I’ve had the privilege of meeting Father Hesburgh several times during the eight years I’ve worked for Notre Dame. But one occasion in particular stands out.
It was after the 2009 Notre Dame Commencement Ceremony. (Yes, the year that President Obama served as speaker.) The crowds made for the exit, only to be held up at the doors by security until the president had safely left the grounds. It was hot in there, the crowd was pressing, and the atmosphere growing increasingly tense as we stared out at the armed police and their tightly leashed canines staring back in at us.
Suddenly, there was a ripple in the assemblage as a small coterie made its way to the front. It was Father Ted with a couple companions. They made their way to the door, but before they could press the bar, a security agent stopped them and explained that they would have to wait.
If there was ever a moment when someone could justifiably play the “Do you know who I am?” card, that qualified. Of course, the crowd ceased its fidgeting and was now closely watching the exchange. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Father Ted could have called ten thousand angels, but there were at least a few hundred hyped-up people who would have gladly formed a human battering ram to help him make his escape.
So what did Father Ted do? He nodded at the agent, turned to face the crowd, grinned at us and said, “Hi, folks.” And then he waited patiently with the rest of us.
The tension broke like a wave. And more than that, the situation transformed. It became a rare occasion of standing in the presence of Notre Dame personified. Yes, he served as an adviser to presidents and the Vatican, a moral voice for America, a champion for human rights and so many more prestigious and history-making roles. But at that moment, he was just Father Ted, apparently happy to be stuck in a stuffy vestibule, talking and shaking hands with a bunch of strangers.
Many who attended Father Ted’s wake remarked that they felt they were praying at the feet of a saint. Time will tell, but if the remembrances from Mendoza folks are any indication, Father Ted’s legacy is as much about the small, personal and humble moments as the monumental.
That is a path we all can follow. Even when it means halting to wait with a bunch of hot, tired people.