LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Kathleen Cummings, who is the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, walked into her last class of the 2019 school year with a sense of sadness about her seniors.
Theirs is the first Notre Dame class in more than 65 years to graduate without having the chance to know the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the school from 1952 to 1987, who died the year they entered as freshmen in 2015.
“They have no living experience of him,” Cummings said. “And this is just the beginning.”
A new documentary titled simply “Hesburgh,” which opens nationwide today (May 3), may be the closest Cummings' seniors will get to understanding this legendary but sometimes overlooked figure.
"Hesburgh" is only the most recent vehicle aimed at keeping Hesburgh’s memory alive.
In 2016, Robert Schmuhl wrote “Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record,” which was re-released in 2018 with new information. In March 2019, the Rev. Wilson Miscamble released a more measured portrait, “American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh.”
But putting Hesburgh on the screen will expose more people to the disarming combination of humility and authority that made the man known as “Father Ted” a force in a troubled time for the United States.
“The number one thing I wanted to find out was, what was it about him that made him such a highly sought-after advisor and leader?” said Patrick Creadon, the director of “Hesburgh.” “That was really the fundamental question.”
Ordained into Notre Dames' founding order, the Congregation of Holy Cross, in 1943, Hesburgh began teaching in South Bend two years later. It took him just nine years to become president, at the age of 35. His outspoken intelligence, his activism and the unassailable position of his school in the 1950s and '60s made him a resource for Presidents Eisenhower through Nixon, who together drafted him to serve on 16 presidential committees. Under Eisenhower, he began serving on the Civil Rights Commission; under Nixon, he became chair.
Along the way, he picked up 150 honorary degrees — more, according to Guinness World Records, than any other person in history. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and received the Congressional Gold Medal.
“He did enough, one would almost expect it to be done by 10 people,” said Schmuhl, who also appears in the film.
The documentary examines Hesburgh’s dedication to furthering Catholic higher education. He worked hard to pull Notre Dame out of the stereotype of a football powerhouse, making it an intellectual bastion as well. In this he had to balance the loyalty he owed the Vatican and his responsibility to the university, two things that sometimes conflicted.
But the focus of the film is Hesburgh’s life off campus, particularly his political dealings, the majority of which had to do with civil rights.
He was no pawn of power. Nixon praised Hesburgh in naming him to head the Civil Rights Commission, but the two men soon fell out, as Hesburgh began to criticize the administration for its policies on both civil rights and the Vietnam War.
Schmuhl credits Hesburgh for putting his morality at the center of everything he did. “He was just a person who would look at the world and the problems in the world and would do what he could to try to ameliorate them,” Schmuhl said. “We don’t see that as much today.” (Then again, Schmuhl, points out, he never had to worry about reelection.)
Hesburgh’s political involvements are almost too complex for a film that runs in under two hours. As it intently covers Hesburgh’s involvement in the civil rights, context is sometimes lost. It’s not always obvious how Hesburgh fit into the movement, and his biographer, Miscamble, believes the film’s focus on Hesburgh exaggerates his role.
”Father Ted fits in (as) what I would call a second-level figure,” said Miscamble, who was troubled that the film seemed to put Hesburgh on a par with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. He said he hoped the film would prompt viewers to read further to get a better perspective on the events of the time.
Hesburgh, to be fair, is never caught in the film seeking any higher profile. Creadon sees Hesburgh as a person of simplicity. “He had a very strong faith. He liked to smoke cigars. He had an occasional Manhattan,” he said. “And he worked really, really hard. And worked hard in maintaining friendships.”
Creadon, who began the film shortly after Hesburgh's death, said he didn’t find anyone who didn’t admire the priest for his kindness and decency. “He was a giant in our society for almost 50 years,” said the director, “and yet his most fierce adversaries respected him profoundly.”
He credits those friendships with how he came to have the influence he did.
“I never saw him down,” said the Rev. Austin Collins, religious superior of Holy Cross Priests and Brothers at Notre Dame. “He was always a man of faith. He always persevered.”
Creadon realized his movie could be a hard sell with the public. “We are making a film in 2019 about a Catholic priest who did some of his best work 50 years ago,” he said. “That’s a long way from “Avengers” and other box office smash hits that are out right now.”
However, he now thinks it’s one of the timeliest films he has made.
“It’s hard to find people like Father Ted, who try to find common ground, bring people together, build a consensus and move forward,” he said. “We’re just a long way away from that right now.”
Today, Creadon fears Hesburgh would be “deeply saddened at where we are right now in this country and the lack of decency in our political atmosphere.”
“I hope people come see our film "Hesburgh" and walk away with a very deep understanding that there’s another way to lead, there’s another way to be in the public arena and that there’s a place for kindness in our political world,” he said.