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Class of 2012 called to life of gratitude

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167th University Commencement Ceremony, Notre Dame Stadium, May 20, 2012

Urging the class of 2012 to embrace a life of gratitude, Haley Scott DeMaria, the 1995 University of Notre Dame alumna who made an inspiring recovery from critical injuries suffered in a tragic 1992 bus accident involving the Fighting Irish swimming team, challenged Notre Dame graduates to choose each day to celebrate the blessings in their lives, even during the darkest times.

DeMaria was the principal speaker and recipient of an honorary doctor of laws degree at the 167th University Commencement Ceremony, at which 1,973 graduates received their diplomas on Sunday (May 20) in Notre Dame Stadium. (Read Address / Watch Video)

“This is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned at Notre Dame: that life may not take you down the path you planned, but with the foundation you’ve laid at this University, it can still be a very good path. We can’t change the past. There are events in our lives over which we have no control. But what we can control is how we react to them.

Haley Scott DeMaria addresses Class of 2012

“I truly believe that each of us has a choice every day; that each of us can wake up tomorrow and find something negative in our lives on which to focus. But that each of us can also wake up tomorrow and focus on and celebrate the blessings in our lives. This is certainly easier to do on some days more than others. But even in our darkest days, we can choose the brighter path, the one of gratitude.”

While lauding Notre Dame’s previous Commencement speakers, DeMaria focused on her connection to the day’s graduates and the commonalities they share, including the tragic deaths of classmates.

“As I stand before you today, we have many things in common. The list of those who have stood at this podium at past commencements is certainly impressive, and I am honored to be added to that list. However, there are two words I am able share with you that few before me can: ‘I understand.’ I understand what it is like to sit where you sit as graduates of the University of Notre Dame. I understand that while football weekends are awesome, it can be annoying to have the quads and the bookstore crowded with alumni — people like me, and soon you. I understand the fun and challenges of parietals, Du Lac and Pig Tostal. I understand what it is like to lose a classmate in a very tragic way.

“As graduates, all Notre Dame alumni celebrate today with you. But the class of 2012 and my undergraduate class of 1995 share sadness as well. The loss of life at a young age is an emotional experience that will stay with you long after you leave Notre Dame. I understand. You will find, as you navigate through life, the words ‘I understand’ are very powerful when they are sincere and honest. These words carry the strongest meaning when someone has lived through a similar experience.”

Finally, DeMaria reminded graduates, who applauded her with a standing ovation, that Notre Dame’s community of faith has the power to sustain them for the rest of their lives.

Class of 2012

“There are three things that have sustained me, that have carried me through my challenges and have rejoiced with me. My faith, my family and my friendships. While academically, three ‘Fs’ wouldn’t be celebrated, in life, they are to be embraced. Faith, Family and Friendship.

“The Notre Dame family or the spirit of Notre Dame, whatever you want to call it, is the community of faith that unites us far beyond our days as students. Just as the words ‘I understand’ are powerful when spoken truthfully, so too are the words ‘I will pray for you.’

“The power of prayer is just that: powerful. It is why we flock to the Grotto and why on any given day, particularly during exam week, light from hundreds of candles burn for our prayers. Because we believe in that power.”

Michael J. O’Brien, a political science major from St. Charles, Ill., was the valedictorian of the 2012 University of Notre Dame graduating class and presented the valedictory address. (Read Address / Watch Video)

Michael O'Brien

With a theme of “shining a light in the darkness,” O’Brien encouraged his classmates to continue confronting challenges and embracing opportunity.

“Notre Dame has prepared us, as Scripture tells us, to ‘turn the darkness into light … and make the rough places smooth.’ That hard, Sisyphean task of coming together to build a better world — at times seemingly against all odds, always knowing that no solution is final, that new challenges will inevitably arise, is a ‘tradition that never graduates.’”

“There is disagreement and there is selfishness in the world, there is injustice and there is darkness; but there is also Notre Dame. There is an education that can shine a healing light on the divisions and challenges afflicting the world. Like the flickering candles of our Grotto, which glow brighter the more our hopes and prayers are bound together, our class is placed on a stand thousands of alumni strong who use the knowledge and skills they gained here to brighten the world in ways big and small, in the public sector and in the private sector, in their communities and in their families. We join them today.

“’No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, that those who come in may see the light.’ Let’s preserve this tradition.”

Ken Hackett, former president of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), received the University of Notre Dame’s 2012 Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics. (Read Address / Watch Video)

Ken Hackett receives Laetare Medal from University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

A native of West Roxbury, Mass., Hackett graduated from Boston College in 1968, enrolling in the Peace Corps the same year. Following his completion of his Peace Corps assignment, Hackett joined CRS in 1972, starting his career in Sierra Leone, where he managed both a nationwide leprosy control and a maternal and child health program. He has since served in CRS posts throughout Africa and Asia, as well as in administrative positions at the CRS Baltimore headquarters.

Recalling the pivotal role the Notre Dame community played in 2010 in promoting a referendum for independence for the Republic of South Sudan, Hackett stressed the impact of turning faith into action and the transformative power of service.

“What you here at Notre Dame did in 2010 in opening your arms to the beleaguered visiting bishops of Sudan who came to appeal for America’s concern and attention to a crisis in a forgotten part of the world was special.

“You sparked an energy that inspired campuses across the country. That spark had an impact on our own government and the attention it gave to the cause of a peaceful transition to independence in South Sudan. I was told by an individual in the White House that the visit of those Sudan Bishops following their enervating experience here on campus was a ‘game changer.’

Father Hesburgh is recognized in the stands at Commencement 2012

“Today, I would like to leave you graduates with an encouragement as you step off this campus into a different world than exists here in South Bend. You will be successful and hopefully you will have much joy in the attainment of your success. After four or more years here I believe it is safe to say you have a broader concern for others, particularly those less fortunate here and around the world. But I would like you to remember what you contributed to in the peaceful transition to independence in South Sudan. You helped people who fought hard and suffered, and sometimes died for liberties.

“You have also come to understand and appreciate the value of involvement in service to others and the promotion of a just society. Your time here at Notre Dame has blessed you with both a great education, as well as a profound and enriching experience.

“Domers, go out there remembering what you did for the people of South Sudan and change the world for the better.”

Graduates and their families also took a moment to recognize Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president emeritus, who viewed the ceremony from the stadium seats. University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., led the crowd in wishing a happy birthday to Father Hesburgh, who will turn 95 on May 25.