Graduation 2020: Headmaster’s Address

Luke Culley delivers the headmaster's address to the graduating class of 2020.

by Luke Culley, Headmaster

Reverend Fathers, Faculty, Families, Students, Alumni, and Graduates:

I remember watching this class when they were freshmen, only days after their arrival in what was then our school in a place situated in the Pocono mountains called Pine Hill. I stood watching them from the porch of the cabin where I lived as they assembled around a rock on the field below and one or other member of their class would step up onto the rock and begin addressing his new classmates, soon to be friends. First I remember John Bateman step onto the rock to preach. And then Max Valentine decided it was his turn so he would take his place on the rock and so it went. After watching this for a while, I turned to Ben Strong (our Math and Physics teacher as well as dormfather at the time) and said that I would give a lot to know what it was they were talking about so earnestly and even formally. I could only imagine. This was only the second or third day of their freshman year and they were already forming themselves into some kind of politic body and, at least I imagined it this way at the time, making plans to improve the place. I remember telling Ben: “this is going to be a special class.”

By the time they were juniors, their manifold gifts of intelligence, strength of character, athletic ability, and – let’s face it – all around coolness, began to take shape in not so surprising and not always so pleasant ways. They knew that they were upper-formers now, leaders of the student body, and they wanted to share their ideas, and respectfully, of course, disagree. Were they a bit cocky at times? Well, YES. But we knew that underneath all that they were really good boys who were growing, doing, and thinking with all their might and main. These were good boys, but they were as yet unfinished. Like a rock under the artist’s chisel, they were still taking shape.

But something began to happen to them between their junior and senior year. Only they could tell us what it was exactly. Whatever it was, I doubt it happened all at once. But it did begin with something decisive: almost as if they had re-assembled around some other rock to re-assess themselves and their role in the school. When they came back to be seniors, they were ready to serve, they were ready to learn how to be true leaders: they were ready to be something remarkable: young men who are constantly trying to see the good of the whole and to serve it well, whether that whole was the boys in their room, the orderliness and cleanliness of the kitchen, the soundness and fun of weekend activities. These young men strove to learn from their head dormthather Jonathan Kuplack, from their coaches, from their teachers, and from one another how they could improve in each of the areas of their lives here — and in the end, they truly accomplished what I like to think they were already dreaming about and planning in those first days of their freshman year around a rock. They did make this a better school. We are proud of them, as I know you are and ought to be. But that expression doesn’t capture quite what I mean. A better way to put it, perhaps, is we are grateful for them and even astonished at them. We stand in admiration of what God has wrought in these young lads during these four years at this school. And my sincere hope is that they too stand in astonishment at what God has wrought in them as they worked well with all the grace God gave them to work with.

It is true that their senior year was cut short. There was no rugby season. No chance to show that this year would be the best season in Saint Gregory’s history. No final goodbyes to their room-mates, over whom they took such excellent care. And worst of all, no thesis defenses. Just kidding. That’s the one thing I think most of them don’t regret missing out on.

But their losses were great: there was no Saint Francis Pilgrimage. All of this is very sad for them, for their teachers, and for the whole school. But when I reflect on this year, I believe that what they are left with is no small thing. For God accomplishes all things well and for God a part can become the whole. In this unfinished year, this year that was cut off in an untimely fashion, I can say with complete confidence that they achieved a knowledge that is an experience of the whole of reality. Not that they now know the whole of reality, far from it, but that they have received the whole of reality that our school can give to young men of their age. I believe this. And I also believe that their sudden exit from the doors of our school, when neither they or we realized at the time that the exit was as final as it actually was, has afforded them a hard lesson from which they can learn much indeed. Their senior year was not finished. The fullness of their Saint Gregory’s experience was incomplete. They did not go on a pilgrimage — and yet, and yet… life is a pilgrimage or rather many pilgrimages and all lives end unfinished. To begin to reflect on this rude experience of loss, of being cut off from what is expected, of what is rightly your own, of the fulfillment of all you have striven for, we might turn to some of the greatest unfinished works of man: Mozart’s Requiem Mass (which they listened to in solitude but also in estranged company with the rest of their their schoolmates in this period of Covid exile), a mass composed while Mozart was dying. He did not finish it. Why? Why did God not give him the strength to finish what was so clearly one of the greatest musical achievements of man composed for the honor and glory of God himself? The great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke mused about an incomplete sculpture of the god Apollo. Gazing at what remained of this headless stone torso, Rilke writes:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

For Rilke the fragment shines in every part in a way that is somehow more powerful than if it were whole. And for him the effect is transformative. Every inch of this unfinished stone cries out to him through the brilliance of a resplendent smile unseen but felt everywhere: You must change your life.

Suddenly these young men found themselves at home, with a pile of essays to write, music to listen to, sonnets to compose, with instructions and encouragement coming from a voice far away but appearing to them weekly on computer screens. This was all good work. But it was definitely not their school. Suddenly they were out of their element. Trying to be who they have learned to be in the company of one another and their teachers and their usual surroundings and events but without one another, without any of these supports. They had become fragments of their own experience, of their own knowledge. Dis-oriented fragments I imagine. And yet bearing within them the resplendent smile of the whole. This uncomfortable, painful, but I dare say illuminating experience of being a fragment and struggling to make of it a whole is the work that each of you will now pursue for the rest of your lives. There will be a pilgrimage and this will be the quest of your pilgrimage. How to take what you know, what has been revealed to you, and revealed even more urgently, more clearly now that you are separated from it. How to take this in hand and translate it, shape it into action for every new circumstance of your life. You must change your life. Because you have already been changed in so many extraordinary ways. This will not be easy, but unlike most Saint Gregory’s seniors who have sat where you sit now, you already know this crucial truth.

Your class began, as I remember, around a rock. (Do any of you remember this?) And it continued to gather around a rock. A rock that took many forms: Countless conversations, class trips into mountains and down rivers, playing on the rugby field and in the IPL league and everywhere else, finding your voice by telling jokes to friends, by giving speeches in rhetoric class, and by being leaders of your room, of your areas, and of the school. When I first taught you in Church History I remember that your class always seemed to be laughing or smiling about something. Now, I know it was probably some comical face Francis Rataj was making, that perfect angel. Or was it James? I still don’t know.

In Humanities you were still full of mirth but ready to tackle serious books and serious conversations. I did not participate in your weekly seminar with Dr. Lefler every tuesday night but I loved to look in on them. It was wonderful to see: the beauty of young men conversing with a wise teacher. The resplendent smile of wisdom is what you have gained here. In your work, in your play, in your contemplation, in your laughter, in your prayer you have been made translucent to a wisdom that will suffuse the rest of your days if you choose to deepen it through memory, inquiry, and prayer. And you have found that the proper home for wisdom is friendship: friendship not only with each other, but friendship with all the students, and even with your teachers, friendship with your parents and your family, friendship with all of Creation, friendship with God. And you know this because you know that it is by giving gifts to one another for something larger than yourselves, like a rugby game, like a class discussion, like a casino night, like a 5 course meal for the freshmen, like a school, that you become more than yourselves. In giving, you are given back, magnified and multiplied. It is the resplendent truth of this rock that you stand around now. And we are all honored to be able to stand here with you.

Graduation 2020: Valedictorian’s Address

Gregory the Great Academy Valedictorian Address 2020

by John Snyman (’20)

Reverend Fathers, Faculty and Staff, Parents, Classmates,

The other day, I was talking to a visitor who came to the Academy, and he asked me, “So, what do you really learn at this school?” And I thought to myself, “Hm, what did I learn?… I don’t know… I can’t remember.” I’m afraid I didn’t have a great answer for him. I can only hope he comes and finds out for himself. Even though I realize I learned a lot, and that I have forgotten a lot of what I learned, one of the good things about this school is that it ingrains certain things into your character with experiences that, most of the time, you don’t even know are there—that you don’t have to remember.

What I do remember are the innumerable memories of those times that made up my formation. Every boy that comes to this school is given incredible memories. They are the things that we all carry with us, those things that affected us for the good in the moment, but also, I imagine, years down the road. The repertoire of memories I have from this school is vast, and they are ones that I can confidently say I share with everyone I went to school with, and especially my classmates. Whether small or large, silly or serious, they are with me—with us—and they will always bind us to that life that has made us who we are today, and who we will be later on in our lives.

I can’t help but share with you now a little of what comes pouring into my mind when I let those memories run loose.

Being awakened by Colby Robinson handing me a hot cup of coffee, with a look on his face saying, “I didn’t do all this work for nothing—you better get up.”

Walking into the sun porch, hearing the cackling of boys reminiscing an embarrassing moment of the past.

Smelling the fragrant, smoky smell of the chapel at morning prayer, where you find the strength to face the day with a rigorous attitude—sometimes ruined by the terrible breath of your friend who is breathing on you on purpose.

Coming down after morning prayer and getting a little boost by a smile from your friendly neighborhood John Bateman.

Busting out your morning job to get to breakfast on time only to find it’s all gone.

Making my way back to my room to find a large cup of coffee glued to my desk so that when I pull on it just hard enough, the glue breaks, and the coffee spills everywhere. It was funny the first three times, Max… or Billy. (I still don’t know who did it.)

Hearing James Gaetano run by me for the tenth time in ten minutes trying to catch someone who chucked a ball at his face.

Racing to get to class on time and the look on the teacher’s face when you tell him you forgot your book.

Fighting in the chalk wars before algebra class and watching Kevin Howerton walk to the next class oblivious that his blazer is covered with chalk marks.

Re-enacting a battle march in Ancient History class by savagely beating our desks and seeing the terrified kid who happened to be visiting the school when he heard Audino’s war cry.

Smelling lunch filling the building after morning classes, and often finding it tastes better than it smelled.

Mustering the strength during class to face the pain that was about to come from the weight room, or the rugby pitch.

Seeing your teammate give everything he has and turning to do the same for his sake.

Hearing Mr. Prezzia somehow accidentally skip four numbers when counting down the end of a circuit.

Feeling proud after making it through practice without your weakness getting the better of you.

Receiving a letter from your sister and soaking it with tears when she makes you realize just how blessed you are.

Hearing the roar of sixty boys belting out a song that only half of them know at the dinner table.

Feeling of the warm spring sun after winter is over and the bewilderment when it snows in April.

Bringing it all to night prayer at the end of the day, to give thanks for the joy and to offer up the pain.

And finally, falling asleep to the chatter of your roommates that you have somehow learned to love in a few short months.

There is such an accumulation of memories that make up one single day at this school, and we have been here for hundreds. I only wish I could remember them all. But what have I learned? What have we all learned?

What I probably should have said to that boy who was visiting is that living a busy and productive life is the only way to know and to better yourself. And that is what, I think, we have done, what we have learned—to stop, reflect, and recognize the beauty in every single thing around us. Our memories teach us that we have learned to love learning and know the importance of completely engaging yourself in whatever it is you’re doing in any given moment. We have learned to make a habit of sacrificing ourselves for others, whether it be on the field or in the dorms. We have learned to live with guys we didn’t really like and somehow ended up truly caring about. We have learned to take pride in doing the smallest things correctly and to never accept our current state as good enough, enkindling a drive for excellence.

The desire for adventure is in the heart of every young man, and at this school it is well exercised in order, I believe, to give us these lessons and these memories. Here, we took on challenges confidently, whether it was traveling to a foreign country with no money, striving for months to compete for a rugby state championship, or dressing up in a tie to sing to a girl at Dunkin Donuts. We tried hard to be resilient in whatever situation we were in. In fact, my fondest memories of this place are when the surroundings got worse and our spirits got better, making true friendships based on virtue. When I saw the crooked smile on a classmate’s frozen face going into a scrum, I thought to myself that there were few things we couldn’t endure together. Somehow, at this school, we have learned to enjoy the gifts given to us, both great and small.

Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from this school that my class has experienced only came when the tail-end of our time here was taken away. When we went home last March, the upcoming two and a half months was everything to us. Our last time together as boys, our last rugby season, our last chance to do good in this place where we have so much power to do so—all this was our world, it was all we cared about. When it was suddenly gone, many of us were extremely distraught. But it had its purpose.

One of the books we read when we were home was “The Ballad of the White Horse.” In it, there is a scene where King Alfred of the Wessex men is visited by Mary. At the time, he was despairing at the repeated defeats he had suffered from the Danes. He asked Mary not for the secrets of heaven. He only asks if they will one day be victorious. She does not answer his question directly but reminds him of his purpose. She says this:

“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.

“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.

“The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

“The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

It was in this loving warning, this impossible challenge, that my classmates and I realized that we were being told that none of what we loved about our world was greater than loving Christ. If we only do this, then we will have joy without a cause and faith without a hope. This is what this school has taught us through life, liturgy, work, study, leisure, and play—it has taught us what it means to be a Christian man living our lives deliberately according to His Will, even as the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher. With the grace of God and the gifts given to us at this school, I feel confident as I stand with my classes and face the world. I am honored to have this opportunity, on behalf of my class, to say thank you to all here present who made it possible for us to have experienced this life-changing school.

Thank you.

Back to School 2020-2021

We are happy to announce that Gregory the Great Academy will open for the academic year of 2020-21 with our normal schedule and educational programs at our Elmhurst campus.


Dear Faculty, Students, and Parents,

On the day of the 9/11 attacks, the founding headmaster of our school told the boys that the most important thing to do when confronted with a destabilizing situation is to maintain the course of one’s vocation. I believe we have done just that in the current crisis, not allowing the COVID-19 outbreak to distract our school from its calling. It has been a good though somewhat grueling trial, testing the strength of our community in rising to the occasion. With difficult decisions, last-minute adjustments, and students showing the quality of their character, we have, with the grace of God, undertaken the challenge well. Thank you to all for staying the course.

With sympathy to those who have suffered hardship or loss due to the virus or the reactions it spurred, we are grateful that our immediate community has remained untouched by tragedy, and we offer our continuing prayers to the men and women guiding and supporting our country through the tumult. We are also grateful that the outbreak did not prove as widespread as once feared, though it resulted in a less-than-ideal close to our academic year. It has been hard, especially for our seniors (though we hope to offer them a fitting send-off in the near future).

As the year comes to a close, however, we look to the fall.

I am happy to announce that Gregory the Great Academy will open for the academic year of 2020-21 with our normal schedule and educational programs at our Elmhurst campus. Our students, teachers, and parents have all made very clear their desire and readiness to return to our usual operations and, as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania plans to reopen schools in September, we will do just that. We will begin classes on September 7 come what may, even if that will entail, at some interval during the year, whatever adjustments to our everyday proceedings that reason and prudence may dictate.

We are committed to the safety of our students and to those whom Christian charity requires a duty of concern. We are blessed to have a remote, self-contained, yet expansive campus, a small student body, and the ability to remain true to our mission while practicing certain measures of caution—such as eliminating travel, quarantine rooms, and sanitizing protocols. Whatever changes are deemed necessary to prevent infection, we are confident we can implement them and remain safe in our school and secure in our mission to provide young men with an education that will help them face a society growing more and more prone to secular incongruities.

Our enrollment numbers for next year are strong, with a large freshman class in the wings and a waiting-list forming. Support from parents and benefactors has surged in the past weeks, and, taking advantage of the closure, several campus developments are underway. We have also made good progress in making contingency plans and we are forming a board of medical professionals to advise us and inform any precautionary health measures we decide to adopt along the way. We will be ready for action in the fall and are looking forward to resuming our vital work with you and your sons.

As we make plans for the upcoming academic year and a return to our normal operations on campus, let us together renew our confidence in God, Whose Providence has ever upheld our school and given us every reason not to be afraid. The education and formation we provide is centered on that holy relationship that brings light and clarity into the dark confusion of the world. It is a guide to the fulfillment of human life and human freedom. Our work goes on because it is needed. See you all in September.

In Christ,

Luke Culley
Headmaster