Half an hour before the start of the Visitation for Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., the doors to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart opened wide to bring in the casket.
A cold wind from outside blew over the warm water of a baptismal font at the entrance, raising a cloud of vapor wafting into the church, as if the Holy Spirit entered to prepare the way. It was a fitting start to two days of remembrance and celebration for a priest, university president and civic leader who often advised people to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.”
Rev. Peter Rocca, C.S.C., the Basilica rector, led a brief ceremony of prayers at noon on Tuesday (March 3, 2015) for about 30 members of the Holy Cross religious congregation and volunteer ushers. The refrain of Psalm 27 hit the right note for a life that spanned the globe and grappled with the major issues of the late twentieth century: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
Outside, a crowd of about 100 already waited for the Visitation to begin at noon. They started in the basement of the Main Building, under the Golden Dome, and proceeded past banners displaying pictures and quotes from Fr. Hesburgh and other dignitaries. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn will be among the special guests for the funeral service and celebration of Fr. Hesburgh’s life on Wednesday. A heated tent connected the Main building to the side door of the Basilica, sheltering a crowd – which grew throughout the day and continued all night – from the wet and cold weather in South Bend.
Visitors entered the east door of the Basilica, where the famous inscription “God, Country, Notre Dame” became the title of Fr. Hesburgh’s autobiography. 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 Fr. Hesburgh was ordained in 1943. The visitors wore everything from suits and dresses to jeans and Notre Dame jackets. They signed the guest book, shuffled up the main aisle and said a brief prayer before the open casket. Most made the sign of the cross, and a few shed tears.
Notre Dame students came in droves overnight, extending the line back into the Main Building. By the time visitation hours ended at 10 a.m. Wednesday, more than 12,000 people had paid their final respects.