Director: Patrick Creadon
Runtime: 104 minutes
He loved cigars. He loved fishing. He loved teaching and talking and justice and kindness.
But above all, he loved his God.
“Since the age of 6, all I wanted to be was a priest,” Theodore Hesburgh tells us in the documentary Hesburgh. “The priesthood was my calling.” And for the rest of Hesburgh’s life, it called him again and again—the vocation drawing him back into its folds even as he accumulated so many other titles.
He was the President of Notre Dame and an inaugural member of the United States’ Civil Rights Commission. Some said he was the most powerful non-elected person in the country. He worked with several presidents, served on countless boards and became the spiritual advisor to America’s advice queen, Ann Landers. (“This is only peculiar because we are Jewish,” Landers’ daughter, Margo Howard, says in the movie.)
But above all, he was what Notre Dame’s students called him: Father Ted.
I had never heard of Hesburgh before watching this fascinating documentary (directed by Notre Dame graduate Patrick Creadon). Despite all his roles and achievements, he seemed to like to reflect attention elsewhere, as priests are supposed to do. He never seemed to crave the spotlight.
Still, in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the spotlight found him. And often. There’s something about unalloyed righteousness that draws a crowd.
“Hesburgh, to his credit, became the conscience of the country,” former Secretary of State Leon Panetta says in the doc. The movie suggests that Hesburgh could sometimes be a little like an Old Testament prophet, fearlessly facing off against some of the most powerful people in the world. He crossed swords with his superiors at the Vatican. Once a confident of Richard Nixon, Hesburgh earned the President’s unflagging animosity when he took issue with Nixon’s stance on Civil Rights. He repeatedly told his friends that he owed them honesty, not blind loyalty.
But more often, Hesburgh guided events through simple kindness and friendship and an uncanny knack for being able to bring people together. The film suggests that the government’s landmark Civil Rights Commission—made of Republicans and Democrats, northerners and southerners—would’ve never agreed on anything if Hesburgh hadn’t taken them all fishing. They wound up making 11 critical recommendations to the government that eventually morphed into the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Tim Roemer, a former congressman, ambassador and student at Notre Dame, once asked Father Ted for some advice as he was considering a career in politics. “Put your country before party and politics and always do the right thing,” Hesburgh told him. To our jaded eyes, those words seem part cliché, part pipe dream. And yet, as this documentary unfolds, it seems Hesburgh stayed true to his own advice. No side could claim him as an ally, but all could call him a friend.
“He belonged to the side of decency,” longtime newsman Ted Koppel says in Hesburgh. “He belonged to the side of a fundamental belief in the redeemability of mankind.” The film illustrates that grandly. In fact, Hesburgh felt a lot like the subject of my favorite documentary from last year—Fred Rogers from Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.
While Hesburgh may not make the same impact as Neighbor (that’d be a pretty tall order), many of the men and women interviewed in this film lamented that today’s world lacks that sort of principled voice—a man who can stand for justice and sit and talk with every faction imaginable. And by the time the Hesburgh is over, you might find yourself lamenting the very same thing.
Hesburgh opens in select theaters May 3, 2019
By Paul Asay