Martin Sheen Laetare Medal Acceptance Speech

Author: Martin Sheen

Thank you. Thank you so much. As the former acting president of the United States, I now have the best of both worlds: a successful administration and a Notre Dame degree. But I am here principally because I believe that every single one of us has the power to lift up this nation and all its people to a place.

Where the heart is without fear, and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow, domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sands of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let our country awake. Amen.

Some of you recognize that as a poem from Rabindranath Tagore, who was one of India’s great poet laureates. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, the year that fellow Laetare Medal recipient, John Kennedy was born. Tagore was a great friend and supporter of Ghandi. In fact, it was Tagore who gave Gandhi the name Mahatma, which means Great Spirit. He died in 1941, seven years before India achieved independence, but when they did in 1948, the Indian government chose one of his poems as the words for their national anthem. And I learned that poem in 1981, while I was in India to play a role in Gandhi, which I am happy to say was a very successful movie everywhere, but nowhere was it more successful than in Hollywood. Go figure. But it won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1982, and everyone in Hollywood seemed to love Gandhi. In fact, everyone in Hollywood wanted to be just like Gandhi – thin, tan, and moral.

For the past few months, I have had a nagging fear that the reality of this moment, in this historic place, would be such that anything I might try to add to it would be anticlimactic. And so I resolve that come what may, I would accept this cup as offered, not altered. But to my great relief, and to your eternal credit, from the moment I arrived here on campus, I have been taken up in the warm embrace of the Notre Dame family, and I am deeply grateful. For more than half a century, this institution has been my ideal. And for seven years, one of the most satisfying aspects of being on The West Wing, was portraying an American president who was a graduate of Notre Dame. I thought Josiah Bartlett was as close as I was ever likely to come to a personal relationship with the Fighting Irish, until now. So thanks to your dangerously generous gift. I’m afraid we’re stuck with each other, and I couldn’t be happier.

I was working in Canada, where they’re not as familiar with this honor, and it was announced, and I overheard a discussion between two gentlemen on the crew. One said, “What’s this thing Sheen’s getting from Notre Dame?” The other responded, “Oh, I guess its some thing they give you in the States if you live long enough and stay Catholic.” Indeed, the truth is mighty. Although, I did not hesitate to accept this honor, I was not unaware of the glory of it’s promise, or the demands of it’s purpose. Nor was I unmindful of the historic and heroic ranks of previous recipients and their extraordinary contributions; on the contrary. Yet more than anything else, what quickened my response to accept it was the fact that, without exception, each and every single recipient evoked a common humanity and common goal inspired by an iconic young rabbi, who assured us all more than 2,000 years ago that to know the truth would set us free. So therefore this annual gathering is a celebration of freedom in the truest sense of the word, and I am grateful for the invitation to attend this year’s party.

I have been an actor all my life. In fact, I have no conscious memory of ever not being an actor. I couldn’t identify it as such when I was a child, until I started going to the movies around the age 5 or 6, and then it gradually became to dawn on me that, Oh, I was one of those people up on the screen. And it was an extremely comforting revelation because I knew even then, that I would never be happy unless I pursued that wondrous mystery that possessed me and it gave me a possession of myself. So in a sense, my chosen profession was a foregone conclusion, and taking it all and all, I have not the slightest regret.

But while acting is what I do for a living, activism is what I do to stay alive. And I’m often asked how I came to unite the two, and the answer is simple, I haven’t a clue. But it was less a conscious effort than it was a natural progression. I learned early on that you serve yourself best when you serve others first. Of course, if you grow up in a large, poor, immigrant family, chances are you’re either Irish-Catholic or Hispanic. I was lucky enough to be both, so I had a huge advantage when it came to social justice activism.

Indeed the truth is mighty and it shall prevail.

Each time someone stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of repression and injustice.

Those words were spoken at the University of Capetown in South Africa in 1966 by Robert Francis Kennedy. They are enshrined on his memorial at Arlington National Cemetery as well, and they have been a powerful source of inspiration for my generation ever since.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all responsible for each other and the world, which is exactly the way it is, because consciously or unconsciously, we have made it so. And while none of us made any of the rules that govern the universe or the human heart, we are all beneficiaries of a divine promise, that the world is still a safe place despite our fears and we in it, are not asked to do great things; we are asked to do all things with great love.

Surely, a lofty ideal as rare in a culture of so many compromised values and so much cynicism, a culture that all too often knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Yet, there remains a very real and mysterious yearning, deep within each and every human heart that compels us to journey outside of ourselves by descending deeper within. Yet this inadvertent root must be built to the specifications of the individual heart, and the cost is high. If it were not so, we would be left to question its value. For some of us in this journey it may be a natural progression, for some it may be a sudden shift, for some it may be the result of a near-death experience, or a dead-end realization. For some, it may be less a journey than a pilgrimage.

It does not matter how we define it or when it begins, but it is absolutely essential that it continue, because it is only here we can come to know ourselves, in deeply revealing ways that confirm our worth and define our purpose. It is here where we are forced to acknowledge our powerlessness, and where we begin to realize how truly powerful we are. It is here where the ego befriends the truth, and we are free to visualize the very first small, conscious acts of heroism, that bring rejection from the crowd and satisfaction from the heart. And it is here into this world, this demented end, where there is absolutely no room for Him at all, that Christ comes uninvited to lift us up, and set us on the path that will unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh.

The Irish tell the story of a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and he asks to be let in and St. Peter says, “Of course. Show us your scars.” The man said, “I have no scars.” St. Peter says, “What a pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?”

However we perceive the purpose of our journey or the route we pursue, at the final twilight, when we must confront the reality of that undiscovered realm from which no traveler returns, the only things we can take with us, are the things which we cherished and gave away with love, including our precious time and talent.

I began my remarks with a poem by Tagore to honor America, and I would like to conclude with a poem by Emma Lazarus to honor all of America’s immigrants, which includes both of my parents. My father was Francisco Estévez, born near Vigo, Spain, on July 2, 1898. Oy vey! The very day the United States declared war on Spain. My mother was Mary Ann Phelan, born in County Tipperary, Ireland, on May 22, 1903. They met in Dayton, Ohio, and were married in 1927. She had twelve pregnancies, ten survived, nine boys and one girl. I was their seventh son, and my real name is Ramón.

We are hearing a great deal of anti-immigration rhetoric these days, and some of it is even coming from public servants, which is disturbing. But what is far worse are the many unchallenged, swaggering, arrogant, immigrant-bashing voices across the land, and those voices need to be reminded that arrogance is ignorance matured.

America is the oldest country in the world because it was the first to enter the 20th century, which was made possible in large measure because for the first 200 years of our history, America opened its doors wider and kept them open longer than any other nation on earth. The immigration issue is a vastly complex one that is worthy of an honest, intelligent, and compassionate debate, not blame, angry resentment, or the cowardly irresponsible bluster that so currently dominates so much of the popular media. And I think from time to time, we all need a very gentle reminder of how this great experiment in democracy got started.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin-cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands your storied pomp,” cries she
With silent lips.“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp and my heart beside the golden door.”

Thank you. Now go out and change the world.

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