Ted Hesburgh and Richard McBrien: the titans of Notre Dame

Mourners surround the casket of Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh during his burial service Wednesday at Holy Cross Community Cemetery on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. (CNS/University of Notre Dame/Matt Cashore)

They died just about a month apart. They were astonishingly gifted leaders who transformed the wider American church from the perch of their beloved University of Notre Dame.

When I first encountered Fr. Richard McBrien in a summer classroom in 1987, I knew about Fr. Ted Hesburgh the way any active Catholic did in those days: from newspapers and television. I knew enough to know he was a sophisticated thinker; he was the president of the university, after all.

It was through McBrien's class that I first glimpsed the depth of his theological reflection and the skill with which he went about implementing it. During that class in Catholicism, we discussed the papacy of Pope Paul VI. In McBrien's robust and engaging way, he would often shift out of his prepared outline to make a comment.

One time, he was explaining the rich history of Paul's encyclical tradition, calling attention to Paul's strong development of Catholic social teaching and astute Marian reflection. The "birth control encyclical" was the next topic. McBrien looked up from his text and said: "Pope Paul was so upset by the response to Humanae Vitae that he never wrote another encyclical, which is too bad because Evangelii Nuntiandi is the best thing he wrote. But because he labeled it an apostolic exhortation, people think it is less important."

I was a neophyte master's student, still trying to figure out just what the difference was between undergraduate-level and graduate-level discourse. The research paper assignment that I had to submit to McBrien loomed scarily: McBrien had been very clear that about the high level of discourse that was expected in the theology department. The department's program was not summer camp. So when he made this claim that required access to personal knowledge about Pope Paul's intentions, I asked myself, "Where did he read that? How do I find that text in the library?" as well as, "Is that Father McBrien's interpretation that he infers because there are no encyclicals after Humanae Vitae?"

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With not a little trepidation, I asked my first question in McBrien's classroom: "Professor, how do you know that was Pope Paul's reason?"

"Father Hesburgh told me. Pope Paul told Father Hesburgh that he was very upset by the response to Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul and Father Hesburgh were friends."

Friends indeed. During my years at Notre Dame, I learned more about the consequences of Hesburgh's friendships.

For me, though, there was none like the one between McBrien and Hesburgh. Hesburgh read McBrien's recently published Catholicism when he was on his summer retreat in Wisconsin. When he finished, he knew he had discovered the person who could transform the theology department into a world-class department. He sent his provost to Boston to bring McBrien to Notre Dame.

I continued at Notre Dame for my doctoral studies and was privileged to serve as McBrien's graduate assistant; he directed my dissertation. Among other things, McBrien was known for valuing succinct discourse, whether in person or in print. Working for him trained me to strive for that kind of clarity. We eventually got to the point where he would smile when I began: "Would you tell me in one succinct sentence...?"

I asked him once what the essential feature of Hesburgh's leadership was. "Magnanimity," McBrien replied. When I left his office that day and traveled back to my workspace in the Hesburgh Library, I knew that is how I would have described McBrien's leadership. He was generous, and he expected people to do their best.

He was strong and could certainly demand it if the people who worked for him were falling short, but his leadership was so effective because of magnanimity, an expansive openness that recognized excellence and drew it forth.

Once I had passed my exams and was able to begin teaching, I taught a class on the Second Vatican Council. McBrien was my supervisor, so he worked with me as I crafted the syllabus. After he approved the final syllabus and calendar, he asked me how I felt about it. Did I think it was as good as it could be? I said my only wish was that I could have Hesburgh come and talk about Pope Paul because he would be able to do that so much better than I could.

Again, in that wonderful direct and intense way McBrien had, he said, "Well, ask him to come talk. The worst he can say is no." Notice he did not say, "Let me give him a call and see if he will do it for me." Magnanimity. It was my class. I had earned the standing to make that request myself.

And of course, Hesburgh came and talked with my class. He came more than once, but it was his first visit I pondered when I learned of his death. He came to class, and after I introduced him, he treated me like I was the most important professor on campus. He referred to me frequently during his remarks about the council, saying things like, "I am sure your excellent professor has explained this in greater depth" and "I am sure you are aware of this because Professor Vance-Trembath has created this outstanding class." I was a graduate student who was working on her dissertation and teaching one class. Magnanimity.

But even more important and almost haunting during this raw, mysterious time so close to his death was what he said as the class time came to a close. This time, his generous leadership was directed at the students. He talked about Vatican II for about an hour, and then with 15 minutes or so left, he looked over at me sitting in back corner.

"Professor, would you mind if I stopped talking about the council now and used your class time to talk to the students about a more personal matter?"

He then said that the end of the fall semester was coming, and the students would have the joy of Christmas vacation with their friends. He described how exciting it is to be reunited with friends in your hometown after having been away for so long.

"Would you do something for me as president of Our Lady's university? Would you make special time for your parents? They love you so; they miss you so much when you are here. I know you will have many parties and gatherings to go to with your friends. Those times are precious. Sometimes I hear from parents that their children go right back out the door when they come home for Christmas. I don't think these children intend to make their parents sad. They miss you so much, so please take time that is just for them. Maybe a nice dinner, or go for a walk? Just enough time to let them know that you love them."

When I heard that Hesburgh had died, I was reminded of the faces of those college students as they heard him ask them for a favor.

Ted and Dick are together again, no longer in bodies hobbled by aging and illness. I like to think of them sharing a meal, which was McBrien's sacrament of friendship. But I am very sure that the first stop both of them made in heaven was to greet their parents and be embraced by their love.

[Sally Vance-Trembath is an adjunct professor in the Graduate Program in Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University. She earned her master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Notre Dame.]


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