The year "2021" is seen on the tassel of a university graduate in this illustration photo. (CNS photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

WASHINGTON | At the University of Notre Dame's graduation ceremony May 23 with over 14,000 in attendance including graduates, faculty members, families and friends, one notable absence for some was President Joe Biden.

In previous years, some U.S. presidents or vice presidents have given the school's commencement address during the first year of their term in office.

Instead, the graduates heard from Jimmy Dunne, a partner in an investment banking company that lost 68 of its 171 employees during the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought down New York's World Trade Center.

The Sandler O'Neill firm, now called Sandler O'Neill and Partners, had its offices in the trade center's South Tower.

Dunne told the graduates that what got him through 9/11 was what Notre Dame had instilled in him.

Regarding Biden not addressing the class of '21, a university spokesman told Catholic  News Service May 24 that "Notre Dame announces only the names of those who have accepted our invitation to be commencement speakers."

In early May, a White House source told Catholic News Agency that Biden had been invited by the university to give the commencement address but could not attend due to scheduling.

During the weekend of the graduation, Biden was at Camp David, a presidential retreat in Maryland, after spending several days mediating a cease-fire between Israel and Palestine.

News in March that the president could potentially address Notre Dame's 2021 graduates prompted a petition of over 4,500 Notre Dame graduates and students as well as staff members and others labeled "concerned Catholics" asking the university's president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, not to let this happen.

The petition was organized by the group Sycamore Trust, based in Austin, Texas, which describes itself as alumni and friends of the University of Notre Dame seeking to protect the university's Catholic identity.

The petition said in part the group was "dismayed by the pro-abortion and anti-religious liberty agenda of President Joe Biden" and said the nation's second Catholic president "rejects church teachings on abortion, marriage, sex and gender and is hostile to religious liberty." The group also said the case against honoring the current president is "immeasurably stronger than it was against honoring President (Barack) Obama."

Obama's 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame was not without controversy. Days after it was announced that he would be speaking, the Cardinal Newman Society, a Catholic college watchdog group based in Virginia, had collected more than 54,000 signatures in an online petition asking the university to rescind its invitation.

Bishop John M. D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, the diocese where Notre Dame is located, said he would not attend the ceremony as a silent protest of Obama's policies regarding life issues.

Obama was the ninth U.S. president to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame and the sixth to be a commencement speaker. In 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the graduating class.

In 2016, then-Vice President Biden received Notre Dame's Laetare Medal at the commencement ceremony, which was jointly presented to him and John Boehner, an Ohio Republican and former Speaker of the House.

In that ceremony, Biden urged the graduates to work hard to serve the common good.

In introducing Dunne as commencement speaker at the 2021 ceremony, held at the university's stadium, Father Jenkins said: "I cannot think of a better speaker for this class than Jimmy Dunne, who faced daunting challenges and true heartbreak and prevailed."

Dunne told the graduates that in the days after 9/11 attacks he followed convictions established in his college years. "As unready as I felt in a time of trial, what I most needed were the things that Notre Dame provided me."

He urged the class of 2021 to similarly hold onto what they have learned.

"Whenever you hold yourself to the highest standards instead of just the latest ones, doing the right thing instead of just the easy thing, you'll be putting into practice what you learned here," Dunne said. "And as you grow in faith -- aware of life's greater purposes and of whose purposes they are -- you will see that, too, as the gift of Notre Dame."

Carla Harris, a top executive at the investment bank Morgan Stanley, and a celebrated gospel singer, speaker and author, received the school's Laetare Medal, an award given to American Catholics since 1883.

She noted the irony of receiving an award that means rejoice after such a tumultuous year.

"How fitting, for I am indeed rejoicing as I think about the last 14 months of personal protocols, sheltering in place and social distancing," she said.

"I am rejoicing that, notwithstanding the deaths, the illnesses, the struggles that have emanated from the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic of social unrest resulting from long-term racial injustices and the overall strife in the land," she said, that God has also brought many good things and people have "learned how precious time is."

Harris sang "Amazing Grace" to close the ceremony, after telling graduates that her experience of "being a woman of color on Wall Street for 34 years" has taught her that it is "what you do for others that counts; fear has no place in your success equation; and your power lies not in who you are, but in whose you are."