Longtime priest has always believed in laity's role

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


Birthdays and anniversaries that do not end in a zero or a five are generally relegated to the back of the proverbial bus. But once someone reaches 90 years of age, every birthday thereafter is a milestone.

Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, for 35 years president of the University of Notre Dame and currently its president emeritus, turned 91 on May 25. He received many well-deserved accolades and best wishes on that occasion, but in his mind he will celebrate a far more significant anniversary early next week.

Sixty-five years ago, on June 24, 1943, he was ordained a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross. The Second World War was still raging and the young Father Ted, as he has always preferred to be called, asked to serve as a Navy chaplain. His superiors had other plans for him, and he was sent to study for a doctorate in theology at The Catholic University of America.

He would excel in his studies there, as he has excelled in everything else he has done, but he had difficulty obtaining approval for the topic that he had chosen for his doctoral dissertation: the theology of the laity. Some of the professors at CUA regarded it as not sufficiently academic.

One needs to be reminded that in the mid-1940s lay people were still looked upon as second-class members of the church. The "real" church consisted of the hierarchy and other clergy. Lay people were simply the beneficiaries of their teachings and spiritual ministrations. As one cynical wag once put it, the laity existed to "pray, pay and obey."

There also was a movement at the time known as Catholic Action. Its strength was that it found a place for the laity in the church. Its weakness was that it regarded lay activity as completely dependent on the hierarchy.

Catholic Action was defined as "the participation of the laity in the work of the hierarchy." The "real" work of the church was done by the hierarchy. Lay people were at best their helpers.

Critics twisted the definition to fit their idea of the actual situation in the church, namely, "the interference of the laity in the lethargy of the hierarchy."

The young Father Hesburgh knew in the mid-1940s that there was much more to the role of the laity in the church than what even Catholic Action allowed for, and certainly more than the ministerial opportunities that were open to laity at the time.

So after a struggle, but with the support of his dissertation director, Paulist Father Eugene Burke, Father Hesburgh produced his theology of the laity. So popular was the finished product that the university bookstore could not keep printed copies in stock

Father Hesburgh later received a request from the Vatican for a copy of the dissertation. He dutifully sent it to Rome but heard nothing more about it -- until two decades later, when he read the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity and recognized his ideas incorporated therein, without a single footnote of attribution.

He had surely been ahead of his time, even ahead of the great Dominican theologian, Yves (later Cardinal) Congar, whose book, Lay People in the Church, became the standard work on the theology of the laity upon its publication a decade later.

It was prescient of this young priest, who was destined for such greatness in the Catholic Church and in the world community, to have recognized at the outset of his priestly life and ministry that priests exist for the sake of the laity, not vice versa. Indeed, we are all laity, or people (laos in Greek) of God. The fundamental sacrament is baptism, not holy orders.

Father Hesburgh received the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal in July of 2000. At the award ceremony in the Capitol rotunda, then-President Bill Clinton captured the essence of the man when, after calling attention to his extraordinary contributions to his country and to world peace, he said: "The greatest honor you’ll ever wear around your neck is the collar of a priest."

Father Hesburgh unhesitatingly agreed. The most significant day of his life, he said at the ceremony, was the day of his ordination to the priesthood. For years he has insisted to his many friends and countless audiences that his all-sufficient epitaph would simply read: "priest."

Since his ordination 65 years ago, the Eucharist has been at the center of his daily life, no matter where in the world he has been, and his daily prayer, "Come, Holy Spirit."

A "happy anniversary" to this great priest.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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