Vice President Joe Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner were among the key speakers during the commencement ceremony of the University of Notre Dame on May 15.

Apart from providing inspirational words for the more than 3,000 graduates, the two politicians were also present to receive the highest recognition conferred by American Catholicism. The Laetare Medal has been awarded by the Catholic university since 1883 to individuals who advanced the arts and sciences and most importantly the heritage of humanity while at the same time illustrating the ideals of the Catholic Church.

Though considered as political opponents, Biden and Boehner stressed that decades of friendship, the pursuit of common good for Americans and their Catholic faith have eventually enabled them to find common ground in almost all the issues they had struggled to deal with. In his speech, the Vice President shared advice to his young audience: “Progress only comes when you deal with your opponent with respect, listening as well as talking. Engage in the tireless pursuit of finding common ground, because not only will you be happier, but you will be incredibly successful. That’s where you’ll find your reward. It’ll make us all better for it.”

Biden considers the Laetare Medal as his life’s most meaningful award especially during these times when politics is at its worst, more like a “contact or blood sport.” He can’t help but recall his encounter with Pope Francis who welcomed him in Rome during the pontiff’s inaugural mass in 2013.  Biden explained that such welcoming attitude has made Pope Francis the most popular man on earth. In his final words, the Vice President stressed the importance of making time for the family amidst the numerous opportunities and the requirement of someone’s job. Biden experienced this firsthand after losing her wife and the recent demise of his son Beau.

John Boehner on the other hand commended his co-awardee Biden in his speech. Similar to the Vice President, he stressed the need to find a common ground without sacrificing one’s principles “Governing is the art of the possible… In its essence, governing requires us to look for common ground where it can be found, without compromising our principles. You can find common ground with the other side without compromising your core beliefs.”

Just like Biden, Boehner cited the influence of family and religion to his political career. He resigned as the House Speaker immediately after Pope Francis has addressed the joint congress on his visit to the US last year. Instead of directly citing tremendous political pressures as the cause, Boehner simply said that his moving encounter with the Pope and of the “power of the Holy Spirit” made him eventually decide to step down. As the former speaker jokes, “’Laetare” means rejoice, and, trust me, every day since last October, I’ve been rejoicing.”

Not all Catholics are happy with the awardees. A small group of conservative Catholics has protested in front of the university gate last Sunday to show their dismay on Biden’s recognition. Many of those opposed to the ceremony like Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend don’t agree with the Vice President’s views on abortion and same-sex marriage. But for Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins, the Laetare Medal was not given based on Boehner and Biden’s political decisions and views and instead was accorded as a recognition of their efforts for the common good and public service.

Aside from Boehner and Biden, a few other individuals like retired US Army General Martin Dempsey and Cardinal Donald Wuerl also gave their speeches to the graduates after receiving their honorary degrees from the university.

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