‘American Priest’ Documents Life Of Notre Dame’s Father Hesburgh

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The distinguished life of the late Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., who was president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, is explored in a newly published book written by a fellow priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

Father Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., author of “American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh,” Image/Penguin Random House, talked about his book, and why he wrote it, in an interview in the CNY office at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan March 14.

“Understanding Father Hesburgh’s journey through a significant part of the 20th century is very beneficial for Catholics to understand something of their own story,” Father Miscamble said of the Holy Cross priest who served as Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987 and died at age 97 in 2015.

“That journeying beside him through this book, learning of his life experience, et cetera, can give them a great sense of what the Church went through in the 20th century.”

Father Miscamble believes the book, which includes his personal interviews with Father Hesburgh, will appeal to a broad audience of Catholic readers. “It’s not a book that’s written just for the extended Notre Dame family, or people who are interested in Notre Dame. It’s a book that I hope educated Catholics will pick up and that it will deepen their understanding of the journey the Church has been on in the United States in the last half century of the 20th century,” and provide a better context for how “to understand the challenges we confront today.”

The book examines Father Hesburgh’s roles in the Church and national and international affairs, in his associations as an adviser to popes and presidents.

Chapter 6, “Old and New: Dwight Eisenhower, Pius XII, John XXIII, and John F. Kennedy,” subtitled, “Ike, Science, The Rockefellers, and Civil Rights,” references President Eisenhower signing into law the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and the establishment of a six-member Civil Rights Commission. “Eisenhower appointed Hesburgh as one of the six members. In so doing, he drew Hesburgh into what had become one of the most important domestic issues of the 1950s, and one that stands in retrospect as the great moral-political issue of the post-war era.”

New Yorkers from upstate will appreciate an explanation of Father Hesburgh’s roots early in the book, in the first paragraph of the first chapter, “Preparation of a Priest-President,” which describes how he “grew up in modest but comfortable circumstances in Syracuse” and “enjoyed a typical boyhood for an American Catholic lad of his generation.” The years spent in upstate New York from his birth in 1917 until his departure in fall 1934 to enter the formation program of the Holy Cross order “laid firm foundations for him in terms of both his family and his faith. The roots planted remained strong and helped nourish him throughout his whole life.”

Father Hesburgh lived through the period before, during and after to the Second Vatican Council, which provides a broader picture, Father Miscamble explained.

Additionally, it is important for readers to understand “what took place in Catholic higher education, the whole question of the future of Catholic higher ed, issues of Catholic mission, Catholic identity, that really most Catholic institutions face these days, is one that reading the Hesburgh story will help (people) have a deeper appreciation of the issues, of the challenges that were confronted, of how that generation confronted them.

“And I would argue,” Father Miscamble said, “there are some things we can learn from their experience, both what to do and what not to do.”

The book is divided into two sections, Part I: Leading Notre Dame, and Part II: Serving Popes and Presidents.

One incident depicting the charity of Father Hesburgh occurred during his first term as president. In 1957, the young son of Ralph and Connie McInerny died of encephalitis just a few months after his third birthday. Ralph McInerny, who had just begun his distinguished career in the philosophy department, and his young wife learned the meaning of loss when they had to bury their first child. Soon after the funeral, a priest acting as Father Hesburgh’s intermediary, called Ralph McInerny in and told him to draw up a list of the expenses the young couple owed and informed him the university would take care of them. He also advised him that the university would provide a down payment for them to buy a house of their own.

Father Hesburgh’s “straightforward generosity on a personal level reflected his uncomplicated spirituality…Whatever the pressures on him, he was not given to dark nights of the soul or to spiritual crises.

“His devotion to the Blessed Mother deepened during these years. She was the Lady atop the Dome who presided proudly over the school he was building to honor her and her Son.”

Father Miscamble joined the permanent faculty of Notre Dame’s history department in 1988, and chaired the department from 1993 to 1998. He served from 2000 to 2004 as rector and superior of Moreau Seminary, the principal formation site for the Congregation of Holy Cross in North America.

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