One of the most important things that Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny did this St. Patrick’s season hardly made the mainstream news.
Amid all the hustle and bustle of a White House visit and parade celebrations, Kenny slipped away to the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana to pay well deserved homage last weekend.
There he honored America’s greatest priest Father Ted Hesburgh with the bestowing of Irish citizenship at an event on the Notre Dame campus.
When it comes to great priests there is Father Hesburgh and there is everyone else.
At a time when the role of the church has been under attack like never before, Hesburgh stands as a beacon.
Hesburgh, a legendary figure now 95 years old, was a leading figure in the U.S. civil rights movement and an educator who was considered among the finest of the 20th century.
Appointed by President Eisenhower to the historic civil rights commission, he was hounded down South when he went to investigate abuses. Death threats did not deter him or his fellow commissioners, even though they eventually ended up staying in army bases as nowhere else was safe.
As President Obama noted, “There were six members of the commission. It included five whites and one African-American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law
school, a Midwestern university president, Father Ted.
“ They worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. Finally, when they reached an impasse … Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.”
That deal became the Civil Rights Act, perhaps the most seminal law of the 20th century.
Hesburgh also transformed Notre Dame from a provincial academy to an academic and sporting powerhouse. Some 20,000 Irish Americans will fly to Dublin for the Notre Dame/Navy game in September, and Hesburgh’s vision will have come full circle.
The citizenship award is very rare. It is not an honorary award and is given to those who do not qualify through ancestral rules.
Hesburgh’s Irish roots are through his Irish mother, Ann Marie Murphy. He grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Syracuse, New York.
Hesburgh proudly showed off his new Irish passport after the presentation at a St Patrick’s night dinner on the 14th floor of Hesburgh Library.
Former Coca-Cola president Donald Keough led the tributes to Hesburgh in his role as the chairman emeritus of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees.
“He is the soul of this place,” said Keough of Hesburgh. “At age 35, he became president of a lovely Midwestern college and proceeded to develop it into the greatest Catholic university in the world.
“He started Notre Dame on a journey, acquiring top-notch professors and drawing on the help of lay people while also retaining the university’s central Catholic identity.”
Current Notre Dame president Father John I. Jenkins, and former president Father Edward A. Malloy also paid tribute to the new Irish citizen.
If there is one man who has done the Irish in America and indeed all Americans a great favor it is Father Hesburgh.
The Irish government award is both timely and totally justified. Like St. Patrick, Hesburgh was a missionary who changed lives forever. It was a well deserved and thoughtful honor.