Wake Service Basilica of the Sacred Heart March 3, 2015

The voices of a student choir singing a final blessing in Latin brought a resounding close to the wake service for Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., on Tuesday night (March 3, 2015) in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

The blessing asked the intercession of Jesus’ mother Mary, for whom the University of Notre Dame was named. A crowded church, joining the choir in song, represented a thousand-person cross-section of Fr. Hesburgh’s remarkable life: students and faculty, family and friends, politicians and benefactors, religious leaders and more than a dozen of the first women to attend the University after his decision to admit females for the first time.

Fr. Hesburgh’s successor as Notre Dame president, Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., presided over the service. His reflection on his friend “Fr. Ted” intertwined personal stories of their shared history with a brief overview of Fr. Hesburgh’s many accomplishments and kindnesses.

Fr. Malloy began with his last meeting with Fr. Hesburgh, when both knew the end was near. Fr. Hesburgh had bundled up for the smoking area at his home in Holy Cross House. He was puffing on an unlit cigar, and Fr. Malloy didn’t have the heart to inform him about the lack of fire.

But another burning fire never ceased. Asked what he was thinking about, Fr. Hesburgh did not hesitate: eternity.

Fr. Malloy asked for a final blessing and received it. He returned the blessing at the wake service, ending with, “Father Ted … now go to God and may you rest in peace.”

The invitation-only service was preceded and followed by open visitation hours, when more than 12,000 people paid their last respects. Both events revealed how many lives Fr. Hesburgh touched. And more would likely have come to South Bend had he not outlived so many of his contemporaries in his 97 years. A funeral Mass on Wednesday afternoon was followed by a Memorial Service at 7:30 p.m.

The reflection from Fr. Malloy touched on many of the people in Fr. Hesburgh’s life, starting with his best friend and career-long vice president Rev. Ned Joyce, C.S.C. The two were different in style and temperament, said Fr. Malloy, but worked seamlessly together for decades. Fr. Hesburgh was also quick to praise his assistants and caregivers, his drivers and priest helpers.

Fr. Malloy’s quick sketch of Fr. Hesburgh’s biography noted his lifelong desire to become a priest, his linguist training in Rome and his return to Notre Dame as a chaplain to a dorm and to Vetville, a hastily constructed apartment village where World War II veterans studying on the G.I. Bill lived with their families. Fr. Hesburgh’s quick ascension to head of the theology department and finally University president at the age of 35 led to a series of transformations. These included the transfer of University governance from the Holy Cross order to a mostly lay board in 1967, the introduction of women in 1972, and a buildup of the resources needed to become a great Catholic university. The sketch also touched on his defense of academic freedom and his work in civil and human rights, highlighted by his leadership of the commission responsible for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

These well-known accomplishments were balanced with stories of Fr. Hesburgh’s human side, about his fishing trips to Land O’Lakes in Wisconsin and his dream to say Mass aboard the space shuttle, which might have come to fruition if not for the Challenger disaster in 1986.

Most of all, Fr. Malloy spoke of Fr. Hesburgh’s joy in being a priest: saying Mass on a submarine and an aircraft carrier, along the Sea of Galilee and in the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. Fr. Hesburgh said Mass every day and invited all to join him, believers and non-believers alike, and “they usually came and they walked away impressed.” The same could be said of those who came Tuesday night to celebrate Fr. Hesburgh’s storied life.