Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.: 2024 Commencement Address

Author: Jessica Sieff

Cardinal Pierre, Mr. Jack Brennan, Chair of our Board of Trustees, distinguished honorees, Notre Dame faculty and staff, parents and families of our graduates, and, above all, graduates of the Class of 2024: Welcome. Congratulations!

Let me begin with an apology. If you asked a graduating class who they would like as a commencement speaker, you might hear some of the following nominations:

  • The Pope;

  • The President of the United States;

  • Michelle Obama;

  • Taylor Swift;

  • Or, if not her, Travis Kelce.

They’d want star power - some name recognition.

But, Class of 2024, you got me. Apologies! First, you make it through the pandemic, and then you get me as a Commencement speaker. You can’t catch a break!

It is true, I don’t have the star power of the names listed above, but I have a few things that they do not have. One is that I sat in the seat that you are sitting in at my Commencement some 48 years ago.

Since I’m leaving the presidency I’m going to risk my reputation, throw caution to the wind, open the vault and show you some images from my undergraduate days.

  • Here is my yearbook photo.

    • My mother was upset for a long time that I didn’t get the haircut before the photo.

  • What was my dorm? Grace Hall.

  • Here is a typical room in Grace Hall in the 70’s.

  • So, what happened to the memorable traditions of Grace Hall and my senior year room?

    • They’re now university offices.

    • If those walls could talk!

  • My friends and I were all in for the North Dining Hall, the best dining hall on campus.

    • The big treats in the day were the occasional ice cream sundae bar and the even more occasional steak night which always was a source of great excitement.

    • There was definitely no southwest salad on Thursdays or bots to deliver food across campus.

  • My friends and I made the ritual pilgrimage for a photo at Knute Rockne’s grave then at Highland Cemetery near South Bend airport.

    • You guys had to endure the pandemic, but we had the fashions of the 1970’s to deal with.

  • And here is my Commencement Speaker, Vernon Jordan.

    • I’m sure he gave a great speech, but I don’t remember a word of it!

    • No doubt, that’s something you will say about your commencement speaker in a year or two.

So, my undergrad experience is one advantage in giving your Commencement speech. A second is that I’ve had the privilege to walk with you during your years at Notre Dame. And, thirdly, no one — aside from your parents — believes in you more, prays for you more, or is more hopeful for your future.

Speaking of your parents, I now ask you graduates to stand, turn, look in the direction of your parents and family and give them a big round of applause.

The reason for that applause is not simply because they raised you, supported you and loved you. It is also that the gifts you have to share with this world are gifts you received, at least in part, from them.

When I sat in your seat 48 years ago, I certainly appreciated my parents, but I did not realize how much I owed them.

In high school, I spent my summers working at a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska where my father served as a doctor. I would sometimes be making a bed or emptying a bedpan when my dad would come into the room to see one of his patients. I had observed that some doctors on rounds would enter the room with charts and a phalanx of interns, ask some medical questions and leave. I noticed that my dad would come in, pull up a chair, sit and ask a few medical questions. But he would often go on to ask about the person’s family, their children, or what they were worried about.

I have had the chance to observe and learn from many highly accomplished leaders, but watching my dad talk to his patients not just about their medical ailments but about their lives taught me the most about the power of treating every individual as a person worthy of respect.

My mother was a rare combination of kindness and strength. She had twelve children. Yes, we were Catholic. My home was always full of life and lots of chaos. She was not a strict, tightly organized manager of the household, but she laid down two inviolable rules: first, do your part for the common good, second take care of your siblings — particularly those younger than you. No one has taught me more about how to build and sustain a community.

Graduates, you have received a superb education from truly distinguished faculty who were dedicated to your learning. Spend some time thinking also about the gifts, often overlooked, that came from your families. Be confident in your gifts, but always be grateful to those from whom they came.

Class of 2024, your time has been like no other class. In addition to the ordinary anxieties of a first year in college, you came to a socially distanced, masked, Purell-drenched and somewhat tense campus. You had to endure regular COVID tests, isolation in South Bend hotels, spikes in positive cases, lock-downs and lots and lots of meals in Styrofoam containers.

Then, in October of 2020, these two beautiful friends, Valeria Espinel and Olivia Lara Rojas were tragically killed in a traffic accident, as Isabela said in her Valedictory and Shaker said in his Salutatorian prayer. The COVID disruption, isolation and hardships were difficult, but nothing wounded our hearts more than losing these two young women. They now rest in God’s arms, but they’re still members of the class of 2024 and yesterday, we awarded their families honorary degrees.

We are fortunate to have with us today Valeria Espinel’s father and brother, Ramon and Nicolas and members of her family. They’re right across from me and I’m going to ask them to stand so we can let them know how much we appreciate their presence with us today.

The Espinel family has taught us what it means to have hope and grace in the face of tragedy.

Class of 2024, your background, your education, your experiences and your hard work have given you the gifts the world needs. You will bring to the world intelligence, vitality and hope. But I don’t need to tell you about the challenges. There are wars that kill thousands of innocents; the intrinsic dignity of human life is disregarded; climate change continues apace on the earth, and our common home, is damaged; we see around the world great inequities and grinding poverty; authoritarian regimes have emerged and democratic institutions struggle; there are bigotries of various kinds and systemic injustices.

While these global threats are daunting, I’d like to speak today about something more pedestrian yet more in our control and perhaps more critical to solving the challenges. I’d like to talk about how we deal with our disagreements and advance our views.

I recently had the chance to speak to a long-standing member of Congress who has announced his retirement, somewhat dismayed at the state of the institution. He observed that partisan politics have adopted a business model that requires each side to differentiate themselves from the other, vilify the opposition, stoke hatred and thereby generate financial contributions and votes. It is, he said, as if stoking hatred for the opposition, however defined, is an essential part of political mobilization on both sides. Yet that strategy, though perhaps effective at winning elections, leaves us unable to talk to one another, solve problems through compromise, and pursue the common good together.

My message to you today is very simple: don’t succumb! Don’t be seduced by hatred. Rather show the world that your commitment to your convictions does not require that you show contempt for those who do not share them.

I encourage you to express your convictions, join with those who agree, and work diligently for what you believe. But I urge you also to be suspicious of rhetoric that casts those who disagree as evil. I urge that you do not dismiss dissenters. I urge that you engage not only the like-minded, but also those with a different view. And I hope you enter into those conversations with an openness to learn as well as teach, to understand the other person as well as correct their errors. In short, treat your dialogical opponent with respect, and thereby show them love.

The invitation to vilify an opponent is so seductive perhaps because it can seem like a confirmation of our own virtue. If we speak only to those with whom we agree, our contempt for the evil opposition can seem a sign of our own moral superiority. We despise the others so much, we tell ourselves, because they are so evil and we are so good. Our prayer is like the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel, “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like other people: swindlers, the unjust, adulterers, tax-collectors . . . or people who think like that.” But that is a false prayer to a false god.

As St. Augustine wrote, “It is strange that we should not realize that no enemy could be more dangerous to us than the hatred with which we hate him.” Or, as a friend once said in a more commonplace metaphor, “Hatred is an acid that corrodes any container that carries it.”

My second piece of advice is this: find ways to engage and build relationships beyond work and narrow social groups. Be an active member of your parish or Church; work at a homeless center or a food bank; serve on your school board; be a big brother or big sister; coach a youth soccer team. Most of all, get off your phones! Make real human communities and not simply digital connections. Such activities are not only good in themselves they help us make connections with people we otherwise would not have known.

Such activities are not only good in themselves, they help us make connections with people we otherwise would not have known. Such activities alleviate what a recent Surgeon General has called an epidemic of loneliness in our country. To paraphrase the words of the distinguished political scientist, Robert Putnam, who visited our campus this year: Join a club. Don’t bowl alone!

Class of 2024, you are especially suited to do these things because you know what it is like to get through a stressful, trying period by joining with others. You made it through the COVID pandemic, on campus, in person, in a community. Here. Few college students in this country can say that.

You know better than anyone how to join with others, confront daunting challenges and get through hard times.

One hundred years ago, before this stadium had been built, there was a growing debate about a nickname that was being pinned on our football team. An alumnus wrote to the Scholastic objecting to “Fighting Irish” name because, he said, “not all our players are of Irish descent!” Another fired back, “You don’t have to be from Ireland to be Irish!”

A few years later, the then-President Fr. Matthew Walsh issued a statement: “The university authorities are in no way averse to the name ‘Fighting Irish’ as applied to our athletic teams … I sincerely hope that we may always be worthy of the ideal embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish.’

In 2006, at my first Commencement as Notre Dame’s President, the then-President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was the speaker. She said to us, “The language you use here, the “Fighting Irish” … what we mean when we talk about it is an indomitable spirit, never tentative, always fully committed, to life itself … an indomitable spirit that always seeks to dig deeper to find the courage to transcend … that’s really the spirit of the Fighting Irish.”

Class of 2024, that is who you are. No other class in Notre Dame’s history has had to show more tenacity, more grit, more ‘fight’ to come to this day. Be proud of what you have done. Use what you have learned here and show the same fight in meeting the challenges before you.

Know that you will always have a special place in my heart because of what we’ve been through together. As I often say, one of my true joys as President is to meet alumni of Notre Dame all around the world and hear of their remarkable accomplishments and their dedicated service. That will certainly be true for you, members of the class of 2024. I look forward to the time, years hence, when I will meet you and feel proud that you are a graduate of Notre Dame.

Thank you. God bless you all.


Originally published by Jessica Sieff at on May 19, 2024.