On May 3, the documentary Hesburgh begins hitting select theaters, telling the story of larger-than-life Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh, who was president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, from 1952 to 1987.
It’s strange, then, that, outside of the admittedly large Notre Dame community, Hesburgh’s association with major issues of our time has faded from view. This film aims to change that.
Ticket and other information on Hesburgh can be found at the official site, HesburghFilm.com.
Born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1917, into a German/Irish Catholic family, Hesburgh became a priest with the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1943, after an education that included stints at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Holy Cross College (part of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana) and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
During his tenure at Notre Dame, Hesburgh was also involved with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the National Science Board and an immigration-reform commission, among many other national and international groups, under presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter and beyond. He was also close friends with Pope Paul VI.
Hesburgh rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and a variety of world leaders. He died in 2015 at the age of 97, having influenced many generations of politicians, activists and students. Among those attending and/or speaking at his funeral were President Carter, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, and a variety of U.S. elected officials, including former Senator Alan K. Simpson, who appears in the documentary (as does the current Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi).
Adamantly pro-choice President Barack Obama, whose 2009 invitation to speak and be honored at Notre Dame was supported by the then-retired Hesburgh, made a video announcement at the event. Ironically, also at the funeral was Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose involvement with the investigation of the sex-abuse scandals in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles left a permanent mark on his reputation; and now-defrocked Theodore McCarrick, who lost his red cardinal’s hat and later his priesthood for his own, more personal involvement in the molestation of minors and seminarians.
While scandal never touched Hesburgh in any way, his legacy is not without controversy, most notably his role in developing the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement, which essentially untethered Catholic universities like Notre Dame from the authority of the Vatican. In the decades since, that has led to what many feel is an erosion or near-disappearance of recognizable Catholic values at some universities, which are now hardly distinguishable in any significant way from their secular counterparts.
Patrick Creadon, the director of Hesburgh, has a deep history at Notre Dame. During a recent interview in Los Angeles, he said:
My grandfather went to Notre Dame. He was the class of ’28; he went there to play football. My dad was the class of ’60. I was the class of ’89. I knew the name Father Hesburgh from the time I was a little kid. In 2015, when he passed away at the age of 97, my dad actually passed away 10 weeks later, so I lost my Notre Dame dad, so to speak, and I lost my dad, right next to each other.
I was pushing 50 and we have three kids, and my wife and I work together. We’re a filmmaking team. And I honestly felt this is a good moment in my life to revisit my time at Notre Dame and to really dig into this legendary figure that I heard so much about, and figure out why he mattered and why he has this very large legacy, not just in Notre Dame, but around the world.
Being a Catholic made me incredibly proud of his work and his legacy. This is a dark time for the Catholic Church; it’s a shockingly dark time for the Catholic Church. And I was raised in a Catholic family. I went to 16 years of Catholic education. I’ve got to tell you, I wouldn’t consider myself a practicing Catholic. I don’t go to Mass every week.
But the Catholic heritage that I was raised and is never going to leave me, whether I go to Mass or or not. In my opinion, it’ll never leave me. It’s a defining characteristic of who I am, and I think we need to be reminded of the power and the beauty of the Catholic faith.
While the movie follows Father Hesburgh around as he walks upon the world stage, Creadon wanted viewers to never forget that he was first and foremost a priest.
Father Ted did all these different things throughout his lifetime. But if you were to ask him at the end of his life, what do you do for living? “I’m a priest. That’s it. I’m a priest. I’m a Catholic priest. I’m here to help. If my phone rings, I’m going to help that person, whether that’s a sophomore in Dillon Hall who just lost his father, or it’s the president of the United States. When my phone rings, I’m going to pick it up, and I’m going to do what I can to help that person.” And he was true to that.
Creadon also sees a relevance in Hesburgh for today:
The one thing we didn’t expect when we started making the film was how timely has story would feel right now. We are in a moment in American history where we are all wondering, is this the best kind of leadership that we could have in our country? And I, by the way, I’m not pointing fingers at any one person or any one party. There’s a lot of blame to go around in our country about the lack of courage amongst our leaders, to simply reach across the aisle and shake hands with a political adversary.
If nothing else, Father Ted is a reminder that patience and common sense and decency have a place in our society, and that working toward compromise, especially with our rivals, even our most bitter rivals, is honorable work. The fate of our republic rests largely on the fact that we have to get out of this situation we’re in now, where there’s a lack of trust. There’s a lack of decency.
Coincidentally, back in March, fellow Holy Cross priest and Notre Dame faculty member Father Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., released a biography of Hesburgh, called American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh. The book is not connected to the film, and, by all accounts, portrays Hesburgh’s legacy as a mixed one, especially at it relates to his impact on Catholic higher education.
Here’s an interview Miscamble did on EWTN’s The World Over:
According to Creadon, he wasn’t interested in doing a documentary on Catholic universities and the subject of Catholic education in general, saying:
I never saw this as a Notre Dame movie, and I never saw this as a Catholic movie. I saw this as an American movie. If our film had gotten stuck in the weeds, let’s say, of what is the proper place for a Catholic university, we’re going to lose. We’re going to lose the whole audience.
I would say that our story has as much to do with Hamilton, the musical, as [being about] a leader, as a non-elected, fiercely independent master of lots of things. Our movie is more along those lines than a Catholic story about a Catholic university or a priest or whatever. I just had no desire to tell that story, because, in Father Ted’s case, that’s way too limiting. Here’s a guy who was doing nuclear non-proliferation. He was doing Civil Rights. He was doing student protests. He was on the clemency board. He was studying immigration.
Creadon also says he asked Father Miscamble on three occasions to participate in the film, and the priest declined.
I would’ve loved to have Father Miscamble’s voice in the film. He chose not to do it. And so that’s a little disappointing, but at the same time, again, we both have to be mindful of the fact that this was never meant to be a film about the proper role of Catholic education. This is a film about a man who was the conscience of the country. So there’s a lot to unpack there.
What good is a church or religion or a faith that doesn’t interact with the rest of the world around it? And I think that in some ways Father Miscamble’s wishful thinking is that we just do it our own way and let society go where it’s going to go to. I reject that. I’m much more in the camp of Father Ted. Always. You always want to have a seat at the table even if you’re not gonna win every one of those arguments. That to me is just healthier and more productive. It’s a better way to live your life and it’s a better way to lead.
As a fun fact, the movie’s voiceover narration is inspired by Hesburgh’s own words, and the man behind that is Maurice LaMarche, beloved by many as the voice of the Brain in the animated series Pinky and the Brain.
Also, in the interest of full disclosure, Family Theater Productions, where I work, is part of Holy Cross Family Ministries, which is under the auspices of the Congregation of Holy Cross, as is the University of Notre Dame (where, incidentally, I’ve never been).
Image: OCP Media