By Mark Hallum
About 1,800 St. John’s University undergraduates walked across the Great Lawn of the Jamaica campus to formally receive their degrees Sunday morning and heard remarks on systemic racism from Cardinal Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle.
Once a candidate for the papacy after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Tagle’s keynote speech centered around the concept of “missing persons” referring to those who struggle for equality and to better lives, and called on the next generation to work toward ending bigotry and exclusion.
“The most dramatic instances of the disappearance of human persons are, of course, kidnapping, murder, ethnic cleansing, wars. But we know that persons may also disappear even when they are visible,” Tagle said, citing instances of human trafficking, poverty, racism and marginalization. “The human family needs to be saved from exclusion and disconnectedness… Of the many needs of humanity today that you, fresh graduates, will have to face, I believe that exclusion and alienation and disappearance of persons need your urgent attention.”
Born in Manila, Philippines, Tagle was ordained in 1982 at 24 years old and is a highly regarded theologian appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and is the former Bishop of Imus in his home country.
“The poor disappear as human beings in an unjust economic system. We need self-examination, we need an examination of consciousness,” Tagle said.
Tagle was also the recipient of an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by St. John’s University.
About 54 percent of the graduating class of Spring 2018 were female while 46 were male, according to the St. John’s President Conrado Gempesaw. Approximately 98 percent of the now former students are from the Millennial generation between 18 and 35 and the youngest bachelor’s degree recipient was only 19, Gempesaw remarked.
“But what is very impressive,” Gempesaw said, “is that 476 students will graduate with honors and 19 undergraduates are graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA.”
The oldest graduate was 64 and 138 students had previously served in the military.
“Today, because of your hard work, your perseverance, we celebrate your achievements that will hopefully serve as the foundation of the next stage in your careers,” Gempesaw said. “Your success is our success and our success is yours as well.”
An estimate 14,000 people were gathered on the Great Lawn of St. John’s 8000 Utopia Pkwy. grounds.
“Most high schoolers are told not to expect their college professors to care about them as much as their high school teachers did,” physics major Claire Alvine said. “At St. John’s, my professors genuinely cared about me and my future. St. John’s is not just a school, but a community. I am grateful to all of the people I have met who supported and encouraged me to pursue my goals.”
English major Aria Laucella said her diploma was far more than just a “piece of paper” but proof of her tenacity and grit.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall