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Secretary of State John Kerry to Boston College Class of 2014: 'Pass On Your Light to Others'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry JD '76
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry JD '76 addressed the Class of 2014 at Boston College Commencement May 19. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (5-19-14)—U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Class of 2014 at today’s Commencement Exercises that his Boston College education had inspired him to serve others—and he urged BC’s newest graduates to draw on the same lessons to guide their own lives and careers.

"The diploma that you will receive today isn’t just a certificate of accomplishment," said Kerry, a 1976 alumnus of BC Law School. "It’s a charge to keep. It’s a powerful challenge to every single one of you, because you have already been blessed with a world-class education, and with it comes responsibility. Part of that responsibility is taking to heart the values that you’ve learned here and sharing them with the world beyond BC.

"That spirit of service is part of the fabric of this school, just as it is part of the fabric of our nation," he said.

2014 honorary degree recipients
2014 Boston College honorary degree recipients (seated l-r): University Trustee Robert J. "Bob" Morrissey ’60, founder and senior partner of Boston law firm Morrissey, Hawkins & Lynch; Paloma Izquierdo-Hernandez ’76, president and CEO of Urban Health Plan Inc.; Boston Celtics legend, basketball Hall-of-Famer and former BC coach Robert J. "Bob" Cousy; award-winning leader in the nursing profession Ann Riley Finck ’66; (standing, l-r): Cardinal Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap.; archbishop of Boston; University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.; U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, J.D. '76; BC Board of Trustees Chair Kathleen M. McGillycuddy NC '71 and Vice Chair John F. Fish. (Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert)

Kerry, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the ceremony, recalled a storied predecessor—Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state—who used the image of one candle lighting another to describe "the contagious quality of shared knowledge." The metaphor resonates with the Jesuit tradition, Kerry said, as articulated in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s call to "set the world aflame." (View Secretary Kerry's speech here | Read the text of his remarks)

Also presented with honorary degrees were: Boston Celtics legend and basketball Hall-of-Famer Robert J. "Bob" Cousy (Doctor of Humane Letters); Ann Riley Finck ’66, an award-winning leader in the nursing profession (Doctor of Nursing Science); Paloma Izquierdo-Hernandez ’76, president and CEO of Urban Health Plan Inc. (Doctor of Social Science); and University Trustee Robert J. “Bob” Morrissey ’60, founder and senior partner of Boston law firm Morrissey, Hawkins & Lynch (Doctor of Laws).

The five honorees joined the BC community in saluting the some 4,000 Boston College students who, following the main Commencement event in Alumni Stadium, went on to receive their undergraduate and graduate degrees at separate ceremonies held around campus.

University President William P. Leahy, S.J., in his welcome to the graduates and guests, also urged the graduates to follow the example of service set by thousands of alumni throughout BC’s history. (View Fr. Leahy's speech here.)

“Let me suggest that those who have had the most fulfilling lives are those who used their education and talents in the service of society, who have given life and given it abundantly," said Fr. Leahy. "So I urge you graduates to be true to yourselves, complete the Jesuit education you have begun here at ‘the Heights’ by spending your lives giving it away, living and working as men and women for others."

Noting the extraordinary growth of BC since its 1863 founding—ranked among the top 35 American universities, with a student population of more than 14,000 from around the US and the world—Fr. Leahy said the University has remained true to three hopes and expectations for its students: a rigorous intellectual experience; the fostering of religious, ethical and personal formation; and the promotion of citizenship, service and leadership.

"In the past century and a half, Boston College has changed in location, size, scope, and reputation, but its essentials remain the same: Jesuit education is a gift only fully realized when given away, much like the declaration in Matthew 10:39 that 'he who loses his life for my sake will find it.'"

Kerry praised "the welcoming spirit of this community," which he had experienced himself upon arriving at the Law School, particularly in the presence of then-Law School Dean Robert Drinan, S.J., whom Kerry credited with encouraging him to study law. For Kerry, BC proved to be the right place at the right time: In a turbulent era of "division and disillusionment," he had found his faith tested by what he had endured and witnessed in Vietnam. Reading the classic works of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Paul, he said, was "not just an abstract academic exercise, but a means to understand where and how everything fit."

He continued, "The people I met here were putting into action the words of the Jesuit motto that you’ve heard already today: ‘Men and women for others.’ 

Every institution has a mission or a motto—that’s the easy part. The hard part is ensuring that they’re not just words. We have to make sure that even as our world changes rapidly and in so many ways, we can still, each of us, give new meaning to our values."

Kerry said America continues to uphold its values and ideals in the world, pointing to examples such as U.S. relief efforts in the Philippines following last year’s typhoon, its support for surgeons and Catholic nuns helping victims of violence and abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and American leadership in Ethiopia’s fight against AIDS.

The next challenge for American values, he said, will be to confront the reality, and pervasive impact, of climate change. Kerry noted two recent reports, as well as the assessment of 97 percent of the world’s scientists, warning that the consequences of climate change are already being felt, and hold the potential for greater conflict and instability among peoples of the world. Enacting new, climate-friendly policies—even if the grim predictions don’t pan out—can create new jobs in an alternative-energy economy, improve our health with a cleaner environment, and ensure greater security through energy independence.

"This is not matter of politics or partisanship; it’s a matter of science and stewardship," he said. "And it’s not a matter of capacity; it’s a matter of willpower."

Kerry framed these and other global challenges as questions of "whether men and women can live in dignity," citing the Catholic social teaching of University Chair in Human Rights and International Justice David Hollenbach, S.J.: "That when families have access to clean water and clean power, they can live in dignity. When people have the freedom to choose their government on election day and to engage their fellow citizens every day, they can live in dignity. When all citizens can make their full contribution no matter their ethnicity; no matter who they love or what name they give to God, they can live in dignity."

The struggle for dignity "is where you come in," Kerry told the graduates, evoking St. Ignatius’ charge. "Pass on your light to others. Set the world aflame with your service. Welcome those who are lost; seek out those at the crossroads. That is how you can fulfill your responsibility as a graduate of this great institution. That is how you can answer the call to be a servant, leader, and that is how you can keep faith with and renew the idea of America, and that is how we all live up to our duty as citizens."

Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley, OFM, Cap., echoed the theme of service in his benediction: “May [the graduates] seek ever to excel, serving people to the best of their abilities."

View the BC Commencement 2014 main ceremony in its entirety here.

—Sean Smith is editor of the Boston College Chronicle.