An overnight vigil for Father Hesburgh

Author: Andy Fuller

They say you can learn a lot about a person by observing who attends their funeral. That’s certainly true in the case of Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC. The dignitaries in attendance for Father Hesburgh’s funeral Mass and memorial service read like a who’s-who of American politics, the Church, and Notre Dame lore. The list of luminaries was no surprise, given Father Ted’s well-chronicled work for God, country and Notre Dame.

Yet as details of the observances surrounding his funeral were released, I found myself strangely interested in the overnight visitation. Who would arrive in the small hours to pay their respects? The eulogies offered during the waking hours would beautifully paint the portrait of the man we were celebrating, but what else could be discovered at night, during a conversation in line at 2 a.m.? I was curious to find out.

I arrived on campus around 1 a.m. Wednesday, March 4. The LaFortune Student Center was busy. “Midterms,” I thought to myself as I ordered a coffee. After meeting a colleague who shared my interest in this portion of the Father Ted observances, we made our way out into the night.

The visitation line weaved from the Main Building into a heated temporary shelter connecting it to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. The warming tent was especially welcome this night. The bright sunshine that had soaked campus each day since Father Ted had died had now given way to a mournful, gray cold that was intensifying as the hour of his burial drew nearer.

We thought we would cut through the shelter and into the basilica — no sense in staying outside longer than necessary. But upon entering, we were stopped in our tracks. A mass of students was waiting in line, so large that we barely gained entry to the heated comfort of the tent.

The scene itself was its own tribute. Students, dressed with all the appropriate formality for the event — suits, ties, dresses — were eschewing studying, sleeping or doing something altogether more seemingly inviting to stand with their dorm mates to pay their respects to the man they mostly knew only through stories. I learned later that most dorm communities made the trip over together, but no one was under compulsion to attend. These young people were here solely of their own accord.

It wasn’t all current students, of course. I struck up a conversation with Dan Koth ’97, president of the Notre Dame Club of Milwaukee, who had just arrived in town. He had regular chats with Father Ted as an undergrad and remembers being at once in awe of Father Ted’s accomplishments and at ease because of his style. “You had no sense he was who he was,” Dan recalled. “It was like I was talking to a friend. He had that warmth about him.”

Of course, Father Ted was who he was. That’s what brought Dan and his future fellow alumni out this evening. “I remember praying, when I was here, that if this day came and I was within earshot of campus, I’d drop everything and come down just to celebrate his life,” Dan said.

As we waited in line, Dan talked about his time in Sorin College and I talked about current happenings on campus. Slowly, we advanced. I turned to see if more had come. They had. The line now stretched back inside the Main Building. I would’ve thought such a scene to be likely at another, more reasonable hour.

That many people in a confined space gave rise to a considerable din, and Dan and I struggled to hear each other. Then, suddenly, all grew quiet. Near the rear of the enclosure, out of my view but within my hearing, a young woman had begun saying the rosary. Immediately, all within the space were respondents. No words of extraneous conversation were heard. Only those of devotion. Many closed their eyes and bowed their heads. The comforting prayer accompanied us as we moved through the final stages of the line in the shelter before entering the basilica. Soon, we would be in a holy place.

“Pretty powerful stuff,” Dan said.

“Midterms,” I said to myself again, now as a way to express my observation that these students, on this night, were making the best possible use of their time.

Inside the basilica, a quiet reverence held sway. No one spoke. Holy Cross fathers Jim King, Joe Corpora, Paul Doyle and Gary Chamberland stood vigil by the casket, offering a handshake or an embrace to those paying their respects. As I was there, a new shift of ushers arrived, relieving their colleagues. All done in silent reverence.

I glanced at my watch. It was 3 a.m. and the line behind us was still building.

Many students stayed to pray after their moment with the casket. Outside, some students lingered, wanting to wait for their dorm mates to make the walk back. Ben Vasquez, a freshman, told me why he wanted to pay his respects, even at this hour. “Some things go above academics,” he said, “which I guess is probably not the answer my parents would want to hear.”

On the contrary. I have a feeling Ben’s parents would be glad to hear it in this case.

The youngest members of the Notre Dame community were well-represented among the crowd that included upperclassmen, alumni, faculty and staff. While they mostly owe their knowledge of Father Ted to stories passed down by rectors, professors or extended family, their grasp of the significance of his work was at once impressive and, to me, reassuring. “He embodied what the Notre Dame community strives to be,” first year student Katie Kehoe told me.

We worry much about whether we, as a society, know what’s important anymore. The day Father Ted died, I was incredulous that the news had to compete with debates over the color of a dress and the passing of a television actor. Yet on this solemn, starless, cold night, my spirit was buoyed by what I’d seen and heard. The thousands who attended the overnight visitation served as a poignant reminder of what’s important.

I heard later that, in sum, more than 12,000 people paid their respects at the basilica during visitation hours and at the wake and funeral services. A large portion of that number passed during the overnight vigil. While they did, they taught us all a great deal about Father Ted’s legacy and the importance of helping future generations understand what he built. In those small hours, in just a handful of conversations, I found an encapsulation of what made Father Ted great: remembrance of his personal warmth and humility, admiration of the historical figure who helped build the current Notre Dame. After a few more moments of reflection, I headed home. I had my question answered. What can you learn by attending an overnight visitation? A great deal.

Andy Fuller is the director of strategic content at Notre Dame.