Van Ens: A priest’s passion for fairness commemorated in a new stamp (column)
The U.S. Postal Service placed its stamp of approval on Father Theodore M. Hesburgh’s (1917-2015) Christian life and witness. In a Friday, Sept. 1, dedication ceremony at the University of Notre Dame, the Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Hesburgh, a civil rights activist who served as the Fighting Irish’s president for 35 years.
Hesburgh’s ministry furthered opportunities for people who lacked chances to scale economic ladders. He epitomized proverbial wise behavior, which a biblical sage defined as striving for “righteousness, justice and fairness” (Proverbs 1:3).
Collecting stamps for almost six decades, I’m convinced the commemorative adhesive honoring Hesburgh helps fuel his fight for civil rights. “The Postal Service is pleased to issue a new Forever stamp honoring Father Theodore Hesburgh, considered one of the most important educational, religious and civic leader of the 20th century,” said Postmaster General and CEO Megan J. Brennan. “This stamp is a lasting testament to his pioneering contributions as a champion of social justice, an advocate for international aid and an emissary for peace.”
The Postal Service’s news release regarding the Hesburgh stamp goes on: “Appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1957, Father Hesburgh helped compile reports on racial discrimination and the denial of voting rights that resulted in the Omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom the same year, and he later founded the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Notre Dame.”
I met Hesburgh in the mid-1990s in the Chapel at Beaver Creek. He’d visit relatives in the Vail Valley and assist the local Roman Catholic Parish by leading Mass. After officiating at a wedding in the chapel, I bumped into Hesburgh, who was searching for a chalice to use during Mass. Pointing him to the closet where chalices were stored, we struck up a conversation about being involved in social justice.
Hesburgh warned that pursuing justice is a risky business. He told how President Richard Nixon and “law and order” supporters deemed Hesburgh’s ministry of justice undercut our nation’s stability. After serving on the Civil Rights Commission from its inception in 1957 until 1972, Hesburgh got axed by Nixon. The president was incensed because Hesburgh scolded the Nixon Administration for dragging its feet on civil rights.
He told me that sometimes practicing the fairness Jesus taught attracted critics who branded clergy as troublemakers. Hesburgh stood in a long line of activist priests who sided with the poor. Another was Father Oscar Romero (1917-1980), the Latin American priest who served as the fourth Archbishop of San Salvador. He spoke against poverty, social injustice, torture and government-incited assassinations in his homeland. Because of this prophetic witness, Romero was murdered while officiating at Mass.
Prior to his death, Romero declared what Hesburgh practiced in pursuit of fairness. “A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: What kind of gospel is that?”
Last spring, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts gave a commencement address at his son’s ninth-grade graduation. He challenged students: “From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.”
Hesburgh was treated unfairly because he worked for fair civil rights laws. The commemorative stamp saluting his ministry reminds us that following Jesus demands sacrifice.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.