NOTRE DAME, Indiana — With bells tolling on a frigid March afternoon, more than 115 priests, bishops, and cardinals walked into the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to pay tribute to a man who, even with his many civic accomplishments, was “first and foremost a priest.”

That’s how the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame and a giant of American Catholicism, was remembered Wednesday, with tributes from several American presidents, senators, Church leaders, and Notre Dame alums. He died Thursday at age 97.

“That vocation led him to build a great university, and gave his work in public service a moral compass,” the Rev. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, told the more than 1,000 invited guests, many sporting Notre Dame ties and lapel pins, who were gathered for the funeral Mass.

Jenkins recited Hesburgh’s many public accomplishments — marching with Martin Luther King, expanding Notre Dame’s reach and influence, and serving several American presidents — but it was Hesburgh’s small, unheralded acts of kindness were what made him what Jenkins called “a great American, a great citizen of the world.”

He recalled one of those acts: a 2009 phone call Hesburgh placed to Jenkins’ mother.

Jenkins was facing intense criticism for his decision to award President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights, an honorary degree, and his mother was concerned about the attacks. Had her son made a mistake? Hesburgh reached out personally to his mother, Jenkins said, to assure her there was nothing to worry about.

Commitment to civil rights

Hesburgh marched with King during a 1964 rally at Soldier Field, an event the then-archbishop of Chicago declined to attend. His commitment to civil rights was recalled by several speakers at a tribute after the Mass, including during a video tribute from the nation’s first African-American president.

President Barack Obama, who reported earlier this week that a photo of Hesburgh and King praying hangs outside the Oval Office, called Hesburgh “a friend” and “an advisor to popes and presidents.” But Obama agreed with Jenkins’ assessment, saying Hesburgh’s favorite title was simply, “Father Ted.”

Martin Rodgers, a trustee and graduate of Notre Dame, told the nearly 10,000 people gathered Wednesday evening that when his father, one of the first African-Americans to attend the school, met his roommate in 1958, the white student refused to share a room with him.

“Father Hesburgh was the one to tell my father’s roommates that he would have to be the one to pack his bags, not my dad,” he said.

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who earned a master’s degree from Notre Dame in 1975, recalled that she was mesmerized as a child when she attended a talk given by Hesburgh in which he said “America had to be better than it was” when it came to civil rights.

But she, too, said it was something small that will stay with her: a note from Hesburgh shortly after her father died assuring her that her father was “resting in the hands of the savior.”

“Oh, how I needed to hear that,” she said.

Leadership, and controversy, at Notre Dame

During the funeral Mass earlier Wednesday, Jenkins said Hesburgh loved being a priest, and he had said repeatedly he hoped to be able to celebrate Mass on the last day of his life. Last Thursday morning, Hesburgh con-celebrated Mass at Holy Cross House, an assisted living facility where he had been living. He died just before midnight.

Hesburgh’s only surviving sibling, James, recalled his relationship with his brother during a eulogy.

“Good brothers and good friends are God’s special dividends in life,” he said, “and Ted was both.”

Hesburgh served as president of the university from 1952 to 1987. Under his presidency, the university budget grew from $9.7 million to $176.6 million while the endowment expanded from $9 million to $350 million. Enrollment increased from 4,979 students to 9,600 and the faculty expanded from 389 to 950.

Hesburgh’s critics, however, say he was responsible for the “secularization” of Notre Dame, pointing to his 1967 decision to cede control of the board of directors to lay people.

But Jenkins dismissed that criticism.

“Father Ted’s abiding concern was Notre Dame’s fidelity to its Catholic mission,” he said.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick agreed, calling Notre Dame “truly Catholic and truly devoted to the spirit of the [Second Vatican] Council.” He described the university as Hesburgh’s “gift to the Church, a gift to the country.”

A particularly poignant moment came near the end of the Mass, with three Notre Dame presidents present together in the church where Hesburgh was ordained in 1943, one last time. Jenkins, the current president, and his predecessor, the Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, distributed Communion, flanking Hesburgh’s casket.

Welcoming women to campus

Another highly-praised part of Hesburgh’s life: his 1972 decision to open the school to women.

“I’m just reflecting on all he’s done for the university, on all the women who are here,” said Emily Claps, a computer science and theology major from Lake Barrington, Illinois, one of hundreds of Notre Dame students lining the procession route from the church to the cemetery. “I’ve grown so much as a person, and I never would have had that chance, at such a sacred place, without him. I’m just so grateful.”

Former football coach Lou Holtz said Wednesday evening that he once asked Hesburgh why he did it.

“I didn’t think Notre Dame could ever be a great academic institution if we eliminated one half of the most talented people in this country,” Holtz recalled Hesburgh saying. Holtz said Hesburgh “wasn’t complicated,” but “there are only five colors, but look what Michelangelo did with them.”

Flags flew at half-staff throughout Indiana Wednesday, per order of Gov. Mike Pence, and in addition to Obama, there were also video tributes from former presidents George H.W Bush and Bill Clinton. Former president Jimmy Carter, as well as US senators Joe Donnelly, Harris Wofford, and Alan Simpson, spoke in person.

Carter recalled Hesburgh asking for a ride on a new military aircraft.

“Civilians typically don’t get to ride in top-secret airplanes,” Carter told Hesburgh. Hesburgh replied drily: “Oh, I thought you were commander-in-chief.” Carter made a call, and Hesburgh got the ride.

Wednesday’s Mass — concelebrated by, among others, McCarrick, as well as Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago — and the later memorial service were part of a two-day ceremony commemorating Hesburgh’s life. More than 12,000 people visited the Basilica beginning Tuesday evening, and lasting all through the night, to pay their respects.

During the funeral Mass, reflecting on his brother’s many accomplishments at Notre Dame, James Hesburgh said his brother’s motivation was simple.

“Mediocrity is not how we honor the Blessed Mother,” Hesburgh used to say.

And it was to her that Jenkins commended Hesburgh.

“We will miss you,” he said. “You now rest in the arms of Notre Dame, Our Lady.”

Material from the Catholic News Service was used in this report.