As leader of the people of Ireland, Muintir na hEireann, I’m honoured to speak here today and be admitted to the distinguished ranks of the alumni of Boston College.
Your invitation signals the enduring kindness and affection between our peoples. It symbolises the bond of ‘hope and history’ between two nations either side of the Atlantic.
In St Patrick’s Week I travelled across America, leaving an icy New York for a rain-soaked Seattle. I felt right at home. Not only because both cities shared Ireland’s propensity for sleet, but because everywhere I went there and in between, the love and concern for Ireland and the Irish people were palpable.
Today, the Irish story is writ large across America, right to Capitol Hill.
The hands roughened in Irish soil were leathered in your mines, on your scaffolding, your bridges, your railroads.
Over the generations, our farmers-turned-labourers saw to it that their children went from the schoolhouse and the firehouse right to the White House itself.
Many here today are descended from men and women who saw potato blight bring fear and hunger, then starvation, emigration.
Sometimes in our Irish Summer, in between rain-showers, our weather-forecasters issue a potato-blight warning on the radio. Even now, for us as a nation, it goes in deep. We remember who we were in those dark years.
In your kind invitation to me, know that you honour all the generations of the Irish people. On such a proud day, in such glorious company, God indeed is in His heaven. And I thank Him that the sky has not fallen in.
You have chosen well for your Commencement ceremony. A special Jesuit day, for a great Jesuit event. Because on this day, 492 years ago, at the Battle of Pamplona, a cannonball from a French gun shattered the leg of a young Spanish nobleman, Inigo de Recalde de Loyola.
The treatment of his injuries proved more damaging than the missile itself. If he lived today Inigo might be launching a malpractice suit for several million dollars. Luckily for you he did something altogether more sensible. He began a journey of reflection and self-discovery. A journey that saw him abandon the world of knights and power, of homage and fealty, to devote himself to the life of the spirit, through the Imitation of Christ. He became, in his own words, a Pilgrim, his work ever-after done Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam for the greater Glory of God.
Today, that radical idea echoes across the centuries to sustain this distinguished university in its Christian sensibility, and to inspire you, its newest graduates, as you start on the next phase of your own journey.
Today then, is a day to celebrate. A day to be thankful. Thankful for the professors, tutors, friends, who supported you and encouraged you. Thankful for the opportunity to graduate from a university so pre-eminent in the life of America and its people.
But above all, it’s a time to be thankful for your parents, your step-parents, for those who have been good-as-parents, and your grandparents.
To them, I say…Look at what you did. You made these young men and women. You made them with your love, exhaustion, exasperation, imagination. Today you might feel as if you blinked, only to find your child here, grown-up, radiant, with their newly-minted degrees, imposters in a life where a whole five-minutes ago, you yourselves were the font of all knowledge as you answered their questions -
How do bees buzz?
If we can see the wind, how come air is invisible?
Why is Green? What does it taste like?
As a Dad, I know that for us these are areas of both natural brilliance and acquired expertise. Now, we defer to them on matters such as megabytes, gigabytes and exabytes! So today then, as your newly-graduated son or daughter crosses the lawn, you might find yourself catching your breathing at the turn of the head, a fleeting expression that you know has its origins deep in generations, histories, secrets long past.
But today, those very generations are exhaling long and proud and deep.
Because today they have been proved right. Today their descendants and yours are living proof of the power of their imagining.
In imagining a better future, they founded this university.
Imagination made them blind, insolent to the fact that it would take so many generations, so many lives, to make the single life, the singular achievement of each of these graduates.
To those generations, whether in the chaos of immigration, or the grip of a poverty that was ruthless and ecumenical, the sense of when this success might happen was largely immaterial. What mattered was that they dared to imagine it would .
On this May morning, here on Chestnut Hill, it does.
It’s 57 years since the then Senator for Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, came here to the Jesuit Ivy and reminded an earlier generation of Boston College graduates of the value of politics, the challenge of public service.
It was 13 June 1956.
In the Middle East, the last British soldiers were leaving Suez. Across America, Long Tall Sally and The Wayward Wind were playing on the radio. It would be three whole months before The Ed Sullivan Show would ‘Bridge the generation gap’, save the morals of America, and make ‘the worrying gyrations’ of a young man from Memphis almost mainstream.
For the Kennedy graduates, apples were things we offered the teacher, some in hope, more in desperation. Twitter involved birds that generally weren’t blue. Man had yet to set foot on the Moon. The Big Man keeping tabs on us up there in the sky, Commander Hadfield, had yet to walk upon the Earth.
When Senator Kennedy made his address, it was just seven months since a tired-and-tiny woman felt what she called “ the strength of the ancestors” and refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. That single act would admit a people to liberty, and the name Rosa Parks to history. Today, you are the Obama generation of Jesuit Ivy.
As graduates of this distinguished, Catholic university you share with the class of 1956 not just privilege, but heritage.
You share that deep and abiding sense of compassion, humility, responsibility.
I was hungry, and you fed me.
I was in prison, and you visited me.
I was broken, and you comforted me.
Inspired with that confidence, here today, are men and women who will go on to be leaders of corporations, communities, countries.
You will lead rooted in the values of your families, of your faith, and of this great university.
Those who will lead this, or any other democracy will do so, not as Catholic, or Protestant, or Dissenter, but as men and women guided by and beholden to nothing but the law, the Constitution, and above all the people.
All the people. Of all faiths. And none.
You will do so, and without fear, or favour, because your God, your personal faith, will sustain you.
Constant, immutable, they are and will always be with you. Keep them close and you will never face your public decisions, your challenges, your difficulties, alone. But being left alone for even five minutes is highly unlikely in your 24/7, always-on world.
In your young lifetime, that same world dismantled a wall, disbanded a secret police, tore down an Iron Curtain. As it did, an era of Cold War, casual murder, impeccable oppression, melted away, in a heatwave of imagination and defiance.
Scaling the wall of history, those former East-Berliners, found freedom everywhere.
In the lens of international news crews, sweaty hugs, shared beers, bananas, chocolate, later BMWs.
Today we celebrate the birthday of what for some was the ultimate, popular symbol of freedom. On May 20th 1873, Mr Levi Strauss and Mr Jacob Davis picked up US Patent No. 139, 121 and blue-jeans were born.
Freedom was in the air, and that air smelled and tasted good.
Until some, in lazy, arrogance, continued to ‘plug in and zone out’.
Last week carbon-dioxide was recorded at 400 parts per million. The highest CO2 level in human history. Yes, it is not right that this and past generations did not protect our home, our planet as they should, and expect you to fix it. But fix it you must, we must, for the sake of your children, your grandchildren, who deserve to know and feel that Nature is something to be loved, not to be feared.
It looks like high above the world sitting in his tin can Major Tom was wrong. ‘Planet Earth is blue’, but this time, ’there’s everything you can do’. And do it you will, through the power of imagination. For Einstein, ‘Imagination was the ‘everything’. It was the preview to life’s coming attractions”.
But today, as our seas rise and our ice melts, imagination has become less about ‘preview’, more about ‘prerequisite’.
It is found in the everyday.
As World War II raged across Europe in Italy a little girl was painting pictures.
Under a blue-and-yellow portrait of a man with crazy hair and pipe she wrote these words.
This is Uncle Robert’s cousin.
His name is Albert Einstein.
In America he works as a scientist.
When he comes here he goes on the swing.
Graduates, buy one tomorrow. Take to the air.
Because it is you, and the swing-set manufacturers who could save the world. But to do that you must first be able to know and save yourselves.
Today, and rightly, you imagine your future in no-less radiant colours than saffron, magenta, International Klein blue.
But one day, ‘the grey ‘ghost of loss may get into you’. Fear may pick the lock of your happinessm, strut across your life. If it does, you will turn to what you learned so well, so deeply here at Boston College. Those lessons of love, friendship, compassion, community, loyalty.
Today you sit beside each other in happiness, great joy. One day, you may cross cities, time zones, oceans, to sit beside each other again in different circumstances. As you do, pack this old advice. That it matters less what happens to us, than how we deal with it. That we can allow our experience to strengthen us, or diminish us. The choice is ours.
As graduates of Boston College, I know what yours will be.
In this city, strength is your default position. The hurt of the Boston Marathon attack is still palpable, but the people of this great city have responded with their usual courage, dignity and compassion.
In its proud history, America too has always chosen strength. We saw it when horror showed up on a regular work day, out of the blue of a September sky. We saw it when Hurricane Sandy roared across Breezy Point. But by choosing strength, today, Breezy Point stirs to life.
Today, Old Glory flies proud and strong there, not as a symbol of defiance in the debris, but as a symbol of hope and victory streaming on porches and from the highest windows.
By choosing strength, today, Freedom does indeed reign, towering 1, 776 feet over history, adversity, and that gritty tribe on the Hudson River. The first to respond, the last to resist.
And so to you, graduates of Boston College, responding to your new call, in your new life. Today the sun shines on you.
The Fibonacci numbers all add up. The future you long imagined is here. I urge you to take possession, and quickly. Because to you and your generation, the torch has now been passed.
You are young America.
And while in our world we might astonish ourselves, to hunt and even find the God particle, to look to set up outposts on Mars, as humans our needs are fragile as ever – food, water, air.
Compassion, peace, love.
Soon, graduates, we must leave those needs, our planet, our future, in your hands.
I have every faith in you.
So congratulations class of 2013 on this Boston College’s Sesquicentennial. Be successful, be well, be happy. Above all, be yourselves.
Live long and deep and comfortably in your own skin.
And as you do, know that from this day, like the rivers that have carved their way across this great country, so will your lives, your endeavours, your achievements carve their way into the story of America.
The poet says ‘Go beyond what’s reliable’. So, look out beyond these shores. Be unlimited in your vision. Let the talent corps of America join with those of other nations in a common endeavour to meet the challenges of the future. See what respect and understanding can do for us. We who are merely an episode in the story of humanity.
Graduates, this is your time. Ad Majorem dei Gloriam. Be not afraid. Today you have reached what we call in Irish “Ceann Scríbe”.
Turas amháin déanta, turas eile ás bhúr gcomhair amach. One journey completed, another directly ahead. As you end and begin those journeys, I wish you Godspeed, fair winds, and gift you the advice of our Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney:
‘When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own, and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea’.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough.
Now, strike your note.
For yourselves, your families, and this United States of America.