As they had when Pope Francis addressed Congress last fall, Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner stood together again on May 15, this time at Notre Dame’s Commencement to receive the Laetare Medal, the university’s highest honor.
The decision to honor the two political leaders had drawn criticism, especially because of the Vice President’s support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but the citation read before they received the honor noted they were being recognized for their public service and work for the common good.
As they addressed the members of Notre Dame’s class of 2016, both men stressed the importance of the common good, saying that it’s imperative for our nation’s future.
“Progress only comes when you deal with your opponent with respect, listening as well as talking,” Biden told the graduates.
“Engage in the tireless pursuit of finding common ground, because not only will you be happier, but you will be incredibly successful,” Biden said. “That’s where you’ll find your reward. It’ll make us all better for it.”
Boehner, referring to his resignation as House speaker this past fall after the pope’s visit, jokingly said, “I’m just a regular guy who used to have a big job.”
Governing, he said, “is the art of the possible… In its essence, governing requires us to look for common ground where it can be found, without compromising our principles. You can find common ground with the other side without compromising your core beliefs.”
Both men referred to their Catholic faith and also to their friendship that spanned Boehner’s nearly 25 years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Biden’s two terms as vice president and long service as a U.S. senator from Delaware.
Boehner noted that while he is a Republican and Biden is a Democrat, they are Americans first.
“Mr. Vice President, it’s an honor to share the stage with you today,” Boehner said.
In introducing this year’s Laetare Medal winners, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said the medal was not meant as an endorsement for any of their past votes or political actions, but was meant to recognize them as public servants who had worked for the common good, a key message of Pope Francis’ address to Congress last September.
“You have each found strength and guidance in your faith,” Jenkins said.
The citation read for this year’s Laetare Medal winners noted that as House Speaker, Boehner had sought to move Congress beyond gridlock to constructive compromise, and the Vice President had said that he regarded members of the other party as opponents, not enemies.
Both men were commended for dedicating their lives to public service.
Biden said the Laetare Medal “is the most meaningful award I’ve ever received in my life.” Echoing Jenkins’ comment that politics in the United States has become a “contact sport,” the vice president said, “To the detriment of the nation, it has recently become a blood sport, full of invective and ad hominem arguments.”
The political atmosphere now, Biden said, is the worst that he’s witnessed in his more than four decades in public life.
He contrasted that atmosphere with what he experienced when he helped represent the United States at the 2013 inaugural Mass for Pope Francis in Rome, and the new pope extended his hand to him and said, “Mr. Vice President, you are always welcome here.”
That welcoming spirit, Biden said, helps explain why Pope Francis is now the most popular man in the world, among people of many different faiths, and that, he added, was a key message that he brought to Congress.
The choice of Biden to receive the Laetare Medal was heavily criticized by some Catholic leaders, including Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who said Notre Dame should not have honored a Catholic politician who publicly opposes Church teaching by supporting abortion rights and the redefinition of marriage.
The South Bend Tribune reported that during the commencement ceremony, a couple dozen abortion opponents outside Notre Dame’s main entrance protested Biden’s honor.
The Laetare Medal citation commended Biden for the grace he has demonstrated in the face of tragic personal losses. The Vice President described how, as a young newly elected senator, he got word that a tractor trailer had sideswiped his wife’s car, killing her and their infant daughter and seriously injuring their two young sons.
He told the graduates that sometimes “reality intrudes” in life, and he urged them never to rationalize excuses involving work opportunities to avoid spending time with their families, especially for milestone events.
Biden also spoke emotionally about another loss in his life of “my soul, my son, my Beau,” the Delaware attorney general and decorated military veteran who died of brain cancer last year at the age of 46.
He noted how after Beau’s death, Pope Francis comforted their family.
“My son’s last words to me were, ‘Dad, I’m not afraid.’ He promised me he’d be alright,” Biden said.
To demonstrate his message about making time for family members, Biden, after completing his remarks, excused himself and said he had to leave to catch a flight for his granddaughter’s college graduation that afternoon.
In his remarks, Boehner noted how he had tried for two decades to invite a pope to address Congress. He remembered how when Pope Francis was about to leave after speaking to the joint meeting of Congress, the pope bear-hugged him and said, “Mr. Speaker, please pray for me.”
The former House leader said, “I do, and I did.”
Boehner said he believes that the power of the Holy Spirit that was manifested in the pope’s visit inspired him to decide the next morning to resign his position as speaker.
“’Laetare’ means rejoice. Trust me, every day since last October, I’ve been rejoicing,” he said jokingly as he concluded his remarks.
Notre Dame conferred 3,065 degrees during commencement ceremonies over the weekend, including 2,163 undergraduate degrees.
In his commencement address to the Notre Dame graduates, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “Your faith, like your education, won’t survive if it’s left dormant… We must continue to grow in faith to be equal to the times.”
During his service in Iraq, Dempsey said he found himself searching for the right thing to say to service members who lost a comrade. Then he said the words came to him – “Make it matter.”
Those words, he said, should resonate beyond a military context, to encourage people to make each day matter by how they live.
Dempsey was among this year’s honorary degree recipients at Notre Dame, as was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who celebrated the university’s Baccalaureate Mass on May 14 and received his honor at the end of Mass.
The cardinal, who was unable to attend the university’s commencement, said in his homily at the Mass, that in an age of instant communications marked by texting and other advances, “it is also important that we stay connected to the deeper reality of our existence – our relationship with the Lord, who is truth, life and love.”
Wuerl urged the graduates to remember three important elements of life: their relationship to God, their obligation to each other, and their shared responsibility to help build a better world.
“Remember, you do have the power in the Spirit to change the world,” he said, recalling Jesus’s words, “Behold, I make all things new.’”
“You can make all things new, walking with the Lord and each other,” said the cardinal.