The Rev. James Martin, S.J., Jesuit priest, editor at-large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican's Secretariat for Communication and New York Times best-selling author, presented the keynote address to the 331 graduates at the Misericordia University seventh annual winter commencement ceremony on Sunday, Dec. 17 in the Anderson Sports and Health Center on campus.
The graduates hailed from 18 states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin. Among the largest cohorts of students, 59 students graduated from the Doctor of Physical Therapy program in the College of Health Sciences and Education, and 26 students received their Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. The College of Business awarded 33 Bachelor of Science degrees in business administration.
During his address, Father Martin said he was honored to be recognized by a university founded by the Sisters of Mercy – one that so fully embraces the sisters' charisms of Mercy, Service, Justice and Hospitality. He offered the graduates several pieces of advice he wishes he would have known at their age, starting with the recommendation to not take themselves too seriously or act like a "jerk to their friends." He encouraged them to be the best self they know they can be.
"To make good decisions, ask yourself, 'What would my best self do?' 'What would the person I want to become do?'" he asked rhetorically. "Start acting as if you were your best self and soon you'll find that you've become that person."
He urged the students to do the right thing, even when it is the harder route to take, to be true to themselves and not worry about getting everyone to like them. "You can't force people to approve of you, agree with you, be impressed with you, love you, or even like you. So stop trying ... just relax and accept the fact that some people will like you and others won't. It will save you a ton of heartache," he said.
Lastly, he encouraged the graduates to be merciful and carry on in the spirit of Catherine McAuley. He quoted Jesuit moral theology professor, James Keenan, SJ, who wrote that mercy is "entering into the chaos of another person's life."
Father Martin explained, "Jesus did (enter the chaos) when he reached out to those on the margins. That's also what Catherine McAuley did (as) the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. You probably know how she spent all her inheritance in order to found her first House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland, in 1827 – a place to shelter and educate women and girls. Doing so, she entered into the chaos of their lives."
He added, "(In the chaos) that's where people most need you: in those messy, chaotic times. And I didn't know that when I was your age ... I thought that life was about making your own life as comfortable as possible, and when others needed help, I'd sort of stay away and hope that their problems went away. Oh, I was sympathetic, but I didn't want anything to make my own life any more messy. But, that's not what Misericordia is. When you feel someone in need, even if it seems overwhelming or chaotic, and whether it's someone in your family or in your circle of friends or at work, enter into their chaos, and give them some 'Misericordia.'"
During his Jesuit novitiate, Martin worked in a hospice for the sick and dying with the Missionaries of Charity and at an orphanage in Kingston, Jamaica; at a homeless shelter in Boston, and at the Nativity Mission School, a Jesuit school for inner-city boys in New York City. He also studied philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, Illinois, and worked in an outreach program with street-gang members in Chicago housing projects. For his regency assignment, he worked for two years with the Jesuit Refugee Service/East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.
Father Martin is the author and editor of several books, and has written articles for Catholic publications, including America, Commonweal, U.S. Catholic, Catholic Digest and The (London) Tablet. He also has published articles in national news outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, CNN, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post website. He has commented on religion and spirituality in the international media, including National Public Radio, Comedy Central, Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, The History Channel, the BBC, National Geographic, and Vatican Radio. He also served as a commentator for ABC News during the 2013 papal conclave and during Pope Francis's visit to the United States in 2015.
His most recent book, "Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Sensitivity and Compassion," was published in 2017. His book "Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus" was published in 2016 and his first novel, "The Abbey: A Story of Discovery," preceded it in 2015. His book, "Jesus: A Pilgrimage," published in 2014, combines travel narrative, biblical criticism and spiritual reflections on the life of Christ. It was a New York Times best seller and won a Christopher Award and a Catholic Press Association Award.
During the ceremony, Father Martin was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
Misericordia University also presented Elisabeth "Lisa" Fontenelli with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. She was recognized for her lifelong support of the Sisters of Mercy and the Mercy educational traditions. Fontenelli recently retired after a 30-year career on Wall Street in the global financial industry. Fontenelli joined Goldman Sachs in 1992 in U.S. Equity Research. She subsequently joined the global research management team and held the roles of divisional chief administrative officer and chief operating officer of the division. She was named managing director in 2003 and partner in 2006. Prior to her retirement, she served as deputy head of Global Investment Research, overseeing all equity and credit research globally.
Fontenelli's connection to the Mercy tradition began as a student of the Sisters of Mercy at St. Mary Academy, Lakewood, New Jersey. Her philanthropy and support of Mercy education is guided by the Mercy core values she inherited from her parents, experienced as a child and continues to develop as an adult. She is a supporter of Mercy Center and Sister's Academy in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and has been a sponsor of the Mercy Girls Rising Project for more than 10 years. She has contributed to numerous Mercy missions around the world with a focus on education and leadership development for women and girls. In 2016, she completed 12 years of service as a trustee at Georgian Court University, founded in 1908 by the Sisters of Mercy in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Student speaker for the ceremony was Michelle Mellody, the daughter of James and Joyce Mellody, Smithfield, Rhode Island. She is an early childhood and special education major who recently completed her student teaching at Lake Noxen Elementary School. A native of Southbury, Connecticut, Mellody holds certification to teach special education for grades pre-kindergarten-8 and regular education for grades pre-kindergarten-4.
Mellody encouraged her fellow graduates to keep with them the four tenets of the university that guided them through their time at Misericordia. "Although we have now changed our role from students to alumni of Misericordia, I hope that we can all keep the spirit of this wonderful university in our hearts as we begin a new journey," she remarked. "I challenge us to continue to follow Misericordia's four charisms throughout our lives and in whatever career choice we make.
"As a future teacher, I hope to instill the core values that Misericordia has taught me into the next generation," she added. "Let us be the embodiment of Mercy, Service, Justice and Hospitality. Let us show Mercy through compassion, love, and care; Service through selflessness, sacrifice, and action; Justice through fairness, acceptance, and advocacy, and Hospitality with dignity, respect, and openness."
Mellody plans to return to Rhode Island following graduation to secure a teaching position, and intends to continue her education with an advanced degree. She has two older sisters who graduated from Salve Regina University, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1934.