(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
Victoria Reggie Kennedy called on Boston College law graduates Friday to seek change and justice by uniting people, invoking a practice she said her late husband Edward M. Kennedy embraced as a senator for 46 years.
Kennedy did not touch upon how another Catholic school, Anna Maria College, had rescinded an invitation for her to speak at its spring commencement amid pressure from a bishop, who said some of Kennedy’s personal views do not align with church teachings.
But she spoke of her Catholic faith as her guiding force.
“My husband described it well. ‘This faith,’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘has been as meaningful to me as breathing.’ And I would add: as essential,” she said. “For me, it would be impossible to unravel my faith from the other aspects of my life, personal or professional. It’s all woven together.
Outside the campus gates, several anti-abortion protestors held signs saying ‘‘BC Honors Abortion Defender.’’ But at the ceremony inside Conte Forum, there were no visible signs of opposition to her appearance or speech.
The 300 degree recipients and their loved ones applauded warmly as she approached the podium, then gave her a standing ovation after she spoke.
Kennedy noted that she went to Catholic school for more than 12 years and hails from “a family so Catholic that our childhood jokes had Latin punch lines.”
“My whole family’s faith was rooted in feeding the hungry, in caring for the sick and the poor,” she said. “It was the creed of social justice. A responsibility we didn’t broadcast, but one we lived and were deeply committed to.”
The controversy at Anna Maria had put Kennedy in the spotlight.
In March, two months before commencement at Anna Maria College, Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus pressured the small Paxton school to disinvite Kennedy. The bishop cited what he said were Kennedy’s views on abortion, health care coverage for contraception, and gay rights as reasons why she was an inappropriate choice for commencement speaker.
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said Kennedy had accepted the invitation to speak at BC before the controversy erupted at Anna Maria. BC reaffirmed its selection of Kennedy as speaker.
“A graduate of Tulane University Law School, Mrs. Kennedy practiced law for nearly 20 years and shares our graduates’ interests in public policy and the legal profession,” the school said in a statement. “She also has shown a commitment to social justice, a fundamental aspect of a Boston College Law School education.”
Terrence Donilon, spokesman for Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, declined to comment on BC’s decision to have Kennedy speak at the graduation.
Both Donilon and Dunn said such decisions should be guided by a statement the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued in 2004 called “Catholics in Political Life.” That statement says in part that: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
Kennedy did not receive an honorary degree Friday. Dunn said that the law school decided about one decade ago to end its practice of bestowing honorary degrees to commencement speakers to better focus on the graduates’ achievements.
Donilon said it is not customary for O'Malley to attend the BC law graduation, adding that O’Malley has never attended in his nine years as archbishop.
Kennedy declined to comment further after the commencement.
Law graduate Sean Donnelly, 27, posed for photographs afterward with family members, who said they are practicing Catholics.
“[Kennedy] had a wonderful message of, after graduating, going into service for others,” he said. “It was very inspirational.”
His grandmother, Laurie Jane Donnelly said Kennedy “was very tactful given everything that’s going on."
The graduate’s aunt, Mary Jane Silva, said Kennedy’s “secular message was outstanding, but her Catholic message was just something we have to ponder for a minute.”
“I’m not sure how she reconciles her belief in the right to choose with Catholic teachings,” Silva said.
During her speech, Kennedy told the “Legal Eagles” that “you are exactly what America needs.”
“Ted Kennedy could find common ground better than anyone I’ve ever known because – as hard as he fought for the causes he believed in – he knew we could not move forward if all we did was fight, she said. “We can only move forward when we do so together.”
“That is why he achieved so much in the Senate,” she continued. “And that is why – at this time of growing dysfunction and polarization in our government – we have to work together with our head and heart … We must never stop fighting for equal rights and civil rights and human rights for all of God’s children. And we will only win those battles – and win them for good – if all of us come together.
E-mail Matt Rocheleau at email@example.com.
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