The graduation ceremony at St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, was yet another milestone in the remarkable journey of Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros.
Bishop Cisneros, a native of Cuba who emigrated to the United States in 1961 at the age of 16, gave the invocation and received an honorary degree at the spring commencement, which was held at the Ford Amphitheater in Coney Island on May 23.
The bishop came to the United States as part of a humanitarian effort called “Peter Pan,” which bought children from Cuba to this country. Bishop Cisneros ended up in the upper peninsula of Michigan. He recalled some of his past in a conversation with The Tablet.
“When I first graduated from high school in Michigan, I was all alone. Nobody from my family close to me was there at the ceremony, as well as when I graduated from college,” Bishop Cisneros said.
“Then when I was ordained a priest, it was the greatest moment of my life, and I was not alone. I am here now, and my family is Brooklyn—they are all around. So I felt that I was not a stranger; I felt that I was part of a whole that we are all in Christ Jesus.”
In Coney Island, Bishop Cisneros was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters from St. Francis.
“Bishop Cisneros is a man of many loves; he is quintessentially Cuban, and thoroughly American,” Miguel Martinez-Saenz, president of St. Francis, said in presenting the degree.
“Every ethnic group and nationality in the human mosaic that is the Diocese of Brooklyn has received his constant and unfailing pastoral care. [Bishop] Cisneros personifies patience, gives comfort and brings God to all wherever he goes. We thank him for the gift of his vocation that he has shared with many of us and with the world,” Martinez-Saenz said.
Bishop Cisneros later reflected on the honorary degree.
“It’s a moment of great joy. I’ve been in the Diocese of Brooklyn for 52 years, and this is my first graduation from Brooklyn,” the bishop, 73, told The Tablet.
“I was so happy that I’m able to participate in a ceremony that really reflects what the Diocese of Brooklyn is. It reflected our parishioners, the people that we live with, pray with, recreate with, of every single nationality. As a foreigner-born Brooklynite, I am especially proud to be here and to be invited by the president and the staff and faculty of the college.”
The bishop emphasized to graduates that the significance is not in the paper degree, but in the accomplishments and service behind it. His message to all immigrant and Catholic graduates of the Brooklyn Diocese is to not be afraid to stand for their faith, to stand for truth and to let the world know of the gifts God has placed in their hearts.
“Accomplish what God has planned for you–if you do that, you will succeed in every aspect, and you will find happiness,” Bishop Cisneros said. “When you live the life of a Christian, that’s what matters. This doctorate is a symbol for others, for immigrants, that we are all part of this great society, and of this same world, we share the same aspirations. As long as they are willing to work and do their best, God will reward.”
The graduation ceremony came at the end of a historic academic year for St. Francis — its 160th anniversary. Founded as St. Francis Academy by a group of Franciscan brothers, it was the first private school in the diocese.
This year’s class included 435 graduates who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in more than 70 fields of study. The class had 80 new scholarship recipients and included the first graduates of St. Francis’ MFA program. It was a diverse group of graduates that included many children of immigrants or immigrants.
At the commencement, graduating senior Amal Hawari, a “Dreamer” from Venezuela, spoke to her class.
“I am a Dreamer. A DACA dreamer to be precise–but if we want to be honest, we are all dreamers,” she said to loud cheers, thanking her parents for their sacrifice. “All of us, all of our dreams, do not have borders.”
DACA refers to Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era immigration policy that gives children who were brought illegally into the United States renewable legal status in the country.
Co-valedictorians Arianna Sartzetakis and Dana DiRenzo also shared their memories with the class.
“We have been instilled with the Franciscan values of hospitality and service to others,” Sartzetakis said. “We have been given the tools and values to move forward in life, with the ability to make great change.”
“The values of St. Francis values have taught us to be kind to others, to be respectful to others, and to give back,” DiRenzo added. “Our time at SFC has now come to an end. We are like the melting pot of schools, teeming with individuals from all over the world. We will win some and lose some, but it is how we respond that matters the most. It is most important to persevere and keep going.”
Michelle Miller, an Emmy-winning reporter from “CBS This Morning Saturday” who was the keynote speaker, gave some frank advice: “You all will fail. And I am so excited about that. Yes it’s painful, yes it’s hard, but hear me out. Failure is not an option, it is a requirement for success.
“What does St. Francis brand itself as? The small college of big dreams—sometimes when you dare to dream, and dream big, you will encounter setbacks. But facing your adversity is one of your biggest advantages,” Miller, who also received an honorary doctorate, said.
“A setback is nothing but a set-up for a comeback,” she added.