Class of 2015, 'Father Ted’s last class,' leaves Notre Dame

Author: Michael O. Garvey

On Sunday (May 17) in the Notre Dame Stadium, the elation of the University of Notre Dame Class of 2015 was pierced by tragedy as classmates remembered William Meckling, of Centennial, Colorado, who died Saturday (May 16) in an accident on campus.

Anna Kottkamp delivers the 2015 Valedictory Address Anna Kottkamp delivers the 2015 Valedictory Address

Notre Dame provost Thomas G. Burish began the ceremony by inviting the graduates and their families to observe a moment of silent prayer for Meckling and two other Notre Dame students who died earlier this academic year, senior Lisa Yang of the Mendoza College of Business and Akash Sharma, College of Engineering.

Throughout the 170th Commencement Ceremony, the speakers invoked the memory of Notre Dame’s late president emeritus, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.

Oxford Chancellor Christopher Patten, the principal speaker, pronounced himself “honored to be here in the year when you are paying tribute to one of the great priests, one of the great Catholics, one of the great educators, one of the great Americans of the last half-century and more.” Patten also praised the class of 2015 as “a class which will surely help to shape the world in the years ahead — shape it in ways that would have given Father Hesburgh cause for justified pride.”

In an address before degrees were conferred on 1,990 Notre Dame undergraduates, Patten recalled an encounter with Sudanese refugee school children while he was serving as Britain’s minister for overseas development, an event, he said, “that had more effect on me than any other in my public life." He heard the children, who had barely survived the horrific flight from the war in southeastern Sudan to a refugee camp on the western border of Ethiopia, sing a joyful hymn in their native language, Dinka, which drew on verses from the Book of Isaiah. “No Biblical scholar, I assumed it was the passage about beating swords into ploughshares and thought no more about it,” Patten admitted, but a few hours later, consulting a bedside table Bible, he discovered that what the children had been singing was, in fact, “a text familiar to us all from the Christmas service of carols and lessons. Isaiah 9:2 in the King James Version: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’

“Those boys and girls had walked in darkness," Patten said. “And they still dwell in the land of the shadow of death, their tortured and often short lives an affront to our sense of common humanity.”

The light of which the children sang had surely shone on Notre Dame’s class of 2015, Patten said, “all of you graduates now of one of the greatest universities, one of the greatest Catholic universities, in the world … a university which has shown bravely that mutual tolerance and strong faith can go hand-in-hand, can reinforce each other. A university which believes in the central role in our lives of mercy and compassion, a university which has understood the meaning of St. Matthew’s Gospel — ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ — and has lived by Christianity’s ‘golden rule’ which that Gospel animates. A university which is a pillar of a decent pluralist civilization. A university which stands four-square against ugliness and prejudice. A university with a moral core.”

According to Patten, the greatest challenge of Notre Dame’s 2015 graduates “will be to help find a standard of living which is sustainable, that doesn’t destroy us all, and to find a quality of living which doesn’t exclude so many of our fellow citizens. What sort of moral outrage is it that shuts out millions of the world’s poor when the world is so rich? What sort of insult is it to our professed Christianity when rich countries deny a place at the table to so many of their citizens who go hungry?”

Patten concluded his address with a final invocation of Notre Dame’s late president emeritus. “So, as Father Hesburgh himself did, help those shining bounds to increase. Help the light shine on more of those who still dwell in the land of the shadow of death. Help the light shine on all those who have not had the good, the towering, the fantastic fortune to belong to the incomparable, the unbeatable, the incredible, the exceptional, the inimitable, the unmatchable, the peerless class of 2015.”

Anna Kottkamp, an environmental science major from Wenatchee, Washington, delivered the valedictory address, insisting to her fellow graduates “that an education in how little we know is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn.” She, too, invoked Father Hesburgh’s memory, reminding her class that “there are too many problems in the world, too many disparities and injustices, for us to ignore the suffering of others. We are lucky to be able to consider uncertainty a blessing. We must never allow ourselves to become insensitive to those for whom uncertainty strikes a deeper cord. There are those for whom ‘uncertainty’ is not knowing where the next meal will come from or where to sleep that night. As Father Ted once charged a group of graduates, ‘Be the kind of person who not only understands the injustices of this life, but is also willing to do something about them.’ Our moral education here at Notre Dame has challenged us to care about a range of issues, from immigration to disparities in the education system, class privilege to gender inequality, peace to violence. Now it is up to each of us to respond to this challenge. Like a student choosing an uncertain future, by being open to pursue those things that give us joy while working for the common good, we will never grow tired of the uncertainty of life.”

Grammy Award-winning singer and musician Aaron Neville received the 2015 Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.

“I hope I’m worthy of standing next to the people who have received (the medal) before me,” Neville said. “If it’s for me trying to get my life on the right track the way God wanted me too, then I am worthy, because I know, and God knows, that I’ve tried. I’ve prayed to see the world through God’s eyes and asked that the world see God in me … My Catholic up-bringing helped me in some dark times.”

Recalling his childhood days at St. Monica’s grade school in New Orleans, Neville said, “I was always mesmerized by the Blessed Mother, and was grateful to get the chance to learn the Ave Maria.” In his distinctive and sonorous falsetto, Neville then sang Franz Schubert’s Latin hymn and received a standing ovation.

In addition to the honors given to Neville and Patten, honorary degrees were given by the University to Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; John E. Kelly III, senior vice president, solutions portfolio and research for IBM; Jane McAuliffe, a scholar of the Quran and early Islamic history, and director of the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress; Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, professor of neurosurgery and oncology at Johns Hopkins Hospital and director of its brain tumor surgery program; Shirley Welsh Ryan, Notre Dame Trustee emerita and co-founder of; and Rev. Thomas F. Stransky, C.S.P., rector emeritus of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute.

“You leave Notre Dame with many great achievements and memorable moments,” Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., told the graduates in his charge to the Class of 2015. “One is that you will always be the class that helped us send Father Theodore Hesburgh to his final rest with God.” Inviting Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne/South Bend to give a blessing to the seniors, Father Jenkins said, “I know Father Ted will join him in blessing the class of 2015 — in another way, his last class at Notre Dame.”

Originally published by Michael O. Garvey at on May 17, 2015.