leadership because he was a great American and a great citizen of the world.
“How can we draw together the strands of a life that spanned so many years, served in so many realms, and touched so many lives?” Fr. Jenkins said. “Fr. Ted gave us the answer. 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.”
Fr. Hesburgh often spoke of a priest as a pontifex, a Latin word that translates as “bridge builder.” He modeled this role of a priest who “builds bridges between people to draw them together to serve the common good and builds a bridge between human beings and God,” Jenkins said.
As president of Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh doubled the number of students and built its resources by vastly expanding the budget and endowment. He transferred university governance from the Holy Cross Congregation to a lay and cleric Board of Trustees, and he admitted women for the first time after 140 years of teaching only men.
“But the most important thing he gave us at Notre Dame was the vision to be a great Catholic research university and the confidence to realize that dream,” Fr. Jenkins said. “In all he did, Fr. Ted’s leadership sought to strengthen Notre Dame into a truly great, truly Catholic university.”
Fr. Jenkins’ eulogy also summarized many of the events of Fr. Hesburgh’s public leadership, including his work on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, immigration, nuclear arms and human suffering. Jenkins said people can forget – now that Martin Luther King, Jr., is a revered leader and President Nixon was disgraced after Watergate – that Hesburgh’s civil rights work at the time was controversial and courageous.
“His work in the public realm was driven by moral concerns about civil and human rights, peace and serving the needs of the poorest,” Jenkins said. “He was often regarded as the conscience of the bodies on which he served.”
Lastly, Jenkins touched on a personal note when he spoke of the acts of kindness that Hesburgh showered on everyone he met, actions that often went unheralded but will be forever remembered by each individual. “They are among the reasons he is not only celebrated but beloved,” Fr. Jenkins said.
As an example, Fr. Jenkins spoke of the controversy surrounding his decision to invite President Obama to speak at the University Commencement in 2009. When the criticism reached Fr. Jenkins' mother, she was anxious about it and Fr. Hesburgh heard about it. Without telling anyone else, Fr. Hesburgh called Mrs. Jenkins to reassure her. “My mother has never in her life appreciated a phone call more,” he said. They became friends for the rest of her life.
Fr. Jenkins also said Fr. Hesburgh was able to say Mass on the last day of his life, surrounded by his family, fellow religious and his caregivers. The reflection concluded with a heartfelt address: “We loved you, Ted. We now commend you to the God you served so faithfully. We will miss you. But we know you will forever rest in the arms of Notre Dame, Our Lady.”
Fr. Hesburgh’s younger brother Jim spoke after communion, thanking the Notre Dame family for its outpouring of appreciation for his life. Jim Hesburgh recalled that his brother always said “mediocrity is not how we honor Our Lady.” Fr. Hesburgh’s life as a priest, public figure and educational leader always made the family proud, his brother said.
“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.”
The Hesburgh family and Notre Dame faculty, staff and students filled the church. Dignitaries attending the service ranged from politicians and civic leaders to Fighting Irish coaches and benefactors. Leaders of the Congregation of Holy Cross also attended. 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.
The decorations in the Basilica were simple, befitting Fr. Hesburgh’s wishes to have a normal funeral for a Holy Cross religious. A purple bunting hung over the tabernacle, draping gently to four columns. Purple banners adorned other columns of the church, where blue and gold dominate the interior ornamentation. The voices of the student choir and the organ added to the solemn majesty of the service.
The plain silver coffin exited the Basilica and was taken by hearse between the two campus lakes to the cemetery where all Holy Cross priests are buried. Students waited patiently in the cold while the procession passed, including a line of ROTC students in military uniforms. Final prayers were said graveside. Fr. Hesburgh was laid to rest, in Fr. Jenkins words, “under a simple cross, undistinguishable from the graves of the Holy Cross brothers who lay with him.”