R. Nicholas Burns '78, United States Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Remarks at Boston College Commencement Exercises
May 20, 2002
Ladies and gentlemen, I am deeply honored to return to Boston College for this 126th Commencement. I would like to thank Father Leahy, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Charles Clough, and members of the faculty and staff for this special privilege. I want to greet the honorary degree recipients and the parents, family members and friends who are here on this beautiful morning for one purpose, to honor the Boston College students graduating today. Congratulations to all of you.
Graduates, this is your day. You sit before us after years of hard work, toil, sweat and maybe even some tears. Each of you has done exceptionally well to earn your degree. But, before we say more about you, we should first recognize your parents. They dreamed of a university education for you and have now paid, in more ways than one, for that distinction. As your parents and family helped to make this day possible, I suggest that you graduates salute them with a well deserved round of applause.
They say that graduation day is one of the five most significant milestones in one's life, along with birth, marriage, death and the most momentous day of all--when you finally pay off your student loans.
I hope you feel this morning, as my classmates and I did on our graduation day back in 1978 -- three of my roommates are here, we lived in the Mods -- how fortunate you have been to have studied in Boston and especially here at Boston College.
We New Englanders are very proud of Boston. The first college in America was built here as was the first hospital. Bostonians were the heart of the revolution against the British in the eighteenth century and they began the movement to abolish slavery in the nineteenth. Boston is now a world leader in medicine, in higher education and in high tech. We're home to the Super Bowl champions -- The Patriots-- and, after a pause of a mere 84 years, I predict, as a loyal member of the Red Sox nation, that we'll be home to the World Series champions this October!
You graduates are also fortunate to be life-long members of the Boston College community. Once that diploma hits your hands a few minutes from now, two things will happen. First, your parents will be very proud. And second, the Alumni Association will already have you listed permanently in its data bank as a prospective donor. You will join the ranks of the 130,000 alums in the U.S. and around the world who love Boston College and are proud of how far it has come since its humble birth nearly one hundred and forty years ago during the Civil War.
Father John McElroy's vision in 1863 of a "college in the city" has been realized. For a great part of the twentieth century, and nearly alone among the major Boston institutions of higher learning, BC opened its doors to sons of Ireland from Dingle, Clare and Cork, to Italians and others who came to Boston and the United States of America for a chance to pursue the American Dream--to pull themselves up to make a better life.
In many ways, Boston College became "Boston's college." BC's willingness to take a chance on the least fortunate in our society bore fruit in the generations of its graduates who became the business and political leaders responsible in large measure for the astonishing renaissance in our city and Commonwealth during the last half century. And in just one generation--during the past thirty years--BC has transformed itself from a largely commuter school to one with a national and international student body and a burgeoning reputation as one of America's best universities.
Ladies and gentlemen of the graduating class, I am acutely aware that I am the only person standing in the way of you and your diploma. So in addition to reminding you of your great good fortune to have studied in Boston and at Boston College, I want to leave you with just one message this morning.
Beyond the math, history and science you learned in the classroom here, beyond the friendships you have made, beyond the brilliance of your teachers such as retiring professor John L. Mahoney, beyond the national championship hockey team, what will you also take away from your BC experience that will be truly precious and lasting? Thousands of BC alums have left here over the years, as you will today, having been imbued, whether we consciously realized it or not, with the Jesuit tradition of faith and service to others--to our families and friends, our communities, our country, the world. This is BC's distinguishing feature. It is the core belief that how we lead our lives should not be just about and for ourselves but about what we all can do, in the poet Tennyson's words, to "seek a newer world" here on earth.
In short, a BC education is a call to service. It gives us an ethical compass with which to navigate in our lives beyond this campus. It asks what we can do as individuals to build a more just and peaceful world to give to our children. And it urges us to consider a life of public service. This was St. Ignatius' call to a generation of young priests over four hundred years ago. It was Theodore Herzl's call to a generation of young European Jews one hundred years ago to build a new land of Israel. It was President John F. Kennedy's summons to your parents' generation forty years ago when he asked them to think not just about themselves but about their country.
Now, in advocating a life devoted to public service, I do not mean to suggest that three thousand Boston College grads need to run out tomorrow to become Peace Corps volunteers or to live lives of abject poverty in devotion to the public good--although both are worthy pursuits. What I do mean to suggest, however, is this: Whatever you do in life, discover what your greatest talent is and commit it to something bigger than yourself. In that sense, try to challenge the shallow and often cynical obsession with self so prized by our mass media. Find a way to give something back to your community and country.
This central ideal is imbedded in BC's outstanding faculty and its commitment to students. I had great professors here at BC in the 1970s--John Heineman in history, the late Father Thomas Gray in American history, and in European history, Professor Mark O'Connor whose son Jonathan is graduating today. I learned from each of them one central truth that I've never forgotten--one person can make a difference and every person should try. Gandhi put it a different way--you can be the change you want to see in the world. Don't wait for someone else to empower you to make a difference. Have the confidence and the belief that each of you has something unique and powerful to give in your life.
Whether you are a future teacher from the Lynch School of Education, a future captain of industry out to conquer Wall Street from the Carroll School, a future nurse from the Connell School, a future star in the National Football League, or a graduate of Arts and Sciences who just wants to get a job with your history degree, as I was -- you all leave BC today with something priceless--your education--and with a call to service to make a difference.
There is so much good you can do in our country. We need little league coaches and church volunteers. We need people devoted to care for the elderly, to keep our air and water clean, to fight racial and religious discrimination--all this so that more people can taste the American dream. Beyond our shores, we need Americans, as citizens of the world's most powerful country, to represent our government, so that we do our part to make the planet more peaceful and humane for all peoples in all countries. In this sense, public service is not just a job, but is more a way of thinking about your life and what you can contribute to the society that has given you so much.
You have witnessed as college students these last four years some extraordinary events. As freshmen, you watched Milosevic's brutal ethic cleansing campaign in Kosovo--the worst war crimes in Europe since the Holocaust. And you saw that NATO's successful counterstrikes stopped the bloodshed, creating a peace that is lasting today. As sophomores and juniors, you saw a president impeached and nearly removed from office. You lived through the closest and longest presidential election in history and learned the lesson that every vote counts.
Your senior year, however, has been especially turbulent. During these past eight months, you and we have experienced the successive shock waves of September 11th, the Enron scandal, the crisis in the Catholic Church and the savagery of violence in the Middle East.
On September 11, fanatical extremists killed thousands of innocent civilians on one clear autumn day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The victims were Americans--including 21 members of the BC community--as well as people from eighty different countries whose lives were cruelly swept away in the flash of explosions by suicide bombers. For those who may have thought that the worst of human history was behind us, September 11 reminded us anew of the presence of evil in today's world.
We discovered something else, however, about Americans and the world we live in on September 11. We found in the spontaneous outbursts of concern and compassion here at BC and in every town in our country an inner strength, a powerful determination and a basic goodness that are the attributes of the American people. We witnessed in the streets of lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon a thousand acts of human decency, the incredible bravery of public officials and citizens alike and the awe-inspiring sense of service and selflessness of the New York City fire and police departments. None of us will ever forget their sacrifice as they gave their lives for their fellow citizens. We won't forget the huge outpouring of support by Americans in fifty states for the victims and their families. We won't forget the example America set for the rest of the world when we practiced tolerance and respect for all religions here at home. We won't forget the powerful community against terrorism that has arisen in anger and resolve all across the globe.
In the wake of September 11, President Bush was right to act swiftly and decisively to defend our country. America was correct to draw a clear difference between good and evil, right and wrong. The United States and our European allies had every right to attack Al Qaida and the Taliban not out of revenge but to insure the safety of our citizenry. But the struggle is far from finished. Terrorist groups and the states that support them possess a toxic mix of money, organization, anger and weapons of mass destruction which threaten to strike at any of us, anytime, anywhere in the world.
We know that we must win this battle. To succeed, we will need young people like you willing to serve on the front lines in places like Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Philippines as military officers and diplomats, as human rights workers, teachers and journalists, to preserve our democratic way of life and human decency. As you know, this is the choice I made when I left Boston College for the American Foreign Service and I do not have a single regret.
Much of what I have seen in my two decades of diplomatic service reveals the fragility of the modern world. The terrible poverty, suffering and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. The plight of Palestinians who live in desperately poor refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The bitter civil wars that tore apart Central America in the 1980s. The challenge of democracy in the former Communist world since the end of the Cold War. But, I’ve also seen how even these daunting challenges can be overcome by good people serving a good cause.
This is an exceptionally important moment for the United States. Since our Revolution, the major story of American foreign policy is how we have vacillated as a country between isolation from the world and engagement with it. Your generation can answer the fundamental question that has challenged our leaders from Washington and Jefferson to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and down to our own time. What kind of country are we? After September 11, is it possible for Americans to believe in unilateralism, that we can go it alone in the world as the one great superpower? Will we sit on our continent in splendid isolation and choose not to stain our hands with the hard work of building a peaceful world order? Or, will we agree that America does need friends and allies and that we should use our awesome power as an active and committed force for good in the world? Let’s resolve to end that two-century plus debate for good. Let’s continue to exert American faith, American optimism and American energy in the search for peace internationally in our time.
This call to service is not just for distant shores but also to conquer our problems here at home. Next to the September 11 catastrophe, the crisis in the Catholic Church in Boston and across America was, without question, the defining event of your senior year at Boston College.
Let me speak not as a representative of the U.S. government for a moment, but speak personally as a Catholic who is a graduate of this college. I share with many of you a sense of profound sadness and real anger about the shameful and devastating revelations of the last few months. I think we can all agree that the abuse of children cannot be tolerated, swept under the rug or handled irresolutely. And it must be stopped.
As in the September 11 attacks against America, the answer to the crisis in our Church may depend, in large part, on our willingness to open up and face the challenge before us. A united community of Catholics can reach out to the victims to minister to them, and to accord them the respect and dignity they deserve.
The Catholic Church in America is an enormous force for good in our country. The Church runs the largest private school system and, in Catholic Charities, one of the largest private social-welfare organizations in America. The millions of Americans who have been educated in Catholic secondary schools and universities can help to rebuild our community. Under Father Leahy's leadership, Boston College has just announced a major two-year program to delve deeply into this and other issues facing the future of the Church. As the first American university to tackle this challenge, BC is uniquely placed to lead this effort in the years to come.
As we work to heal these wounds, however, I think we can also agree that we should be very careful to prevent our natural outrage over the depraved actions of a minority to tarnish the reputation and honor of the vast majority of priests who continue to live lives of extraordinary humility, poverty and goodness.
With us in this stadium this morning are many priests who have given their adult lives to service. Father Robert Bowers is being honored by BC today for his work to help Chernobyl victims. Father Tony Penna, who is a close and life-long friend, is now ministering to BC students in the chaplain's office. Father Jack Hanwell, my BC roommate, teaches French at Boston College High. Father Bob Barth has been a force for goodness on this campus for many years. Father Donald Monan, BC's chancellor, rescued our school from financial disaster 30 years ago and gave us the huge endowment, reputation and self-confidence we enjoy today. Father William P. Leahy is leading BC brilliantly and admirably to new heights in our new century. As we act to heal the wounds of the Church, let us not forget that we must continue to honor the priests who do so much for this school and for us as individuals.
The answer to this problem and all the others that confront us is the willingness of good people to act resolutely to defend the values on which our culture and country rest. So, as you leave Boston College today, think what you can do in government service or the non-profit sector to win the war on terrorism and to bring peace to the Middle East and other troubled parts of the globe. Think what you can do as business leaders to ensure integrity and fairness in the workplace and to prevent a future Enron crisis. Think what you can do in your private life to promote tolerance and understanding on our planet. Think what you can do as teachers, doctors, nurses and civic leaders to strengthen bodies, minds and communities.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2002, like every other generation of Americans before you, you are today called to service and to greatness. You have role models in this stadium today who can show you the way forward. Many of your grandparents are here. They are rightfully called the Greatest Generation because they beat the most severe depression in American history and then went on to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in the most terrible war of all time. Your parents launched the great crusade to end racial segregation in America and to give to African-Americans the rights that should have been theirs all along. They put men and women in space, learned how to transplant hearts and condense a library full of books into a single, slender disc in igniting the information age. They and we are finally granting women equal rights in the workplace and before the law.
Your grandparents and parents have spoken the essential human truth that everything is possible and that your hopes can be realized if you offer yourself to service. As you set out in life beyond Boston College, we all hope that you will retain the will to take risks, the strength to be courageous, the spirit of optimism that is particularly American, the importance of being patriotic to support and defend our great country, and the inspiration that you might dare to do great things in the world.
The late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a son of Boston, on the night Martin Luther King died in 1968, addressed a crowd of anguished African-Americans in Indianapolis by saying, "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: To tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of the world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and our people."
Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2002, that is, indeed, a worthy ideal around which all Boston College graduates can unite.
As you graduate today, we wish for you the very best – good fortune, success and happiness in the years to come. And we look forward to following your accomplishments as you live and write the history of America and of the world in the century to come.
Congratulations to you all! And God bless you.