Come, Holy Spirit

The first of many memories of Father Ted

I met Father Ted on my first night on campus as a Notre Dame freshman.

I snuck away from the orientation T-shirt/marker mixer outside LaFortune and went up to the 13th floor of the library to check out the philosophy collection.

Whether it was my first act of collegiate rebellion or a nod to the reality that I wasn’t having much luck attracting phone numbers, I no longer recall. What happened next, however, is my first of many treasured Father Ted memories.

As I stepped into the elevator to head back down to the dance, I heard a yet-to-be familiar baritone voice call, “Hold the elevator, please.” In walked Father Ted.

Sensing my surprise and rescuing me from my teenage inability to think of anything to say, he introduced himself, asking my name and where home was. He hoped that Notre Dame would be my new home and said, “Sean, welcome to the best four years of your life. Ground floor, please.”

Considering everything in my life that has flowed from that night and those four years as an undergraduate — meeting my wife, Felicia Johnson O’Brien, and with her, loving a family of four into being; completing three Notre Dame degrees; 10 years of participating in his vision of educating human rights lawyers at the center he founded — I have to say that Father Ted was right. He was right about a lot of things. Big things. World-changing things like the need to end apartheid in the United States and to welcome women to Notre Dame.

He was right about the need to mercifully reintegrate Vietnam War draft resisters back into the country, and to generously welcome immigrants out of the shadows and into our communities. He was right about the need to dedicate world-class resources and scholarship to replace our “theology of war” with a “theology of peace.”

But even more than these big things, I will remember Father Ted for his small, intimate gestures of priestly accompaniment. or his willingness to listen to the messiness and pain of my life and so many people’s lives and to offer a way to keep me OUR PRIEST, FRIEND AND EXTRAORDINARY LEADER moving forward.

When I confided in him that I was struggling with prayer during the hardest days of our infant daughter Issa Grace’s short life, he comforted me and told me not to worry. “When you don’t know what else to do, Sean, just say, ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’”

I mumbled his mantra as I tearfully approached his body to say a final goodbye at his visitation. Twenty-four years after first meeting him, I was still fumbling for what to say, for the right way to say “Thank you.”

Then I recalled the wisdom that he had shared with my wife last summer after hearing that our daughter had died. He told her that the time that separates us from our loved ones in heaven is short and that the distance is small between those on earth and the communion of saints.

I asked him to hug our daughter when he arrived in heaven. Leaving the Basilica, I walked down Notre Dame Avenue to our daughter’s snowy Cedar Grove grave and asked her to give Father Ted a hug as well.

The time is short, the distance is small. Come, Holy Spirit.

This story was originally published in NDWorks.