The University of Notre Dame has always held a soft spot in my Catholic heart. I can remember watching Knute Rockne All American as a kid and thinking I’d like to go there some day. Well, like most childhood dreams this one faded away into the black-and-white mist of time and old movies, and I went down other paths.
However, the mystique of this great university has stayed with me and there have been times I regretted my decision not to pursue that dream. After watching the documentary Hesburgh, this is one of those times.
Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, who died in 2015 at the age of 97, was the driving force that made Notre Dame into the university it is today. I feel confidant in saying that without this man as university president we might think of it only as a football school.
Through many new interviews with people such as Ted Koppel, Leon Panetta, Dan Rather, Robert Sam Anson and others, plus archival interviews with the man himself, filmmaker Patrick Creadon creates a masterful story of a man who became indispensable not only to the university but to our country, as well.
Fr. Hesburgh was a man who served his Church but he also saw himself as a patriotic American. He was an adviser to multiple presidents and served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The film argues that without Fr. Hesburgh sitting on the commission, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may never have become law. It’s hard to find fault with that claim.
Fr. Hesburgh was not only a giant among the political class but the film shows us his legacy regarding Catholic higher education. Here is where it gets a little interesting based on how you see the current state of Catholic colleges and universities.
If you think they are in great shape, then Fr. Hesburgh is seen as a hero. But if you think they are not, you can see by the film that Fr. Hesburgh could be to blame; it is all a matter of perspective. This is where the film can come across as a little too reverential of its subject but nonetheless it is accurate and tells the whole story.
Overall this movie is a wonderful documentary even though sometimes I found it bordering on placing Fr. Hesburgh on a pedestal. He did great things in his long life, many of them quite admirable. If I had to find one fault with this documentary I would say it can feel a little like the opening of a cause for sainthood when the reality is the man was far more complicated than that and his legacy will be the subject of much scholarship and debate for some time to come.
Overall it is a wonderful snapshot of a great man’s life and every Catholic should watch this film to gain an understanding of how a priest can be a force for good and change in the world and in our Church.
IF YOU GO:
Hesburgh hits theaters nationwide on Friday.