Sheen gives La Roche graduates a lesson in activism

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President Josiah Bartlet and Spider-Man's Uncle Ben advised La Roche College graduates on Saturday that people thirst for "justice, healing and mercy" as much as they need food, clothing and shelter.

Actor Martin Sheen, who played both parts, was the commencement speaker at the Catholic college in McCandless where its trustees awarded him a honorary doctorate of humane letters. A total of 302 people -- 262 undergraduates and 40 graduate students -- received their degrees during the morning ceremony in the college's Kerr Fitness and Sports Center.

La Roche is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. College president Sister Candace Introcaso said Mr. Sheen was invited to campus because his lifetime of social activism "shines a light on our mission of promoting peace and justice."

"Acting is what I do for a living," he told the La Roche graduates and their families. "Activism is what I do to stay alive."

Among the causes he has championed have been anti-poverty efforts, programs to reduce homelessness, reform of immigration laws, better treatment of immigrants and the elimination of nuclear weapons. He also was an early foe of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Few people get a chance to do great things, Mr. Sheen said. Everyone, however, has a daily opportunity "to do all things with greater care."

As they go out into the world, graduates should not avoid championing unpopular causes. "One heart with courage is a majority," he said. "Every truth begins as blasphemy."

Nonviolent political and social protest will come with professional and personal costs, he warned. When people seek to enter heaven, St. Peter will ask to see their scars, he joked.

At a news conference before commencement, Mr. Sheen praised La Roche College as a place "building better children for our world."

The traditional message given to people is that "we should be about the business of building a better world for our children," he said. La Roche faculty members turn that message around. They send the young people they educate to "be a light and an inspiration, changing the world one student at a time," he said.

While aware of the world's serious problems, Mr. Sheen said his Roman Catholic upbringing and faith keep him hopeful. "He is risen," Mr. Sheen said, referring to the Christian belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and offers eternal life to those who follow him. "I belong to a faith that requires optimism."

In addition to playing President Bartlet in the TV series "The West Wing," and Uncle Ben in the 2012 movie "The Amazing Spider-Man," Mr. Sheen has appeared in more than 100 other films.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, he is the son of immigrants. His father was born in Spain and his mother in Ireland. He changed his name from Ramon Estevez to Martin Sheen to honor the late Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Mr. Sheen is the third prominent guest speaker invited to La Roche as part of its golden anniversary celebration.

Former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, received the college's first Peace Medal April 5. He also was the keynote speaker at the La Roche Global Problems-Global Solutions Conference. After leaving the U.S. Senate, Mr. Mitchell headed up U.S. efforts to negotiate peace in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East.

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Nicholas Kristof gave a campus lecture April 9. His topic was a "A Call to Action: Encouraging Young People to Join the 'World's Fight' and Take on a Cause Larger than Themselves."

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Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.


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