General Martin E. Dempsey received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame during Commencement Weekend 2016.Barbara Johnston / University of Notre Dame

Recently retired U.S. Army General Martin E. Dempsey called on this year's graduating class to “make it matter” in an inspiring speech given during the University of Notre Dame’s commencement weekend.

General Dempsey was awarded an honorary degree at the Notre Dame's 171st Commencement Ceremony on Sunday, May 15. Dempsey, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the last four years, was the principal speaker alongside 2016 Laetare Medal awardees, Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Both General Dempsey and Vice President Biden are honorees in the Irish America magazine Hall of Fame. Dempsey was inducted this year and Vice President Biden was inducted in 2013.

Referring to himself as “the senior member” of the class of 2016, General Dempsey delivered a rousing speech in which he called on the graduates to make every day matter, so as to “Be ready for God, Country, and Notre Dame.”

“The end of the beginning of your education is at hand,” he told the excited crowd.

“We can't possibly know what will come next for you. History will find some of you but not all of you. Because you can't know which of you will make history, you must do your best to be ready.”

Looking back on his days serving in Iraq, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told of his struggle to find the words to help the 'teammates' of a fallen soldier, to console them while simultaneously urging them to continue despite their loss.

“You could see in their eyes that these young soldiers felt both fear and guilt: fear that they had to go back out again and guilt that they had survived and their teammate had not,” he said.

“And then one early morning — in that spiritual period between asleep and awake — I found the right words,” he told the graduates. That was when he discovered the mantra “make it matter.”

“From that point on, at each of these ceremonies, I would shake the hand of the surviving teammates of our fallen and tell them simply ‘make it matter.’ They knew what I meant.

“It has since occurred to me that ‘make it matter’ is a phrase with meaning in each of our lives, regardless of our occupations,” General Dempsey continued.

“So today, I ask you to make tomorrow matter and then the day after that and the day after that. And pretty soon it will be the sum total of your life that has mattered not any one particular accomplishment.

“I'm proud to be part of Notre Dame's Class of 2016.

“I know we will make it matter.”

Joe Biden and John Boehner embrace as the pick up the Laetare Medal at the University of Notre Dame. Photo credit: Matt Cashore / University of Notre Dame.

Joe Biden and John Boehner embrace as the pick up the Laetare Medal at the University of Notre Dame. Photo credit: Matt Cashore / University of Notre Dame.

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Referencing his own heritage as the grandson of four Irish immigrants, he praised the strength of the United States, although stressing that there is still work to be done.

“We're not perfect, but I believe we try harder than others to be perfect,” he stated.

“For you to lead this country, we don't just need you to succeed; we need you to inspire.

“We need you to have a warrior's heart, an immigrant's spirit, and a servant's soul.”

Also speaking at the commencement ceremony were Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner – two Catholic officials from opposing political parties – who each received the 2016 Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor accorded to American Catholics.

“I can say, without fear of contradiction, it is the most meaningful award I’ve ever received in my life,” Biden said, before expounding on his love and respect for Boehner. Biden said that American politics had become a “blood sport full of invective and ad hominem arguments,” which he believes is “to the detriment of the nation.”

Speaking with pride of his son, Beau, who died of cancer last year, he revealed that he is to have a street named after him in Kosovo – the Major Joseph R. Biden Boulevard – the place where he volunteered as a U.S. attorney to help them set up a criminal justice system during the war.

John Boehner agreed on the mutual respect between honorees.

“As Speaker, I always drew a distinction between ‘compromise’ and ‘common ground,’ because I truly do believe they are different things, and the fact of the matter is, you can find common ground with the other side without compromising on your core beliefs,” he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Vice President Joe Biden is one of those people.

“But even as we’ve both disagreed, we’ve both always understood the need to keep looking for things we could agree on. Because, while I’m a Republican, and Joe’s a Democrat, the fact is that first, we’re both Americans.”

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