- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2007

LATROBE, Pa. — President Bush, delivering the commencement address yesterday at a Catholic school here, praised a handful of graduating students who joined the military, drawing hearty applause despite a divisive debate being waged in Congress and across the country about the Iraq war.

At St. Vincent’s College, — a Benedictine school and seminary in the home district of fierce war critic Rep. John P. Murtha — the president called on the 300 graduates to begin a life of community service, but gave special emphasis to those who had joined the military.

“In the graduating class today are five students who have volunteered to wear our nation’s uniform. You knew the risks of serving in a time of war, and you have volunteered to accept those risks,” Mr. Bush said. “You have chosen a noble calling. You will take your place as officers in the finest military the world has ever known,” Mr. Bush said.

The commencement address came after a monthlong debate at the school about the president’s appearance. More than 400 students and alumni signed an online petition asking that Mr. Bush not come, and a former president of the school said Mr. Bush has “so often violated Christian, Catholic and Benedictine teaching and tradition that I firmly oppose this distinction.”

More than 30 current and former faculty members wrote an open letter criticizing Mr. Bush on the war, and a group of graduating seniors gathered two weeks before commencement to debate the merits of having the president as the guest of honor.

But the current president, James Towey — who was the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives before joining the college nine months ago — yesterday praised Mr. Bush for the power of his convictions, saying he has “stood for the culture of life” and the sanctity of marriage.

College chancellor the Rev. Douglas R. Nowicki also lauded the president for standing firmly for the freedom of worship, saying, “Your willingness to champion this right makes you particularly welcome in this place.”

Despite the heated — but nearly always polite — debate among students at the school, the graduating class sat quietly throughout the speech, with none showing any sign of protest.

The speech had a light touch, but Mr. Bush was serious at times, calling on students to devote part of their lives to helping others.

After telling a story about a nursing home where the elderly people there stared at the door, hoping for a loved one to walk through, Mr. Bush said: “My challenge to you today is this: Be the person who walks through that door.”

“Be the face that brings a smile to the hurt and forgotten. Lead lives of purpose and character — make a difference in someone else’s life. And if you do, you will lead richer lives, you will build a more hopeful nation, and you’ll never be disappointed,” he said.

While Mr. Bush is locked in a pitched battle with Democrats, who want to limit funding for the war, the affable Mr. Towey has his own challenge — trying to top this year’s speaker.

Noting that Mr. Bush is going to Rome next month for a papal visit, Mr. Towey asked his friend to deliver a message: “Could you tell the pope that St. Vincent’s is looking for a commencement speaker for next year?”

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