CHESTNUT HILL — It was a Jesuit homecoming for “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert at Boston College’s 128th commencement exercises on May 24.
The Jesuit-educated NBC newsman and BC parent-to-be — Russert’s son, Luke, will be entering Boston College in the fall — had the crowd in Conte Forum on its feet with a commencement speech that mixed humorous anecdotes from sports and politics with a call to service delivered from the heart of Catholic social teaching.
"Please do this world one small favor -- remember the people struggling alongside you and below you," Russert urged the more than 3,000 members of the Class of 2004. "No matter what profession you choose, you must try, even in the smallest ways, to improve the quality of life of children in this country," Russert said. "The best commencement speech I ever heard was all of 16 words: 'No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person.'"
Russert, a product of Jesuit schooling at Canisius High School in Buffalo and John Carroll University in Cleveland, was presented with an honorary Doctorate of Laws.
Others receiving honorary degrees were BC alumnus Thomas Busch, general manager of award-winning KNOM, the oldest Catholic radio station in the U.S.; Rev. Raymond Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain and co-founder of the Ten Point Coalition; Sister Katarina Schuth, OSF, an expert on theological education and seminary reform; and BC alumna Blenda Wilson, president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Foundation.
University President Father William P. Leahy, SJ, in welcoming remarks, urged graduates to put their intellectual gifts toward bettering the community in which they live and work.
"May you be forces for good and signs of faith and hope for those around you," Father Leahy said. "We send you forth with our prayers and best wishes. We are confident that we can rely on your generosity, willingness to lead and to serve, and your desire to be men and women for others. May God continue to bless you."
Russert’s address was an ode to homespun values and Jesuit education.
Russert became the first in his family to go to college when he went to John Carroll, where, he said, he received a “superb education.”
"And so, too, with you," he said. "You chose a school that was different and you made the choice deliberately ... You've been given an education that says it's not enough to have a skill. Not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts. Values really do matter.
"Boston College, a Catholic university founded by the Jesuits: It's only justification for existing is because it has a special mission -- training young men and women to help shape and influence the moral tone and fiber of our nation and our society. And that means now you have a special obligation and responsibility ...
"You have something others would give almost anything for! You believe in your God, in your country, in your family, in your school, in yourself, in your values ... The values you have been taught, the struggles you have survived and the diploma you are about to receive have prepared you to compete with anybody, anywhere. People with backgrounds like yours and mine can and have made a difference."
Russert, author of “Big Russ and Me,” a book about the life lessons he learned from his father, urged graduates to “remember it is your grandparents and your parents who defended this country, who built this country, who brought you into this world and a chance to live the American dream. Will your generation do as much for your children?” he asked. “You know you must. Every generation is tested. Every generation is given the opportunity to be the ‘Greatest Generation.’”
He hailed the “generous spirit of service” shown by the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and the Boston College Appalachia Volunteers.
And he cited BC tutors at the West End House in Allston, “where the community room is now called the Boston College Room, and where a young 9-year-old girl named Adrienne [Andry] was mentored for 16 years by BC students. She is now attending BC herself, saying simply, ‘I feel like I want to give back because I’ve been helped so much by BC students.’
"What a lesson for all of us! No matter what your political philosophy, reach down from that proverbial ladder and see if there isn't some child we can't pull up a rung or two -- some are sick, some are lonely, some are uneducated. Most have little control over their fate. Give them a hand. Give them a chance. Give them their dignity ...
"For the good of all of us, please build a future we can be proud of."
Russert described the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from BC as the “second most humbling day” of his life, after an audience he had with Pope John Paul II in 1985.
"I was there to convince His Holiness it was in his interest to appear on the 'Today' show," he said. "But my thoughts soon turned away from NBC's ratings toward the prospect of salvation.
"As the Vicar of Christ approached me, you heard this tough, no-nonsense, hard-hitting moderator of 'Meet the Press' begin our conversation by saying, 'Bless me, Father.'
"He took my arm and whispered, 'You are the man called Timothy from NBC ... They tell me you are a very important man.' Somewhat taken aback, I said, 'Your Holiness, with all due respect, there are only two of us in this room, and I am certainly a distant second.'
"He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, 'Right.'"
Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley offered the benediction, invoking the ideals of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order. Earlier during the ceremony, he was thanked by Russert for his leadership in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis.