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Interview by Todd C. Ream and Brian C. Clark


Something So Good, We Want to Share It

A conversation with the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh

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It's interesting that every one of our halls (and some of our academic buildings as well) has a chapel. We have mass in the chapels every day, and of course they are packed on Sundays. We have a central church, the Sacred Heart Church, which is a beautiful church, one of the first buildings on the campus. When most of the buildings on campus burned down in the 1870s, everything east of the church was lost, but the church was saved—it's still the original structure with French stained glass windows and the beautiful Gothic design. There is also a place called the Grotto, which is a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes, and I would guess that a great number of students drop in there to say a prayer every day. It's right next to the church, and it's a very meditative kind of place. When alumni come back, they go down to the Grotto and say a prayer; it's a custom here.

Faith has been always a strong component running through the whole campus. I'm retired now, and into my nineties, so I follow one of my companions, Father Charles Sheedy, who used to say, "Life is mostly showing up." I show up every day, and it's a constant range of faculty and students and alumni coming by to talk. It keeps my days active, but it's also a good testament to the fact that the tradition is there, and openness is there. We have priests and nuns. And the nuns are in the women's dorms.

When I went coeducational, all the students wanted coed dorms. I said, "Look, men aren't women and women aren't men. Women need special education and they get it best by living together with other women, forming lifelong friendships. When you guys move into a dorm you tend to take over, and the women wouldn't really have a terrain of their own." This is quite unusual in modern universities. Practically all universities have coeducational dorms. But we have half our dorms for women and half for men. Of course they can visit back and forth during the day, but when it comes toward midnight the bell goes off and the guys have to get out and the women have the dorm to themselves for the evening hours. They can sit around the bed and talk women talk. The place is theirs. It's a very good thing.

Are there other ways in which Notre Dame's theological grounding distinguishes it from many research universities?

Within the last year a top professor from Harvard came here, and a top professor from Stanford came here. And they'll be here the rest of their lives, I trust, and they came here because they felt Notre Dame had an added dimension they didn't have in those other places, which are great universities. I was President of the Board of Overseers for two terms at Harvard University, so I got a very good insight into how one of the best universities in the land operates. I have to say I learned about some things they were doing that we should be doing, and now are doing, but I also saw that they didn't have some of the things that we cherish here. Not simply a moral dimension, because an education at Harvard obviously has moral content as well intellectual content, but there is something more here. If you claim to be a religious institution, you'd better show, number one, that religion is a vital force in the whole operation: teaching, research, reading, and growing. And worship is a vital part of that. It is not academically central, but it is central in the lives of individuals who are doing the academic thing.

Added to that spiritual dimension—you might say the theological and philosophical concern of your faculty—there is also a style of life that might make you somewhat distinctive. While we don't want to be goody-goody religious in a pietistic sense, we want to be solidly religious in the sense that there is such a thing as a theological world growing out of divine revelation—and we shouldn't act as though that's not a part of knowledge. It's the center, I think, of knowledge. But that's not recognized in most universities, where they try to make up for it by having religious clubs or Newman clubs or things like that. Here it's an integral part of our philosophy of education.

For example, there is a building going up right now outside the window. You can look out before you leave. It's a church life building, and it began because we've always had a tradition here of our students doing social work, or you might say apostolic work of a sort. Part of that is tutoring minority kids, part of it's visiting poor schools and upgrading their facilities, part of it's going abroad and teaching in Africa and Asia and Latin America. Early on our students were caught up, especially after the war, with a sense of service in a broader sense. And then they started going overseas. Today we have 30 different overseas programs. And so, while we have the usual four classes here at Notre Dame, we also have a fifth class, you might say, where somewhere in that continuum of four years they're spending six months to a year overseas. That's become a fundamental part of the deal here. And today, over 80 percent of our students are involved in some kind of social action—you can put another word on it if you want: they tutor or they work with sports groups or they help injured children or retarded children. Many of our students spend their summers doing this kind of service, or they take a year or two after graduation to work in the Peace Corps.

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