March 13, 2015

Reflection / John F. Fink

Remembering Father Ted

For his funeral, Father Ted chose the scriptural readings Is 26:6-9, Ps 23, Rom 14:7-12 and Mt 25:31-45. They reflect the interests of a man who devoted his life to justice and service to the poor. He was 97 when he died on Feb. 26.

Father Ted, of course, was Holy Cross Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh, but people who knew him called him Father Ted—and he was known by a lot of people. Among the 13 people who spoke at a memorial tribute program after his funeral on March 4 were former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. President Barack Obama’s tribute was shared in a video message. Two cardinals and six bishops, including Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, participated at his funeral.

Articles about Father Ted usually refer to his 35 years as president of the University of Notre Dame, his 16 presidential appointments, his service to four popes, his 150 honorary degrees, his Presidential Medal of Freedom, or his Congressional Gold Medal.

He was undoubtedly one of the most influential Catholic Americans of the 20th century since he served in more capacities and on more boards and committees than any other—often the first or only Catholic to fill those positions. Even in his 80s, he was a member of numerous boards of directors until age forced him to cut back.

But Father Ted always insisted, and meant it, that he was first of all a priest. For more than 70 years, he tried to celebrate Mass every day and succeeded, except for a few days.

He said Mass in some amazing places: in the Chilean Andes, in the middle of an African jungle, in Antarctica. He told me once that he smuggled altar wine into Saudi Arabia in a reamed-out deodorant container so he could say Mass. He prayed that the Lord would permit him to say Mass on the day of his death. He did.

He was also faithful to praying the entire Liturgy of the Hours until macular degeneration took away his eyesight. After that, he told me, he prayed three rosaries every day. Of course, he always had a great devotion to Mary.

About that macular degeneration: I don’t think most people realized that Father Ted was almost totally blind for about the last 15 years of his life. When he talked to you, he looked right into your eyes, and you had a hard time realizing that he couldn’t see you. He didn’t let his blindness stop him from learning. People read to him, and he regularly listened to audio tapes of books that he received.

Father Ted loved everything about being a priest: preaching, counseling, baptizing, witnessing marriages and hearing confessions. He always wore his Roman collar in public because, he said, he was able to help a lot of people who would stop him because of that collar.

Somehow I got on the list of people who received Father Ted’s travel diaries. In return, at his request, I sent him mine. I was always amazed that, as busy as he was, he found time to read my diaries and comment on them.

After his retirement as president of Notre Dame, when he returned there after a year of travel, he devoted himself to five areas that he thought could affect all of humanity: peace in a nuclear age; human rights and justice worldwide; human development in terms of new economic, social and political structures in the Third World; the abuse of the ecology, the next great threat to humanity; and ecumenism and interfaith dialogue.

I have long kept on my desk this quotation from Father Ted: “The key to life’s success is the ambition to do as much as you can, as well as you can, for as long as you can, and to not despair over the things you cannot do.” That is what Father Ted pledged to do, and I think he was successful.

May he have eternal happiness in heaven.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1953, Father Hesburgh’s first graduation class as president.)

Local site Links: