Hesburgh’s Relationships: The Success Story of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute

By Alice Reid

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Photograph taken at the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies in Tantur Jerusalem,

Long black robes with seemingly infinite buttons contrast starkly with the emotions on the faces of those pictured: hope and peace of mind, maybe even joy. Stark white clerical collars and ornate gold chains signal the intricate hierarchy of the Church. The photo is seemingly posed, but at the same time sincere, as the religious clergy turn to each other mid-conversation. Greek Orthodox clergy stand side by side Catholic clergy and Protestant clergy. Alongside these religious men are I.A. O'Shaughnessy, philanthropist and major Notre Dame donor; his daughter, both the rector and the vice rector of the Institute, and of course Theodore Hesburgh himself. This photo captures the inauguration of the groundbreaking Tantur Institute of Ecumenism, and a few of the people responsible for its success. In 1972, Tantur opened its doors to members of Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican faiths in a first of its kind effort to unite and learn from those with differing religious beliefs.

Hesburgh stands fourth from the right in the shadows of the photo, watching over the group with a knowing look of satisfaction. Responsible for establishing the Institute, Hesburgh takes a step back to observe the connections that he initiated between vastly different people in the process of creating the Tantur Institute. This one photo captures a narrow snapshot of the incredible relationships Hesburgh formed throughout his life, often with momentous outcomes. Historians and friends of Hesburgh alike have given him credit for his abilities to fundraise, network, and compromise, but at the heart of Hesburgh's success is his exceptional ability to relate to other human beings with varying levels of relationships, ranging from steadfast friendships to tense connections.

This paper looks closely at the specific relationships that Hesburgh had with those involved in the creation of the Tantur Institute, and how these connections benefitted the advancement of the institute. The major relationships crucial to the founding of Tantur are those Hesburgh held with Pope Paul VI, donors like I.A. O'Shaughnessy, the Tantur Academic Council, and the Catholic Church hierarchy. These next paragraphs will provide a historical background on the origins of the Tantur Institute before turning to explore in depth how Hesburgh formed and navigated different kinds of relationships, both with individuals and groups, in order to benefit the Institute.

It is important to first note the context behind the ecumenical movement and how the idea for Tantur originated, which eventually lead to Pope Paul VI choosing Hesburgh to head the Institute's creation. In 1959, Pope John 23rd called the Second Vatican Council, which served as an important stepping-stone to the eventual formation of the Tantur Institute. Vatican II holds major significance in the ecumenical movement as a whole because prior to Vatican II, Rome had not shown interest in ecumenism and in fact in some ways had been opposing church unity by refusing to give the Anglican Holy Orders recognition. While the ecumenical movement had first originated in 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Catholic Church had done a fine job of not only keeping its distance but outright rejecting it. A harsh interpretation of the Canon from 1917, for instance, states that no Catholics were permitted to attend non-Catholic services. With this in mind, it becomes much clearer why the Second Vatican Council was momentous for the Church and the ecumenical movement (Lowe 15).

At Vatican II, Pope John Paul II made a big effort to welcome observers from all different faiths. The observers actually were seated closer to the presider's table than the Cardinals (Lowe 24). This was important in continuing to develop a relationship with other faiths, and especially came in handy when many of the non-Catholic figures were supportive of the Tantur Institute. Soon after he was elected Pope in 1963, Pope Paul VI met with Patriarch Athenagoras, patriarch of the Orthodox Church. It was the first meeting between the Pope and the Orthodox Patriarch since their two Churches had separated, over a thousand years before. This marked an exciting new development for the Churches of the world. All of these events led up to Pope Paul VI's inspiration to create an ecumenical institute to pioneer Christian unity (Lowe 13-25).

Pope Paul VI saw Hesburgh's election as president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, IFCU, as the perfect opportunity to ask Hesburgh a major favor. IFCU hoped to unify Catholic Universities, which the Pope knew could correlate with his hope to unify different faiths, considering education regarding other religions is a pivotal element of ecumenism. In a private audience with Father Hesburgh and the donor I.A. O'Shaughnessy, Pope Paul VI officially asked Hesburgh to take over forming the Tantur Institute through his role as president of IFCU. Unfortunately, IFCU hadn't really been established beyond paper, so Hesburgh was initially on his own with this major undertaking. Of course, with the help of Hesburgh's vast network of friends, colleagues, and even superiors, Hesburgh was able to bring it to fruition. This project was especially challenging since the Tantur Institute was nothing like any other institute in existence up until this point, which meant Hesburgh was starting from scratch. The creation of the Tantur Institute had its fair share of challenges that Hesburgh had to face including funding, land disputes over the property located in Jerusalem, political tension in Jerusalem, and even choosing the details for the academic aspect of the Institute. With all of these challenges, Hesburgh was aided by friends, colleagues, and other religious with whom he had formed connections along the way.

It is particularly surprising that, out of all the people he could have chosen, Pope Paul VI chose Hesburgh. The university president had no formal experience with ecumenism. What was it then about their relationship that caused the Pope to choose Hesburgh for the founding of Tantur? The Pope had many diplomatic relationships, but friendships were more rare because of the prestige of his position. In his autobiography God, Country, Notre Dame, Hesburgh details his relationship with Pope Paul VI. When the Pope traveled to Notre Dame to celebrate the Baccalaureate Mass in 1960, Hesburgh spent much of his time keeping the Pope company since not many people could speak Italian (Hesburgh 250). This was only the start of a friendship that developed to include gift-giving, continued visits with each other, and a shared interest for space travel (Hesburgh 256). The friendship that Hesburgh held with the Pope set him apart from the many other diplomatic priests and skilled Catholic businessmen that were qualified to create the Tantur Institute. In his autobiography, Hesburgh admits that his friendships with the Pope made more professional communication easier since he "felt more comfortable in conveying to the Pope what was on my mind" (Hesburgh 252). Hesburgh continued to impress Pope Paul VI with his abilities and remained a friend contrary to some gossip regarding their falling out. The Pope chose Hesburgh for more important roles as the years went on—such as head of the Vatican representatives for the human rights declaration in 1968 and member of the Vatican's United Nations in 1974— demonstrating the steady nature of their closeness (Hesburgh 250-258).

While Hesburgh's relationship with the Pope was responsible for landing him the role of forming the Tantur Institute, he also established countless other connections that helped him build a successful establishment. Another important friendship Hesburgh held was with one of the major donors that made the institute possible: I. A. O'Shaughnessy. As he did with Pope Paul VI, Hesburgh spent time with O'Shaughnessy as a friend while maintaining professional relations regarding specific matters. Not many people can uphold both types of relationships, and this was a major factor that set Hesburgh apart from the rest.

Father Hesburgh and I. A. O'Shaughnessy spent many an afternoon smoking a cigar together, and Hesburgh even took O'Shaughnessy on a vacation to Jerusalem and Rome to see the finished product in Tantur and explore Europe. In fact, Father Hesburgh was sitting on O'Shaughnessy's boat casually drinking a scotch with him when he broke the difficult news that the price of the building for the Tantur Institute had doubled from 1 million to 2 million as a result of the June War of 1967 in Jerusalem that won higher wages for workers. O'Shaughnessy responded, "Father Ted, it is only money, I will double my contribution" (Lowe 10). Hesburgh was able to have this casual conversation and easily resolved outcome with O'Shaughnessy because of their friendship.

However, Hesburgh was not always so successful in his efforts to fundraise, and in many cases it was because of his failure to form a friendship with the donor like he did with O'Shaughnessy. In some cases, it may not have truly been possible. For instance, in Hesburgh's three-hour meeting with Mr. Simon Doukas the then president of AHEPA in 1967 and John Thevos a past president of AHEPA, friendship was simply not an option. AHEPA is the American Hellenistic Educational Progressive Association; its purpose is to donate money to scholarships to encourage education of Greek immigrants. During the meeting, Hesburgh hoped to diplomatically convince one or more of these men to donate money to the Tantur Institute either for the endowment or to fund the library. Doukas was not interested in the causes that Hesburgh suggested, and instead wanted to raise money to build a monument. Doukas also was not approaching this in the ecumenical manner since he was only really taking into consideration the Catholics and Orthodox Catholics while excluding the Protestants. Hesburgh noted that Mr. Thevos, on the other hand, was supportive of the ecumenical cause, but didn't want to give financial aid to the institution. In his letter to an apostolic delegate, Egidio Vagnozzi, Hesburgh admitted that this was a great disappointment for the institute since he was really hoping for financial assistance from the Orthodox Catholics (1967 letter to Most Reverend Egidio Vagnozzi 1). Most of the documents regarding Hesburgh and his fundraising savvy refer only to his successes, so this is a rare example of a more challenging case in his major fundraising effort.

Despite this setback, Hesburgh worked tirelessly, constantly meeting and corresponding with diplomats and colleagues alike in order to raise enough money to support Tantur. Most of the money that Hesburgh raised for the Tantur Institute was from private donors, so these types of meetings with influential figures were crucial to Hesburgh's fundraising cause. Even with obstacles such as this, Hesburgh was able to raise enough money as of November 1972 to fund the Institute for the next six years (Student Newspaper Article - Up to the House of the Lord Nov 1972).

After the Provisional Committee met eight times in 1964 for organizational purposes, Hesburgh chose an Academic Council to be entirely responsible for planning the academics of the Institute. The Academic Council was strategically representative of many religions, made up of nine Roman Catholics and twenty-nine other non-Catholic scholars. Their first meeting was in November 1965 in Bellagio. The rhetoric Hesburgh used to address the Academic Council is intriguing, mainly because of how it transformed over a period of five years. His letters prompt an important question: What relationship does Hesburgh want to foster with the Academic Council? These two letters together give an important insight into Hesburgh and the relationships he held with others. It demonstrates his ability to form relationships over time, instead of diving right in and overstepping his boundaries by treating a colleague like a close friend.

Hesburgh closes his letter to the Academic Council in 1967 saying: "I send my best personal regards and gratitude for your dedication to our project" (1967 Letter to Academic Council 3). At first, this closing seems to be a perfectly typical way to address colleagues. But, if this closing is compared to Hesburgh's style of address to the same exact group of people five years later, there is a glaring juxtaposition. Five years later, he begins a letter to the council with the greeting "My dear friends" (1972 Letter Members of the Academic Council 1). This is in contrast to the more diplomatic tone that Hesburgh uses in the first letter from 1967. He speaks to them in an almost conversational tone, admitting that he has had a difficult time raising the funds needed for the institute. His willingness to share his struggles suggests a certain trust; he felt comfortable sharing something in confidence that could make him seem weak or less capable. Hesburgh also refers to a "we," including him and the Academic Council, which is another indicator of his camaraderie with the group. Whether this is his true emotion or not, he clearly used his rhetoric to communicate a certain level of equality between himself and the council. At the very end, Hesburgh's closing remark is "With devoted best wishes and prayers for each of you, and looking forward to seeing you in Jerusalem in September" (1972 Letter from Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh to the Members of the Academic Council 2). Once again, Hesburgh manages to phrase his closing remark in a way that will make the reader feel special.

Over a period of only five years, Hesburgh managed to befriend a group of individuals from vastly different backgrounds and religions. This brings about a distinction that is not as apparent in some of the other documents. Hesburgh wasn't best friends with prestigious figures like the Pope since day one. Instead, it took time and effort to build up to a friendship or certain sturdy relationship that he would eventually have with them. The increasingly intimate and harmonious friendship Hesburgh fostered with the Academic Council, manifested in the tone of the letters, very likely nurtured an administrative environment in which the academic and ecumenical work of the Tantur Institute could prosper.

Hesburgh also formed important connections with larger groups and organizations, most prominently his relationship with the Catholic Church. Hesburgh's relationship with the Church was quite different than his relationship with Pope Paul VI. While Hesburgh was almost an old friend of Pope Paul VI, Hesburgh challenged the authority of the Vatican if necessary. In order to have the relationship with the Vatican that Hesburgh did, he needed to assert his authority in certain situations even if it meant causing some strain on the relationship. In 1967, Benelli decided he wanted to take over the Tantur Institute. Cardinal Benelli was infamous within the Catholic world, and was nicknamed "The Berlin Wall" as well as "Your Efficiency" because of his reputation for being stubborn and making enemies easily. Benelli worked very closely with Pope Paul VI, and was considered to be one of the most powerful prelates in the Roman Catholic Church at the time. Hesburgh threatened to resign from his position, using his resignation as leverage to oppose Benelli's efforts. Hesburgh also pointed out that funds would be returned to donors if Benelli took over, using his keen business skill to manipulate the tough situation and keep everything within his control.

Benelli's importance within the Church puts into perspective what Hesburgh was up against when he protected the Tantur Institute from being taken over by the Holy See. Considering the prestige of Cardinal Benelli, most would not be willing to stand up to him, let alone be able to win the argument. While a more tense diplomatic relationship is not one that Hesburgh is often praised for, it was necessary for this situation, and demonstrated Hesburgh's ability to know how to best form relationships with different people to allow for the success of Tantur (Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, Powerful Vatican Official, Dies 1).

Hesburgh applied the same reasoning he used to prevent Benelli from overtaking Tantur in the Eighth General Meeting of the International Federation of Catholic Universities. In 1969, Father Hesburgh, as president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, and Pere Luyten, professor at the only state university in Switzerland holding a Faculty of Catholic Theology, both argued that a Catholic University should be independent, since the source of its Catholic identity lies not in its relation to the Holy See (Doherty 123). Luyten stated that "any external control would be foreign to the Catholic spirit and to the essential freedom of research as well as of theological development itself" (qtd. Doherty 123). Although this example is about Catholic Universities, it demonstrates how Hesburgh used his knowledge from other organizations and discussions to aid his decision-making for the Tantur Institute. The sometimes-strained relationship that Hesburgh had with the Church was a necessary evil in order for him to assert his own opinions and beliefs even if it meant going against the grain.

Throughout his life, Hesburgh was able to be successful in a large part because of his incredible ability to cultivate strong relationships with important people from around the world. Studying Hesburgh's relationships with other people reveals some insight into the inner workings of his mind. Hesburgh was business-savvy but also loving. He formed genuine connections but was also strategic with the types of relationships he established. Whether countering the Holy See or addressing the newly appointed Academic Council, he knew how to interact with varying individuals or groups differently in order to cultivate the ideal connection. Think back to the photo of Hesburgh with other influential figures at the Tantur Inauguration. Hesburgh brought people together—oftentimes individuals that might usually be at odds.

The effect of Hesburgh's unifying abilities, both from the ecumenical standpoint and on a global level, is evident today in the form of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. The work he did on Tantur offers a window into his actions, motives, and most importantly relationships for a ten-year period. The intricate paper trail of Academic Council agendas, letters from Apostolic Delegates, and interviews with Hesburgh himself contribute to a portrait of Hesburgh which deviates from the classic glorified priest and businessman to an imperfect but constantly developing diplomat.

The story of Tantur represents so much more than just the success of Hesburgh. It provides readers an inside look at the failures that were crucial moments of the later successes, and details a timeline of Hesburgh's maturing as an effective relational leader. The insights uncovered during hours paging through Hesburgh's records in the archives also open the door to even more questions. What more could the Institute have been if it had included rather than opposed Benelli, or succeeded with obtaining donations from Doukas? With these in mind, we can begin to piece together a more human image of Hesburgh. Despite his glorified reputation, Father Hesburgh leaves behind the archival documents that reveal the imperfect journey he took to achieve his more celebrated accomplishments, in particular the Tantur Institute.