"Just as you graduates are starting on a new journey in life, we in Ireland are looking forward to our own new beginning," Ahern told the 3,200 members of the Class of 1998 and some 20,000 guests assembled in a sun-drenched Alumni Stadium.
Receiving honorary degrees with Ahern were former Boston College Vice President and Assistant to the President Margaret A. Dwyer, who was named an honorary Doctor of Laws; Thermo Electron Corp. President and Chief Financial Officer John Hatsopoulos, awarded an honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree; Catalina Montes, principal of the Thomas Gardner Elementary School in Allston, named an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, and Prof. Emeritus James Skehan, SJ, founder of the Geology and Geophysics Department and former director of the Weston Observatory, named an honorary Doctor of Science.
University President William P. Leahy, SJ, in welcoming remarks, urged graduates to "give thanks to God for the many gifts and blessings that you have received since you first started at Boston College.
"It is my hope that, in the years to come, you will continue to grow in self-knowledge and in your relationship with God and with other people," said Fr. Leahy. "Our world very much needs individuals like you, people who are competent and compassionate, who desire to serve, not to be served."
Ahern addresses the graduates. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The Irish prime minister is playing a major role in selling the Good Friday Agreement, which advocates hope will bring an end to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, to Irish voters. He said he took time from his intensive, cross-Ireland campaign to honor his commitment to attend BC's Commencement.
"For the first time since 1918, the people of the whole of Ireland will have the opportunity to vote for a common, shared vision of their future together," said Ahern, who predicted voters in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would approve the accord by "significant" majorities.
Making his first commencement address at an American university since being elected prime minister of Ireland last year, Ahern noted the strong historical ties between Ireland and Boston College, founded in 1863 by Ulster-born John McElroy, SJ, to educate the sons of Catholic immigrants, many of them Irish.
"As leader of the Irish government, I am rightfully proud of the Irish connections with Boston College," said Ahern. "The story of Irish emigration is ... interlinked with the history of Boston College over these 135 years. The history of the Irish in Boston from the famine onwards to the present day is, of course, an integral part of Boston itself."
Ahern described the Ulster peace accord that will be put to a vote this week as "as balanced and fair an agreement" as could be reached.
"The agreement," he said, "is based on values which are very familiar to you here in the United States - the acceptance of diversity, mutual respect and equality, and the democratic consent of the people for the political structures that govern them."
Maria Schwab, administrative secretary in the Legal Counsel Office and a College of Advancing Studies graduate, celebrates with her son, Nicholas, a College of Arts and Sciences graduate. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Under the agreement, the citizens of Northern Ireland will decide whether they want to retain their connection to the United Kingdom, or become part of the rest of Ireland. An elected assembly would restore local government to Ulster, with safeguards to ensure neither Protestant nor Catholic communities can dominate the other. Councils would be established to promote political and economic cooperation between North and South, and between Ireland and Britain.
"It is a complex agreement," said Ahern, "but it had to be if we were to resolve our historical differences and set in motion the process of fundamental change. It is now up to all involved, the governments, the parties and the people, particularly in Northern Ireland, to secure the stable peace which has at last come within our grasp."
The Irish prime minister thanked the United States, President Clinton, and, in particular, special negotiator George Mitchell for their role in securing a Northern Ireland peace.
School of Education students cheer their graduation on the Alumni Stadium field.
Ahern held up the former United States senator from Maine as an example to Boston College graduates. "Sen. Mitchell gave the Irish people the most valuable things anyone has to offer: his time, his talents and effort," said Ahern. "In these increasingly cynical times, it is good to remember that there are still many people prepared to give of themselves in this way. As you go out from here to mark your place in the world, I can think of no finer example to offer you of selfless public service."
The morning's exercises opened with the singing of the national anthem by Michelle P. Miller, '98, and an invocation by Center for Ignatian Spirituality Director Howard J. Gray, SJ, and came to a close with the Benediction offered by University Trustee Edward O'Flaherty, SJ.
A memorable moment came when Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties William B. Neenan, SJ, read the degree inscription - in impeccable Latin - for his last time as the University's chief academic officer. Fr. Neenan, who is stepping down as AVP this summer to take a position as vice president and special assistant to Fr. Leahy, received an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Boston Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law, noting that the Boston College Commencement is the only one he attends each year, offered words of praise for each of the honorary degree recipients.
"Fr. Skehan studies rocks," the cardinal said. "Looking down, he is able to look up ... [H]e is able to see reflected, in the glory of His creation, the face of God.
"Margaret Dwyer teaches us that, in the sometimes monotonous details of administration, there can come about that tranquillity of order that allows us to pursue truth and beauty and goodness in peace.
"Catalina Montes ... in her hope for her native land, reminds us, in this country, that we must reach out in love and in unity to help our brothers and sisters in Cuba to enter into the world of nations, and tear down the separation between our nation and theirs - which does no good for the people there, and no good for us.
"John Hatsopoulos reminds us of how East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, should, in the will of God, be one ... That's what this university is about.
"Bertie Ahern stands in our midst as a peacemaker. Blessed, indeed, are the peacemakers. May your life be inspired by his, to make peace with everyone, within the family, within the community, within the nation, and within the world."
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