Remarks at Boston College's 138th Commencement Ceremony

John Kerry
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
May 19, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Your Eminence Cardinal O’Malley, Father President Leahy, Father Monan, Father Devino, members of the faculty, my fellow recipients of honorary degrees, parents, siblings, and the distinguished class of 2014: Congratulations to everybody here today.

You know I thought I had a lot to worry about as I was listening to the introduction, between Afghanistan and Iran and so forth. But now I’m worried about where Challenger is. (Laughter.) I will leave here knowing that Boston College liberates eagles. (Laughter.)

It’s a great honor to be with you. You all might remember from English class that the great American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. Or maybe you know that quote because it’s the same thing that your parents are telling you now. (Laughter.)

Well, Wolfe had obviously never been to Boston College. It is nice to be off an airplane, but my friends, it is great to be home. I am really happy to be here. (Applause and cheers.)

I know that many of you stayed up all night so you could see your last sunrise at BC. (Cheers.) Some of you thought it would never come, graduation that is. I’ve got news for you: Some of your parents and professors didn’t think so either. (Laughter.)

Now, I notice a lot of you are wearing shades. It won’t work, folks. I’ll still hear you snoring. (Laughter.)

I was on the campus of one of your rivals yesterday in New Haven. And while I let them know that they could be proud of their title in men’s hockey last year, I also had to put it in perspective: Yale is still four titles behind BC. (Cheers and applause.)

There are many things actually that Yale and Boston College have in common, but one is probably the most powerful: mutual dislike of Harvard. (Laughter.) Although to be fair, hundreds of schools don’t like Harvard very much.

As Secretary of State, I track many factions and rivalries around the world. BC versus Notre Dame is at the top of my list. Of course, there’s also Alec Baldwin versus the NYPD. (Laughter.) Beyonce’s sister versus Jay Z. (Laughter and cheers.) And then there’s the rivalry: Red Sox and Yankees. (Cheering and applause.) We absolutely loved the last ten years: Yankees – one World Series, and Red Sox – three. That's my kind of rivalry, folks. (Cheers.)

Now BC reminds us today that though rivalries can be overcome, here today you have honored a Holy Cross alumnus, the great Bob Cousy, who, as you heard earlier in his degree presentation, won 117 games at Boston when he was coaching here. Eighty-five years old and the Celtics could have used him this year. (Laughter.)

So we have with us today a great legend, but most importantly an amazing person, an amazing player, and three other extraordinary builders of community, all of whom I am very honored to share degrees with today. Their lives and their selfless service are testimony to the fact that Boston College is an amazing place.

Over the past years, you have all been blessed to experience a special quality that has always defined BC: the welcoming spirit of this community. That has been a distinguishing characteristic of Boston College since its first days, when it opened its doors to Irish immigrants and Catholics who were barred from other schools.

When I came here more than 40 years ago, I want you to know that I felt that welcome firsthand. I had, as you heard, served in war, and when I came home, I worked to end it. It was a turbulent time – for our country, for me personally. It was a time of division and disillusionment.

But because of one thoughtful man of conscience, one member of the Boston College community, I found a home right here.

Many of you today might not even recognize the name of Father Robert Drinan. He was the dean of the Law School and he was running for Congress when I first visited him on the campus.

And what impressed me most about Father Drinan – whether on Chestnut Hill or Capitol Hill – was that he made no apologies for his deep and abiding Catholic commitment to the weak, the helpless, the downtrodden.

“If a person is really a Christian,” Father Drinan would say, “they will be in anguish over global hunger, injustice, over the denial of educational opportunity.”

In fact, it was Father Drinan who encouraged me to study law at BC, even when it wasn’t the obvious path. I had come to law school from a different background than my classmates. I’d served in the Navy, just turned 30, and had a young family.

And because of where I’d been and what I’d seen, I came to Boston College with a set of nagging questions. I had confronted my own mortality head-on during the war, where faith was as much a part of my daily life as the battle itself. In fact, I wore my rosary around my neck hoping for protection.

But on closer examination, I realized my wartime relationship with God was really a dependent one – a “God, get me through this and I’ll be good” kind of relationship. And as I became disillusioned with the war, my faith also was put to test.

There’s something theologians call “the problem of evil.” It’s the difficulty of explaining how terrible and senseless events are, in fact, part of God’s plan. That was a very real test for me. Some of my closest friends were killed. You see things in war that haunt you for the rest of your life.

So coming here to BC Law, reading St. Augustine on the problem of evil, or St. Thomas Aquinas on just war, the letters of St. Paul and thoughts about suffering – this was not an abstract or academic exercise. It was a chance to dig in and really try to understand where and how everything fit, including trying to understand where I fit in. I’m sure a lot of you ask those questions.

It was the compassion, listening, and understanding that I experienced at BC that made me feel welcome, taught me literally how to think critically, how to ask the right questions, and reinforced in me a personal sense of direction.

It would be years before Pope Francis would talk about the responsibility we all have to reach out to those who “stand at the crossroads.” I might not have connected the dots at the time, but that is exactly what BC was doing for me and I hope has done for you.

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.

Today, I promise you that is one of the greatest challenges of America’s foreign policy: ensuring that even when it’s not popular, even when it’s not easy, America still lives up to our ideals and our responsibilities to lead.

Never forget that what makes America different from other nations is not a common religion or a common bloodline or a common ideology or a common heritage. What makes us different is that we are united by an uncommon idea: that we’re all created equal and all endowed with unalienable rights. America is – and I say this without chauvinism or any arrogance whatsoever, but America is not just a country like other countries. America is an idea, and we – all of us, you – get to fill it out over time. (Applause.) So our citizenship is not just a privilege – it is a profound responsibility.

And in a shrinking world, we can’t measure our success just by what we achieve as Americans for Americans, but also by the security and shared prosperity that we build with our partners all over world.

In times of crisis, violence, strife, epidemic, and instability – believe me – the world still looks to the United States of America as a partner of first resort. People aren’t worried about our presence; they’re worried about our leaving. One of the great privileges of being Secretary of State is getting to see that firsthand.

In December, I walked through the devastation left behind by the typhoon in the Philippines. The U.S. military and USAID had arrived on the scene before countries that are much closer than we are.

This month in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I saw how the United States is supporting surgeons and Catholic nuns helping victims of violence and abuse.

And just a few weeks ago in Ethiopia, I saw what our sustained commitment to combatting AIDS is achieving. Local doctors and nurses are making possible the dream of an AIDS-free generation. We’re on the cusp of achieving that.

And what we have done to turn back the armies of defeatism and indifference in the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and even polio – this work should give every one of you confidence to confront another cross-border, cross-generational challenge, the challenge of a changing climate. If we’re going to live up to our values, this is a test that we have to meet.

Now look, I know this is hard, because I spent almost 30 years in the United States Senate pushing this issue, trying to get colleagues to move. We got up to maybe 55 votes, couldn’t quite get to 60. And I know it’s hard to feel the urgency. As we sit here on an absolutely beautiful morning in Boston, you might not see climate change as an immediate threat to your job, your community, or your families. But let me tell you, it is.

Two major recent reports, one from the UN and one from retired U.S. military leaders, warn us not just of the crippling consequences to come, but that some of them are already here. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s scientists tell us this is urgent. Why? Because if crops can’t grow, there’ll be food insecurity. If there’s less water because of longer droughts, if there are stronger and more powerful storms, things will change in a hurry and they will change for the worse.

Climate change is directly related to the potential of greater conflict and greater stability – instability. I’m telling you that there are people in parts of the world – in Africa today, they fight each other over water. They kill each over it. And if glaciers are melting and there’s less water available and more people, that is a challenge we have to face. And guess what? It is the poorest and the weakest who face the greatest risk. As Father Drinan would say, we should be in anguish over this. (Applause.)

What’s frustrating is that this challenge is not without a solution. In fact, not one problem I can think of today that we face in this country is without a solution. It’s a question of capacity, willpower. The solution is actually staring us in the face. It is energy policy. Make the right energy policy choices and America can lead a $6 trillion market with 4 billion users today and growing to 9 billion users in the next 50 years.

If we make the necessary efforts to address this challenge – and supposing I’m wrong or scientists are wrong, 97 percent of them all wrong – supposing they are, what’s the worst that can happen? We put millions of people to work transitioning our energy, creating new and renewable and alternative; we make life healthier because we have less particulates in the air and cleaner air and more health; we give ourselves greater security through greater energy independence – that’s the downside. This is not a matter of politics or partisanship; it’s a matter of science and stewardship. And it’s not a matter of capacity; it’s a matter of willpower. (Applause.)

But if we do nothing, and it turns out that the critics and the naysayers and the members of the Flat Earth Society, if it turns out that they’re wrong, then we are risking nothing less than the future of the entire planet. This is not a hard choice, frankly. But still, let me tell you we need the help of every single one of you to make it.

In the end, all of these global challenges – how to defend against extremism, how to eradicate disease, how to provide young people with opportunity, how to protect our planet – all of these questions of whether men and women can live in dignity. What do I mean by dignity? I mean exactly the same thing that Father David Hollenbach taught on this campus and brought to the forefront of Catholic social teaching: 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.

And this is where you come in: the struggle for dignity. Whether across town or across the world, it makes demands on your own lives. The diploma that you will receive today isn’t just a certificate of accomplishment. 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.

I often think of the words of our first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, someone who also founded a prestigious university like yours. Jefferson spoke about the beauty of a simple image: using one candle to light another. And he said that when that happens, both candles gain light and neither candle loses any. He was talking about the contagious quality of shared knowledge. As heirs to the Jesuit tradition, this is an idea that you know well. Two centuries before Jefferson, St. Ignatius Loyola always closed his letters with a simple charge, and it’s one I pass on to you today. St. Ignatius wrote simply, “Set the world aflame.”

So graduates of 2014, 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.

Congratulations to all of you. Good luck and God bless.