World record holder celebrates 70 years of priestly ministry

Rear Admiral Mark L. Tidd, chief of Navy Chaplains, declared Fr. Hesburgh an honorary Navy Chaplain April 17. He turns 96 May 25, one day after celebrating 70 years of priesthood. (courtesy photo)
Rear Admiral Mark L. Tidd, chief of Navy Chaplains, declared Fr. Hesburgh an honorary Navy Chaplain April 17. He turns 96 May 25, one day after celebrating 70 years of priesthood. (courtesy photo)

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh is one of 22 members of Holy Cross celebrating anniversaries of Ordination or Religious Profession during this year’s Jubilee. A celebratory Mass is scheduled for today at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

Fr. Hesburgh, who celebrates his 96th birthday May 25, is currently the oldest and longest-serving priest of the United States Province. The New York born priest knew as an eighth grader he wanted to be a priest after a Holy Cross priest and three missionaries visited the church.

“I just wanted to be a priest, not necessarily knowing what I would do as a priest, except that I knew I wanted to be a priest,” he fondly recounted. “I don’t know why God does what God does. Once I came here [the University of Notre Dame], I didn’t want to do anything but be a Holy Cross priest.”

Vocation dates for Fr. Hesburgh

  • 1934-37: Studied at University of Notre Dame
  • Aug. 15, 1935: received into the Congregation of Holy Cross
  • Aug. 16, 1936: First Profession of Vows
  • 1937-39: Theology at Gregorian University in Rome; Earned bachelor degree
  • Aug. 16, 1939: Final Vows
  • June 24, 1943: Ordained
  • 1945: Doctorate in sacred theology from Catholic University of America

Fr. Hesburgh – the early years (video from Family Theater Productions)

Fr. Hesburgh wanted to become a Navy chaplain after ordination, but furthered his studies instead. His doctorate was one of many degrees Fr. Hesburgh would hold. He ultimately earned the distinction of having received 150 honorary degrees, a Guinness World Record.

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh (courtesy of Congregation of Holy Cross, U.S. Province of Priests and Brothers)
Fr. Theodore Hesburgh (courtesy of Congregation of Holy Cross, U.S. Province of Priests and Brothers)

He returned to Notre Dame after completing his doctorate and assisted the returning veterans as Religion Instructor and Chaplain of World War II veterans and married veterans living in Vetville at Notre Dame. He went on to other roles at the university including Executive Vice President in 1949 and the University’s 15th President in 1952. Fr. Hesburgh was 35 and held the position for the same number of years – the longest serving President of Notre Dame.

Fr. Hesburgh was one of 16 presidential appointments to serve on the Civil Rights Commission. He knew Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. well and worked with him in advancing the cause of integration in the United States. The Holy Cross priest was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1964 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. He also was given the inaugural Gerald R. Ford Award for leadership in intercollegiate athletics by the NCAA in 2004.

As president of Notre Dame, Fr. Hesburgh increased financial aid for students and opened the University to female students in 1972. He is credited with making the University the nation and world’s most renowned Catholic higher education institution. Fr. Hesburgh also chaired the International Federation of Catholic Universities, which redefined the nature of the contemporary Catholic university.

On April 17, 2013 at the age of 95, Fr. Hesburgh’s long-time dream of becoming Navy Chaplain finally became a reality. Rear Admiral Mark L. Tidd, Chief of Navy Chaplains, declared Fr. Hesburgh an honorary Navy Chaplain at a ceremony at Notre Dame.

Fr. Hesburgh remains active. He resides at Holy Cross House in Notre Dame, Ind., and continues to work daily in his office on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame. Fr. Hesburgh also finds time to fish, his favorite past-time.

Papal appointments:

  • 1956-70: Permanent Vatican City representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria
  • 1968: Head of the Vatican representatives attending the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ human rights declaration in Tehran, Iran
  • 1972: Spearheaded the construction of the Tantur Institute for Ecumenical Studies in Jerusalem at At the request of Pope Paul VI
  • 1974: Member of the Holy See’s United Nations delegation
  • 1983: Pontifical Council for Culture

Other accomplishments:

  • 2006: Sachem Award, Indiana’s highest honor, in recognition of a lifetime of excellence and moral virtue that brought credit and honor to the state
  • 2010: one of 100 recipients of a Centennial Medal from Catholic Charities USA for his work on behalf of the poor
  • Founded the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame with Philanthropist Joan Kroc, wife of the late founder of McDonald’s Corp.
  • Honorary chairman of the fundraising campaign for the South Bend Salvation Army’s Kroc Community Center, which opened in 2012 and was built by securing a grant from the Kroc Foundation and monies left by Mrs. Kroc to Salvation Army locations across the nation upon her death.


Fr. Hesburgh – vocation story (video from Family Theater Productions) 


  1. Father Hesburgh, as a driving force behind the Land O’ Lakes Statement and enabler of Msgr Jack Egan of “Catholic Campaign for Human Development” infamy, has done much to undermine Catholic education and morals in the United States. It can be inferred that had it not been for Fr Hesburgh’s corrosive influence, Obama might not be president and we wouldn’t be staring Obamacare down the wrong end of the barrel.

  2. Fr. Hesburgh, certainly for the best intentions, was the chief instrument in dismantling the Catholic commitment of our universities. His “Land O’ Lakes” statement was a surrender to the secular establishment. His Achilles’ Heel was his desire for celebrity approval: and so he became the court chaplain of Kennedy Catholicism. A tragic story. Any man who received so many honorary degrees from schools of the secular establishment should examine his conscience before he meets his Maker – but he is so far entranced by this world that he probably would not be able to understand what he did so wrong.

  3. Fr. Hesburgh has done a lot for Notre Dame but only for the sake of money. He wanted the best catholic research university in the world but realized early in his tenure as president that he couldn’t get there without donations from the secular world. Thus, he traded Catholic identity for riches of this world. What is Notre Dame today but a secular university with a religious name.

  4. Notre Dame secular in everything but name? Seriously? Have you been to ND? Compared to Ave Maria, sure, it isn’t as “Catholic” as it could be in that sense, but compare it to the top universities in the country that claim a Catholic background (“can’t have the Cross on the wall” Georgetown, for example), it is far and beyond a Catholic university.

    It’s like saying you’re not Catholic because you take money from a workplace that isn’t Catholic or because you watch a TV show that an atheist wrote you really aren’t Catholic except in name.

    Geez. The man has faithfully served as a priest for 70 years and, according to him at least, celebrated Mass every day, save one, when he had a drink of water after midnight after an early morning emergency baptism during the time when water between midnight and the celebration of Mass was forbidden as part of the Eucharistic fast. He’s made mistakes, sure, but man, way to be a Debbie Downer on a story of 70 years of priesthood.

  5. Seventy years of the kind of service both he and the Church needed to do without. The man has betrayed Christ and the Church. His reasons or justifications do not matter. Now, only reconciliation matters. Literally for the love of Christ, I hope he has it in him to repent.


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