(RNS) Two prominent Roman Catholics will appear on U.S. postage stamps next year, though their faith was not the most important factor in their honor.
The late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, longtime president of the University of Notre Dame, will appear on a commemorative stamp, the U.S. Postal Service announced last week. President John F. Kennedy, the first — and so far, only — Roman Catholic elected to the presidency, will be honored on the centennial anniversary of his birth.
Stamps for presidential centennials are not uncommon; in 2011 the Postal Service issued a commemorative for the 100th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s birth. This time, Kennedy’s service as president is being honored, although the USPS announcement also noted the late president’s pioneering status as a Catholic in the White House.
Hesburgh, also born in 1917, died in 2015. His rapid appearance on a stamp comes as the Postal Service recently modified rules that once required the passage of 10 years for those other than deceased presidents to receive postal commemoration.
In general, the Postal Service does not commemorate individuals involved in religion, with perhaps the most prominent exception being 1948’s “Four Chaplains” stamp, which honored four military chaplains who gave up their life vests and perished when the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was sunk in 1943.
Mother Teresa, recently canonized as St. Teresa of Calcutta, was depicted on a 2010 USPS stamp in her simple habit, though the agency said it honored the nun “for her humanitarian work.”
While noting Hesburgh’s service as “an important mid-20th century educational, religious and civic leader,” the Postal Service announcement centered on his role in the nation’s struggle for civil rights: “Appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1957, Father Hesburgh helped compile reports on racial discrimination and the denial of voting rights that resulted in the Omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the USPS said.
Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, said in a statement, “It’s fitting that the United States recognizes Father Hesburgh’s contributions to our nation and the world in a medium that will literally transport his legacy to households across America and around the world.”
Journalist Melinda Henneberger, a 1980 Notre Dame graduate, said she believes Hesburgh “would be delighted, and so must all (Notre Dame students) be, because he joined hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. and transformed our school, admitting women and introducing the radical idea, then and now, that our academics were more important than football and our values were more important than both of those.”
The Kennedy stamp is taken from a 1960 photo by Ted Spiegel. The Hesburgh portrait is based on a 1980 photograph taken by Notre Dame staff photographer Bruce Harlan and shows Hesburgh standing on the campus.
(Mark A. Kellner is an RNS correspondent)