Boston College Commencement

Boston, MA | June 8, 1964

We are not going to accomplish much from the top down. We are not looking for more administrators, or autos, or miracle drugs, we need people -- we need you for this crusade, just as we needed you, and continue to need you for the Peace Corps. You must be the teachers of remedial reading, the re-trainers of the unskilled, the workers in hospitals for the mentally retarded, the coaches of sports, the "shock troops" of the war against poverty willing to penetrate into the slums, able to stand the stench, the filth, the gray drab monotony of poverty.

Today, after four years of college, of studying, and exams, and essays, and term papers, you probably feel like the infantryman in the old war story. After too many campaigns, one day he began wandering around the front lines with a strange look in his eyes. Every now and then he'd stoop over to pick up a scrap of paper, stare at it and say, "This isn't it." Then he'd throw it away, pick up another scrap and say, "This isn't it." He kept repeating this for days until finally they came and led him gently away to the psychiatric ward. Doctors tried to establish contact with him there. But he kept going around with that same glassy stare, picking up scraps of paper and saying, "This isn't it.” After two months of this, the doctors gave up. They called him into the office, and told him sadly, "you can go now." But as he stared at the discharge they'd handed him the strange look suddenly left his eyes And he said, "Ah-hhh, this is it!"

Today at long last they handed you that little piece of paper you've all been looking for. How many of you looked at it, and said, with a sigh of relief, "Ah-hh, this is it!" How many of you, I wonder, are going to regard that piece of paper as a license for private practice... For a return to private life, and private pursuits. How many are going to use it as a letter of reference for the first available job. How many are going to view it as a discharge—from responsibility, from the need to be engaged with important issues, from the search for truth.

Three hundred years ago, St. Ignatius, wrote: "My sons and daughters should have only one foot touching earth, the other always raised to begin a journey."

How many of you, have one foot raised to begin such a journey? How many of you are preparing for such a journey now, or after graduate school?

How many of you realize that what you were given today is no ordinary piece of paper? What you were given was not a license, or a letter of reference, or a discharge. It was an admission pass — an opportunity to join those who are making history. What America is—what it becomes in the next half century, is what you make of it."

What is America now? It is an America of the fruited plain and the shining seas as we always say and read; it has always been that. It is also an America of the blast furnace, of the oil wells and the great cattle ranches, of the huge dams and the hydro-electric power projects, of the high standard of living, of the polaris subs and the nuclear aircraft carriers, of the 36-story rockets and the 60-story temples of finance. But it is also, I am proud to say, an America of the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty. An America dedicated to the elimination of racial discrimination, a land where all men are free and equal. It is an America beginning to shake off the despair and cynicism born out of the cold war, and to think and act again like the America it was when it started—a land of ideas and ideals.

A few months ago I received an honorary degree at Chulalungkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. The Foreign Minister of Thailand spoke at the presentation ceremony. His remarks were more significant, I felt, than the award itself.

"It is indeed striking," he said, "that this important idea, the most powerful idea in recent times, of a Peace Corps, of youth mingling, living working with youth, should come from the mightiest nation on earth, the United States...many of us who did not know about the United States thought of this great nation: as a wealthy nation, a powerful nation, endowed with great material strength and many powerful weapons. But how many of knew that in the United States ideas and ideals are also powerful? This is the secret of your greatness, of your might, which is not imposing on, or crushing people, but is filled with the hope of future good will and understanding."

The Foreign Minister of Thailand is not the only man to recognize this secret of America's greatness. In towns and villages throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America where our volunteers are at work, people are becoming acquainted for the first time with this true source of America's power—ideas and ideals.

Father Henri Pire, a Belgian priest, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958. He started an organization to help displaced persons homeless and uprooted victims of the war. He organized so-called "European Villages" where displaced persons could settle and raise their families. And he launched a crusade to awaken public opinion in the European nations. He called this crusade, "A Europe of the heart," he tried to interest all Europe in the work of resettling refugees, and in the general idea of service to all persons in need.

Last December, Father Pire told a group of students at Seton Hall University: "We must, before all, create a public opinion, expressing clearly the will to live in a world free of racism, hunger and war."

This is the kind of crusade all of you can join today, I was presented an honorary degree as Doctor of Laws. But all of you—whatever degree you have received...or if you got no degree, can be practicing "Doctors of Humanity." You can join in creating an America of the heart, an America free of racism, hunger and despair.

Sometimes we fall into the notion that these things can be done from the top of society, that government or business, or science can improve the human condition fast by hiring more administrators, or stepping up the production of autos, or developing new vaccines, or simply by spending more money. But real changes, real improvements have to come from the depths of society, from the people themselves. This is a lesson we have learned in the Peace Corps.

Today, our volunteers are hard at work as vocational teachers in Thailand, as nurses in Malaysia, as nurses, teachers, civil engineers, community development workers and rural public works assistants in Pakistan, as heavy machinery mechanics in Tunisia. Wherever they are serving, whatever they are working at, the volunteers are speaking the language of the country; they are eating the local food and living in local housing. The are assimilating themselves into local cultures. In short, they are living at the level of the people.

Jim Kelly, a 1961 Boston College graduate, had an idea. Jim was with the very first group of volunteers to go overseas. In September, 1961, he began working in Ghana, and for two years, he taught English and coached athletics in a Ghanaian secondary school.

Last year, when Jim finished his Peace Corps service, he was one of 37 volunteers awarded the Ford Foundation's Special Peace Corps Fellowship in international development. He went to Columbia University, got his master's degree in African studies, and now he's back at the Peace Corps, working with the staff of our African regional office.

Jim Sheehan got his master's degree in English here at Boston College in 1961. Then he joined the Peace Corps, was sent to Sierra Leone where he taught English at a high school in Freetown, the capital city. One day the Minister of Information found out that Jim had a background in educational television. So he asked him to begin working full time to help develop educational programming for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting System. Jim worked on just about every aspect of broadcasting there—from announcing to producing, and he did a terrific job.

He is now back working with us: on the staff of the Peace Corps in our Office of Public Affairs.

There are 24 other former Boston College students overseas with the Peace Corps now. I now that many of you graduates here today are already personally committed to an international experience. Some of you have spent a junior year abroad. Eighty-one of you have applied to the Peace Corps since September of last year. Some of you are about to leave for graduate study abroad. Some have come here from other countries to study and now will return home. Some of you will go abroad in the lay apostolate.

Boston College has in recent years initiated several international projects, one of which was the training of a Peace Corps group to work in Peru...they are already in the field. All of this is a good beginning but only, I hope, a beginning. Much more remains to be done and many more of you are needed.

We have received requests for more and more Peace Corps Volunteers, more than we can possibly supply. The heartfelt tributes and expressions of gratitude the Peace Corps has received from all over the world—even from countries where we have no volunteers at present.

Last year, one of the most significant of these tributes, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, sometimes called Asia's Nobel Prize, was presented to the Peace Cops on behalf of the Volunteers serving in eleven Asian nations. The citation accompanying the award read in part:

"The problem of achieving peace amidst the tensions and dangers of a nuclear age occupies the mind of much of the human race. Yet few within it discover a useful way to contribute. In reaffirming the essential community of interest of all ordinary people, regardless of creed or nationality, the Peace Corps Volunteers belong to that small but growing fraternity who by their individual efforts do make a difference."

So the world is discovering an America of the heart, or ideas and ideals. The world is discovering the secret of America's greatness. Now we must put that secret to work in America itself.

This is the chance we all have in President Johnson's proposed War on Poverty. This is the chance all of you have.

This program is aimed at wiping out the whole subculture of poverty in America.

You are not poor. If you were you would not be here today, equipped with a splendid education. But we do have 9 million families in America who are poor. Their median income is $1,800...for a family of four...less than $500 per year per person for everything—food, housing, clothes, education. One-third (11,000,000) of them are children. They were born poor. No one can claim they got to be poor because they were lazy, shiftless, drunken or profligate. Poor people have no spokesman, no lobby in Washington. Most of us haven't even seen them—we are so enclosed in our middle-class life. Yet there are 25 to 30 million poor—shut out, hopeless, demoralized.

Fortunately, today, the poor of America finally have a voice. It is a remarkable, memorable fact that our government has so concerned itself with the poor—from the vision of John F. Kennedy, to the actions of President Johnson, to the concrete legislation of our Congress—that I can come before you today to speak for the poor.

The poor are the hardest people in our society to reach. It is like going down in a submarine or a diving bell. The farther you get down into this subculture, the harder it is to penetrate another foot. But we must bring the poor back into our society. The pessimists and the skeptics say "it can't be done." You can't win the war against poverty. But we can do it today because we have the wealth to do it. We have the knowledge of economics, we have the fiscal and monetary tools and techniques to do it. We have the means of communication, and the mobility of population to do it. And finally—for the first time in our history—we have the will to do it.

But, who will be the executors of this will? We are not going to accomplish much from the top down. We are not looking for more administrators, or autos, or miracle drugs, we need people — we need you for this crusade, just as we needed you, and continue to need you for the Peace Corps. You must be the teachers of remedial reading, the re-trainers of the unskilled, the workers in hospitals for the mentally retarded, the coaches of sports, the "shock troops" of the war against poverty willing to penetrate into the slums, able to stand the stench, the filth, the gray drab monotony of poverty.

The new anti-poverty program will give us a job corps in which young people from 16 to 22 can get work experience, with special emphasis on conserving our natural resources and recreation areas, along with general education. But who will be the teachers in the Job Corps? Who will give these youngsters good example? Who will be their heroes, their models of hard work, diligence, honesty, sportsmanship?

We will also have volunteers in service to America—our own grass-roots Peace Corps—to work in state, local and nonprofit programs to wipe out causes of poverty. To work with impoverished Indians on reservations. To bring help to migratory workers and their families. To work with the poor in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, the Virgin Islands, the Pacific islands. To work with all the poor and the forgotten—perhaps right here in Boston. But who will perform this work unless it's you?

The Catholic American has historically withdrawn or found himself shunted to the side streets of the American community. Frequently he has lived in virtual separation from Main Street. And he became accustomed to non-participation in many affairs of the community. The ultimate breakthrough was bound to occur; however, as indeed it did, with the greatness of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Catholics in America, in our time, are recognized, and needed yet not all have broken with past custom. The sad truth is that many of us function, in our daily lives, as though the Community did not include us. The loss is a mutual one—we need the community as much as the community needs us.

The same is true of the world. What happens in Africa or Asia or South America — or, anywhere is literally a matter of moment for us all, whether we know it or not, where we acknowledge it or not, whether we act or not.

In the Peace Corps, we asked people to volunteer for work all over the world, not for money or glory, not even for comfort or convenience, but only to help others who needed and wanted help. Helping others is not a new idea. It is very old, as old as the old testament. It was old when a great theologian wrote in the 13th Century: "So powerful was the appeal of man's needs and so eloquent was the cry of man in his distress, in his poverty, in his sin, in his helplessness, that God heard this and was unable to resist it to the point that he sent his only begotten Son to come into the world to seek and to save that which we lost."

Is the appeal of man's needs any less powerful today? Is his cry of distress, or poverty, of helplessness less eloquent?

Someone wrote once that the old man wants peace and quiet, the middle-aged man wants love and respect, but the young man wants challenges. Well, you are two things above all today. You are Bachelors of the Arts and Sciences—and you are young. So I leave with you these challenges: The challenge of St. Ignatius and Thomas, the challenge of Father Pire, the challenge of the Peace Corps and the challenge of the War Against Poverty. The challenge to heed an eloquent cry-the most eloquent cry of all— the cry of human beings in distress, here in America and across the world.