WASHINGTON — Testimonials rained down upon Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, the retired president of the University of Notre Dame, during a bipartisan congressional Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame, is pictured in his library in 2006. Fr. Hesburgh was honored May 22 during a bipartisan congressional tribute in the U.S. Capitol as the priest neared his 96th birthday and the 70th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. (CNS photo/Matt Cashore, courtesy University of Notre Dame)tribute in the U.S. Capitol as the priest neared his 96th birthday and the 70th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
The May 22 reception, three days before the priest's birthday, included Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both of Indiana's senators, and former U.S. Ambassador to India Tim Roemer, a Notre Dame alumnus. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who issued invitations to the reception, could not attend because of various appointments, according to Pelosi.
About one-fourth of those at the reception applauded when Pelosi asked who had graduated from Notre Dame, although by the sentiments expressed later on, everyone felt a kinship with the Fighting Irish.
"In 1972 I ran for public office as a 29-year-old kid because of your passion for civil rights," Biden told Father Hesburgh, who uses a walker to aid his movement. "You're one of the reasons I've been so proud to be a Catholic."
Father Hesburgh, early in his 35-year tenure as president of Notre Dame, was appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1957 by President Dwight Eisenhower, becoming its chairman in 1969 until he was dismissed by President Richard Nixon in 1972 because the priest had voiced opposition to Nixon's policies.
Next to the podium was a photograph on loan from the National Portrait Gallery showing Father Hesburgh and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from a 1964 rally in Illinois, arms crossed in front and hands linked as they were singing the civil rights anthem "We shall Overcome."
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, prefacing his opening prayer at the reception, called Father Hesburgh one of "four great Americans." The cardinal, who is the retired archbishop of Washington, named three presidents whose likenesses are chiseled on Mount Rushmore: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. But the fourth American he cited – a "Teddy" – was not Roosevelt but Fr. Hesburgh.
Each president brought a quality to his service to an emerging nation, and Fr. Hesburgh built upon each of those qualities in his priestly ministry, according to Cardinal McCarrick.
Just as Washington began to build a nation, Fr. Hesburgh showed "an understanding of what a country should be," Cardinal McCarrick said. Just as Lincoln showed his concern for the poor, Fr. Hesburgh showed how the poor "should be a concern for all of us," he added. And as Jefferson knew what freedom of religion was, Fr. Hesburgh, the cardinal noted, "has tackled the whole question of human relations."
Roemer, a former congressman and former ambassador whose parents worked at Notre Dame and who got his graduate and doctoral degrees there, said he conferred with Fr. Hesburgh when Roemer was approached about taking the ambassadorial post.
He said Fr. Hesburgh told him, "Tim, reach out to all faith, and not just the Christians and the Catholics, but also the Muslims and the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Jains, the Sikhs."
"This room is filled with people who love you, who respect what you've done," Roemer said.
Fr. Hesburgh also had a private meeting with President Barack Obama prior to the congressional reception.
In his own remarks at the gathering, Fr. Hesburgh played down the adulation given him by the roster of speakers, which also included Indiana's Senate delegation, Dan Coats, a Republican, and Joe Donnelly, a Democrat. Fr. Hesburgh uttered a phrase in Italian, giving the translation as, "By golly, it may not all be true, but it sure sounds good."
"You made me sound good and I'm not all worthy of it," he added. "No guy can be worthy of all of it.
Fr. Hesburgh said he asks for the Holy Spirit's help each morning when he wakes. "If you're Notre Dame people, you're always out there trying to make this a better world."
Fr. Hesburgh was ordained to the priesthood June 24, 1943.