He was called “the Conscience of the Nation.” He was the advisor and friend of Presidents of both parties from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. He served (and eventually chaired) the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. And around the Notre Dame campus (where he was President for 35 years) he was Father Ted. Father Theodore Hesburgh had a remarkable view of history unfolding in post-war America. Hesburgh is a new documentary from Patrick Creadon that chronicles the very public life of this man who thought of himself above all as a priest.
The film serves best as a history of the last half of the 20th century in America. We see the civil rights movement, Vietnam and student unrest, and other events of those years through Fr. Hesburgh’s involvement. To some he seemed a conservative; to others he was a flaming liberal. He stood up to Vatican efforts to censor topics at his school (even though it went against his vows of obedience). He set strict limits about protests on campus and expelled students that violated those limits. But he also spoke out against the war. He linked arms with Martin Luther King to sing “We Shall Overcome” and fought the politicians who wanted civil rights to be gradual.
Throughout his tenure at Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh believed that he was called not just to pass on the church’s teaching and tradition, but to be in conversation with the world around him. He sought to be a moral voice when everyone else approached things from pragmatic or political perspectives. For someone who rubbed elbows with the powerful, he did not seek power for himself. The film recounts a story of Pope Paul VI wanting to make him a cardinal, but Fr. Hesburgh had no such ambitions and declined.
What the film lacks is real insight into what made Fr. Hesburgh into the leader he became. There is a three minute section at the beginning that covers from the time he was six years old and wanting to be a priest until he becomes President of Notre Dame. There is nothing about his education, his mentors, or other forces that may have formed his views of the world or how he came to work so well mediating different views, as he did on the Civil Rights Commission.
And while the film is a good reflection of the events in the America, it does little to reflect the changes going on in the church during this same time. There is a brief mention of Vatican II and notes his friendship with Cardinal Montini (later Paul VI), but never mentions some of the movements within the church (such as Liberation Theology) that would certainly have been issues the school would have been involved with.
Even though I think the film misses these bits that would have strengthened the story they tell, Hesburgh is still a good example of the ways Christians and the church can and should be involved in the world and seek to be a force of change and morality.
Photos courtesy of OCP Media.