March's Letter from the Bishop

Dear brothers and sisters,

“Come, Holy Spirit!”

Millions of people around the world are mourning the death – and giving thanks for the life and ministry – of Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame.  My own reflections are more personal than professional.  We cannot help being aware, of course, of his enormous achievements:  at Notre Dame, of course, and as a major Christian voice in our era.  For 15 years he served as a member, and eventually chairman, of the U. S. Civil Rights Commission, and received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of the huge impact he made throughout decades of fruitful ministry. Under his leadership, Notre Dame grew and prospered and came to occupy a central place in the nation’s academic and spiritual landscape.  I am particularly grateful for his long friendship with the Diocese of Northern Indiana – a friendship that began, many years ago, with his friendship with Father (and later Bishop) William C. R. Sheridan.

It was Fr. Ted who made the Basilica of the Sacred Heart available for Bishop Sheridan’s consecration in 1972, and that tradition continued with Bishop Frank Gray’s in 1986 and my own in 2000.  When Bishop Sheridan celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in a glorious Eucharist at St. Thomas’, Plymouth, in 2003, Fr. Ted was there, and in a luncheon speech paid tribute to his friend Sherry (as the bishop was known to those closest to him). Two years later, in 2005, Fr. Ted was present for Bishop Sheridan’s Requiem Eucharist, and joined the diocese in commending his old and dear friend into the care of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Memories flood my mind, and not necessarily in chronological order.  At our Diocesan Convention in 2002, we designated Fr. Ted as an honorary canon of the Cathedral of St. James.  The word “canon” means “model” or “standard,” and I can hardly think of a better standard of Christian faithfulness than Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh.  Fr. Ted preached at the Convention Eucharist that night.  Even then, at the age of 84, Fr. Ted suffered from macular degeneration, and thus could not produce a written sermon text.  Instead, he preached from the heart – and touched our hearts.  He talked about his own prayer life, and told us that he began every day with the same simple prayer: 

“Come, Holy Spirit!”

That prayer has infused my own ever since.

Later than evening, at the Convention banquet, Fr. Ted spoke briefly and lovingly about the relationship between the University of Notre Dame and the Diocese of Northern Indiana.  His remarks concluded, he left the platform, walked over to the table where Bishop Sheridan was sitting, knelt down before Bishop Sheridan, and asked for his blessing.

A final word.  Fr. Ted and I were, in an odd way, classmates.  I graduated from the University of Southern California in 1968.  At my graduation ceremony, as is standard practice, a number of dignitaries were awarded honorary doctorates.  One was John Wayne.  Another was . . . Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh!  (Over the course of his lifetime, 150 universities awarded Fr. Ted honorary degrees.)  And so he and I received our degrees at the same time from the same school.  Little did I know, as a graduating college senior in 1968, that some day Fr. Ted would touch my life so deeply and personally.  I am profoundly grateful to have known this courageous priest.  Christians without number, all around the world, are saying the same, and offering thanks for his ministry.  Following his example, I continue to pray:

“Come, Holy Spirit!”

Yours in Christ,