May 23, 2005

Dr. Paul Farmer gives a thumbs-up to the Class of 2005 after finishing his remarks at Monday's Commencement Exercises. (Below) Lynch School of Education grad Kelly Arnstein sought warmth and comfort from the cloudy, unseasonably cool weather. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)

'Act Affirmatively, by Making Things Happen'

Farmer urges graduates to turn 'road angst into hope and action'

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Haiti humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer urged action against the world's suffering and injustice on a chilly Commencement Day on which 3,300 Boston College graduates were urged: "Go set the world aflame."

With that exhortation, famously made by Jesuit founder St. Ignatius to the missionary St. Francis Xavier, and reprised this day by BC deans, the Class of 2005 stepped off in a grand opening procession from Linden Lane to Alumni Stadium, in a show of pomp and circumstance that is meant to become a Commencement tradition.

The mission theme likewise was sounded by Dr. Farmer, the physician to the Haitian poor profiled in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, who keynoted the opening Academic Convocation at BC this past fall, and returned to give the Commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate.

Farmer cited the examples of 18th-century British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and of fellow honorary degree recipient Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who as commander of the United Nations Observer Mission to Rwanda tried unsuccessfully to marshal world response to genocide. As they learned, Farmer said, "to do nothing is also to act.

"So act affirmatively, by making things happen, not just letting things happen," he said.

Also receiving honorary degrees at the 129th Commencement Exercises were Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, OFM, Cap.; Emmanuel College President Sister Janet Eisner, SND, MA'69; Xavier University of Louisiana President Norman C. Francis; and Sara Martinez Tucker, president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. [See related item.]

The day's prevailing theme resonated in opening remarks by University President William P. Leahy, SJ.

"Today is...about mission, about looking at our lives and asking if we are responding to God's call as we should, about reviewing our goals in light of our values and beliefs, about making sure that our priorities are appropriate," Fr. Leahy said.

"We live in a world that very much needs people who have developed their talents, who desire to serve, whose lives are marked by faith, hope and love.

"Since its founding in 1863, Boston College has sought to be the best possible university it can be, and to remain faithful to our Jesuit, Catholic heritage. It has held steadfastly to its mission not only to educate students, but also to form them; to help young men and women identify and develop their talents so that they could go forth and help transform the world.

"It seeks to be a place where people can come together to learn and to be nourished by one another, to give to others and wider society. It especially strives to integrate intellectual excellence and religious commitment. Its Jesuit tradition stresses the call and value of working for the greater glory of God.

"Each of us is invited to live with purpose and conviction, to have a mission. This graduation ceremony reminds us to consider the mission, the purpose that guides and sustains our lives."

Dr. Farmer, whose service to the poorest of the poor as a health-clinic founder in rural Haiti was chronicled by Pulitzer-winning author Tracy Kidder in the book Mountains Beyond Mountains, opened and closed this academic year at Boston College.

This past September, Farmer gave the keynote address at the First Year Academic Convocation for the entering Class of '08. He now returned to give the Commencement Address to the departing Class of '05.

His speech to graduates recalled the British abolitionist Clarkson (1760-1845), who at Cambridge wrote a prize-winning essay against slavery, and subsequently was inspired to devote his life to the anti-slavery cause, following a St. Paul-like epiphany while on the road to London to take up a career as an Anglican clergyman.

In a case of "road angst," the evils of slavery that he had described in his paper engrossed Clarkson's thoughts, said Farmer. "If the contents of his essay were true," he said Clarkson told himself, "some person should see these calamities to an end."

And so there, on the side of the road, Clarkson decided to take a detour, and take up the abolitionist's calling.

"Haiti was my own road to Damascus," said Farmer, whose commitment to the Caribbean nation and its people began when he visited as a Harvard medical student. "Going to Haiti, I could identify with Thomas Clarkson's 'road angst.'"

He urged graduates: "Try to turn your 'road angst' into hope and action."

The day began with a new tradition, an academic procession of graduates in gowns and mortarboards and deans in medieval finery that began on Linden Lane and wound through campus to Alumni Stadium, as Gasson's bells rang and thousands of parental cameras clicked.

Gray skies threatened showers which didn't materialize, and the ceremonies proceeded undampened, if under chilly conditions. Coffee and cocoa sales at the concession booths under the stands were as brisk as the weather. "I'll make this brief," Farmer said as he opened his address, "before it starts snowing heavily."

The National Anthem was sung by Michael V. Sangalang '05. Rev. Paul F. Harman, SJ, rector of the Boston College Jesuit Community, gave the Invocation.

The Reading of the Degree was done in Latin by Rev. Thomas O'Malley, SJ, adjunct professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program and former president of John Carroll and Loyola Marymount universities.

Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties John J. Neuhauser read the honorary degree citations.

Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who joined his predecessors, Cardinals William O'Connell, Richard Cushing, Humberto Medeiros and Bernard Law, in having been awarded an honorary degree by Boston College, pronounced the closing Benediction.

Streaming video and other highlights of the 2005 Commencement Exercises are available via the Web at

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