Four years ago, there lived a man who was never elected to public office but nevertheless changed the world. He was a priest, a brother, an activist, a friend, and his name was Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh.
Guided by the social justice-minded principles of his Catholic faith, Father Ted protected Catholic universities’ intellectual freedom when the Vatican attempted to censor the institutions of higher learning, helped construct and enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, took a stand against the Vietnam War, argued that the education of women be as much of a priority as the education of men, and so much more. He was the rare believer who went beyond the walls of the church to put into action the tenets the Bible had taught him.
The new documentary Hesburgh, which premieres nationwide on Friday, May 3, and is directed by the Emmy-nominated filmmaker Patrick Creadon (Wordplay, I.O.U.S.A.) gives us a thorough look at Father Hesburgh’s walk. From Hesburgh’s origins to his decision to devote his life to the priesthood, to his appointment — at the young age of 35 — as president of the University of Notre Dame, to all the personal, national, and global adversities that the man of the cloth later faced afterward, Hesburgh weaves a beautiful and engaging story of faith lived out. It even embodies Hesburgh’s spirit of service, with 100 percent of its profits going to two different charities: a hospital in Ecuador and a health care facility where some of Father Ted’s Holy Cross brothers now reside.
I spoke with Patrick Creadon about the film, why he made it, and why we should take a look back at the man who said to the world, “We don’t prove anything by burning something down. We prove something by building it up.” Together, we pondered the bricks of our society that have Father Hesburgh’s name all over them.
The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Da’Shawn Mosley, Sojourners: I cried during this film, which I wasn’t expecting.
Patrick Creadon: (Laughs) Join the club. I still cry when I see the movie, and I’ve seen it about a thousand times. But there’s something about the story that makes you feel kind of hopeful, that there’s a way to get out of this situation that we’re in right now, and I think the way is kindness and decency and courage and trying to get along with each other. I know that sounds really simple and trite, but Father Ted committed his life to those things, and he was able to do great work in the world because of that.
Mosley: What sparked this project?
Creadon: I was making a football film for ESPN and found myself back on campus at Notre Dame, where I went to college. Father Ted had passed away months earlier, so people were revisiting his story and his legacy. And being a documentary filmmaker, and also being a little bit of a skeptic at heart, I thought, “I would really like to find out if Father Ted’s life really lives up to the legend that surrounds him.” And that’s why we made the film. It was really important to me to look at this figure and find out how he became one of America’s most influential leaders. That’s the story we looked for, and that’s the story we told.
Mosley: While you were a student, did you interact with Father Ted at all?
Creadon: I saw him on campus a lot, but I never met him. Now that I’ve made a film about him, I’m glad that’s the case. Sometimes, if you know your subjects really well, it’s difficult to be objective about them, and job number one for me, as a documentary filmmaker, is to be objective. Despite the fact that I went to Notre Dame, this film is not a puff piece. This is a hard-hitting, deep dive into his world and his life, and what we came up with is the story of an extraordinary man who made a difference.
Mosley: What was the most exciting moment of making the film?
Creadon: I think when we found the Nixon tapes. We had the most powerful man in the world — President Nixon, president of the United States — screaming about why his friend Father Hesburgh was constantly attacking him and his administration. Well, I’ll tell you why: It’s because Father Ted had a job to do. He was the chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, the federal government was in blatant violation of the civil rights laws that he helped draft, and he wasn’t going to stand for it. When we found those audio tapes and heard how angry the president was, and how he was on the brink of abolishing the Civil Rights Commission, we knew we had something really riveting. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Father Ted was fairly unassuming. And yet, he was moving where civil rights needed to be, and he wasn’t going to let anyone — even the president — stand in his way. That was the moment I said, “This is bigger than we thought it was.” This is proof that his life really mattered and made a difference, and he serves as an incredible role model for anyone who wants to try to make the world a better place.
Mosley: Has this film changed you?
Creadon: 100 percent. While making the film, I thought, “What was his one superpower?” And I realized it was his kindness. He was a genuinely kind man. He was very transparent, honest, and trustworthy, but his kindness is what saw him through some very difficult times in our country’s history and helped him make really tough decisions. So, I wrote the word “kindness” on a piece of paper and taped it up next to my bed, and I look at it every single morning. It’s amazing how far a bit of kindness can take you in this busy world. Father Ted’s story is proof that there are different ways to handle the challenges that we all face, and it’s vital to getting us out of a very dark moment in American history.
Mosley: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Creadon: I hope they will imagine a different style of leadership. Father Ted, even though he’s not a household name today, was a giant in the second half of the 20th century. Whether you were involved in politics, education, civil rights, religion, war protests, there was Father Ted. He really became, for many people, the conscience of the country. What saddens me a little bit, but also inspires me, is the question “Where are the Father Teds today?” Where are the men and women, from any walk of life, whether they’re religious or non-religious, an elected official or a regular citizen, and how can we get those bridge builders in positions where they can do a lot of good?