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Headmaster’s Address 2019 – by Luke Culley
Reverend Fathers, Faculty, Families, Students, Alumni, and Graduates:
Several months ago, in my senior Humanities class, one of these seniors asked me: “Why are we reading this stuff? It is all so unrealistic.” The stuff we were reading at the time was Beowulf. Beowulf is an Anglo Saxon epic about a warrior who, as a young man, comes to the aid of the Great people by fighting and killing the ogre-like Grendel, who feasts on human flesh. When Beowulf is an old man, he gives his life for his own people by fighting and killing a fire breathing dragon. Why do we read stuff like that? It is after all unrealistic, in that Grendel and the fire-breathing dragon never existed and, in my students’ estimation, never could exist. How is reading Beowulf different than playing dungeons and dragons? Maybe fun, but ultimately an irrelevant waste of time. Stuff and nonsense. But is it?
Before answering this question let us take a brief glance over some of the curriculum of Gregory the Great Academy to see what other stuff we serve up to our students throughout their time here. In literature class, the freshmen read about that merriest of all fighters – Robin Hood, who thought it great joy to get to know a stranger by challenging him to some cudgel play before allowing him to cross over a stream. The sophomores spend half of the year embroiled in the most famous battle of all time contemplating the godlike brooding mind of that greatest of all pagan heroes Achilles, – following in the bloody wake of Diomedes, Ajax, and Hector as they fight before the great city of Troy all for the sake of Helen – the most beautiful woman in the world. Juniors spend several months reading the Odyssey – the epic story about a man returning home to his kinsmen, his palace, and most importantly his wife, Penelope – a story that is full of fairytale-esque adventures with beautiful enchantresses, one-eyed giants, utopian dreamers, and drug addicts – a tale that culminates in a bloodbath where Odysseus joins forces with his son Telemachus and cleanses his own hall by fighting and killing all the men who have been loitering there for years despoiling his goods and his land, and dishonoring his wife and his family. It is a hard but happy ending. Seniors read the Aeneid, about the refugee from Troy, who must wander for years, denying himself the love of a beautiful and noble woman, before he reaches the far off ever-receding land the gods are calling him to. Upon arriving, he must fight (for six long and bloody books) many battles against terrible foes in order to gain a foothold and found his city. They read The Song of Roland that sings of a fierce laughing knight who is more valiant than he is wise, who holds his life like a plaything, and slays Saracens for pleasure and for the love of God and his emperor Charlemagne. It’s all pretty good stuff. And though these tales are not realistic, they are rooted in reality.
You may have noticed a common theme here: we read a lot of books about men fighting one another. Men who fight monsters, men who fight for a beautiful woman, men who fight to get home and then restore order in their home, men who fight for God, and men who fight for the fun of it? So why is that?
Could it be that to be a man one must learn to fight? And that fighting is one of the chief virtues of a man? I dare say that it is, and it is a virtue that is sorely needed especially by Christian men today. That is a reality, a hard and harsh reality. And sometimes the unrealistic (or poetic) is the best vehicle to bring us to the truth and the goodness and even the beauty of such hard realities.
Teach my hands for war and my fingers for battle. Sings David the giant-slaying shepherd-turned-king, whom God called “close to my own heart.” If David is close to God’s own heart then is God a warrior, and a trainer of warriors? How can this be? What sort of warrior and what sort of war are we talking about here? Maybe a priest can tell us.
A priest from the Saint Elijah Congregation visited our school only a few weeks ago and when he visited my classroom, he was taken by a sketch from one of the seniors behind me today of a crusader knight holding up the bloody head of a defeated Saracen. His face lit up with joy and he said, “This is great. It is so good you allow them to read stories about the crusades and encourage them to make these kinds of pictures.” Not what you might expect from a priest of God. Fr. Highton, our visitor, is the head of an order that is devoted to preaching the Gospel to the tribes and peoples who have never heard the Gospel before. He has missions in India, in Laos, and in Africa – and was, in fact, coming to our school not only to model his school in the Himalayan Mountains after our own but also to encourage our young men to come and join him in the missionary field. He told our students that every priest in his order takes a 4th vow – a vow of parrhesia. Parrhesia was the virtue most prized by the ancient Greeks: roughly it translates to courage in speaking the fullness of the truth. Their vow is to speak the truth God prompts in their hearts no matter what the consequences, “even if they cut us to pieces,” were his exact words.
A student asked Fr. Highton if his work was dangerous and difficult. He replied: “It’s not a picnic. Do not expect to come to a circle of ladies drinking afternoon tea. Every day is difficult and an adventure. When I wake up in the morning, I have no idea what the day will bring.” He made it clear that to engage in this work, one must have the heart of a warrior and told the class about a book that he considered seminal to his effort as a missionary: it is called The Christian Duty to Fight by Antonio Caponetto. He ended his talk by saying that “all men are not called to be missionaries in the way that God has called him, but that all men are required to be “epic.” There is a secret hidden in each one of us that only God can bring forth and that secret is the heroic path God calls us to.”
And sometimes that call might seem to demand unrealistic things, as Fr. Highton well knows, but the (seemingly) unrealistic should never deter us from following God’s commands. We must strive to be like Saint Peter and dare to walk on water, knowing that God rejoices in the unrealistic—or more precisely, he rejoices in overcoming everything that restricts our entering into the really real.
At Gregory the Great we not only learn about great warriors and the battles they waged on the pages of timeless literature, but we learn to become real literal warriors on our own fields of glory. Saint Gregory’s boys learn how to fight with their bodies and their hands. They learn how to take down a man charging at them full speed, a man who may be twice their size – this is no mean task. It requires a boy to summon that manly virtue called courage which always requires a willingness to perish in the fight. Last week we witnessed the Highlanders battle Saint Joseph’s Prep, holding their ground with confidence even when they were being severely beaten on the scoreboard at the half. In the second half, they came out roaring with a confidence born from their hard training in the snow and cold rains of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The knowledge instilled into them during their many hours spent in this open-air classroom by the great coaches – van Beek, Snyman, Prezzia, and the brothers Kuplack finally paid off in full. They beat Saint Joseph’s Prep and then went on to defeat Cumberland Valley and win the Pennsylvania state rugby championship. That a school of 60 boys could accomplish such a victory might be the most unrealistic thing in the world. But with God, nothing is impossible. If we want to fight the good fight, to win the ultimate race, to be saints, we must get used to the unrealistic – to men fighting monsters and wars for women. It may well be the stuff dreams are made on, but it is the stuff of heaven.
In his book on Rhetoric, Aristotle calls his students to a fight even more noble than a physical fight. He says:
“It is absurd to hold that a man should be ashamed of inability to defend himself with his limbs, but not ashamed of an inability to defend himself with speech and reason; for the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.”
Here Aristotle speaks of a kind of fight and struggle for the logos, the fight to understand, explain and defends one’s ideas in speech. Indeed, in the Ethics, Aristotle characterizes the effort to know as a kind of fight or struggle. He enjoins his readers to “strain every nerve” in their efforts to contemplate the highest truths. The attempt to come to the truth was once described by a Greek philosopher as an epic struggle: “a struggle for the whole.” This noble fight or struggle that our students begin to learn at Gregory the Great takes place not only in rhetoric class but in all of our classes. For in those very books mentioned before, we are learning not only that men must fight but also what men must fight for. We learn not merely that Odysseus must fight in order to return home, and must fight the suitors when he gets there, but we learn what it means to have a home and a faithful wife and what it means to be a good son even in the absence of one’s father. By passing with Odysseus through the many realms of inhuman or perversely human community, we learn what true human community is supposed to look like.
So what about Beowulf? Do we learn anything from him and from the unknown poet who gave us this tale? Yes, from Beowulf we learn that there are monsters we must fight and there may come a time when out of love for our people and our God, we may have to give our lives up in this fight. But one of the most practical and realistic truths we can learn from Beowulf became clearest to me after having several conversations with one of our seniors, Paul Reilly, who wrote his senior thesis on Beowulf. From Beowulf, we learn humility. Beowulf’s great strength was rooted in his constant knowledge that all of his gifts, all of his strength came from God, and that God was his source and protector.
Today we live in strange times – an age where the knowledge of the truth of man, of nature, and of God is very hard to see. We cannot go to the store and pick it up. It will not be found on a google search. No iPhone will ever lead us to it. No, this will require the long and hard effort of a lifetime. If we are to rediscover the truths of this forgotten realm – many of which are found in the books we read here, we must all become explorers, adventurers, and warriors like Beowulf, Odysseus, and Aeneas and we must be cheerful while we’re at it like Robin Hood and Roland. We will have to fight not only to understand these truths, not only to explain and defend these truths to others who do not understand or who attack them, but we must fight to live these truths ourselves.
So, my message today for our graduates is this: remember the crafts you have begun to learn on the rugby pitch, in the classroom, and in the chapel. Be bold enough to discover and listen well to wise men and wise books, be brave enough to struggle for the understanding of what you hear to be true and lovely and good, and to love it with all your heart. Be strong enough to live these truths in a world that is often arrayed against them, and to strive wisely and charitably to speak clearly and well to all you meet on the field of battle. For this battle, you will need only one thing: humility. The humility to understand that all good gifts, all power, all wisdom, all beauty, comes from God, the source of man’s good and of man’s strength to achieve it. And that, gentlemen, is why we read this stuff.
by Francisco Stender, Class of 2019 Valedictorian
Reverend Father, Faculty, Dormfathers, Families, Students, Friends,
My classmates and I are graduating from this Academy today, and even though I am still something of a boy, I hope I will not appear too presumptuous if I propose to tell you a secret about education. Do want to know what it is? It is one of the reasons why this school is a good school and why it raises good boys who, God willing, will be good men. It is something very important that we students do every morning, whether we like it or not. Here at Gregory the Great Academy, we begin every day by making our beds. That’s what I learned here after all these years. That’s it. But that’s not all.
Making your bed in the morning may seem like a simple chore, but if you look closely, you can see how important it really is. If you cannot complete this small task, how can you expect to perform greater ones in the future? The challenge to make your bed every morning means far more than getting your room passed in time to grab some breakfast before class. It is the challenge to perform one small act of discipline at the start of each day. It is about beginning well, and as I sat down to begin writing this speech, I thought a lot about all those times I made my bed in the cold pre-dawn darkness of the dorms. There are plenty of nursery sayings about “well begun is half done,” but what do things well-begun lead to? When all is done, where do they end? We have made our beds. What now must we lie in? There are other wisdoms of old men that say, “Your beginning is only as good as your end.” Now that our time here is over, I wonder how well we made our beds.
Though we are yet to see where our journey has brought us, I can clearly see the paths that have led me to this moment with all of you. My journey at Gregory the Great has been filled with many fond memories. I remember our class going on a weekend trip to Promised Land State Park with Mr. Strong. The trip was filled with fishing, swimming, hiding from the rain, stacking our hammocks on top of another, and so much more. When we left for the trip, none of us thought that it would turn out to be so fun. It changed us and brought us closer together. In a way, I never expected some of the best things that have happened to me and around me at this school. I never thought I would run six miles with Declan O’Reilly just to get hot chocolate mix (which we never found); or see Sebastian Adamowicz run around like a headless chicken and then jump into the water after he sat down on a yellow jacket nest. It is moments like these that I will never forget and will always cherish because they were happy moments that I spent with my friends doing good things in a good place.
What is really surprising, though, is to think that without my time here, I never would have experienced any of these things at all, things that are inseparable to me now. I never would have known these friends of mine who are now such a deep part of my life. In fact, if all of us went to the same school in some other place, I don’t think we would all be the same friends we are now. And I know for sure that we wouldn’t share such memories. In no other place would we be able to find them. This journey that we have all made is full of such surprises, but it is now come to an end. Even that is hard to believe.
We have experienced many unforeseen joys and sorrows. Everybody’s lives suddenly changed when Fr. Christopher got sick, and none of us ever would have expected Peter Key to suffer such a terrible illness. We even had to say goodbye to some alumni who unexpectedly passed away this year. It has been a sad year, in many ways, but even with all these tragedies, our beloved school still thrives! We are about to complete another successful year here at Elmhurst and the school farm is taking off. Many of the old traditions are being revived, thanks to the help of the alumni staff members. This has also been the most successful athletic year in the school’s history. From our tenacious soccer team that dominated their way to the district title, to—as Mr. van Beek called it—the best defense in school history that allowed us to defeat our rival, Cumberland Valley, and win the state title.
As we prepare to part from each other’s company and from this school, I would like to take this opportunity to say a parting word to each of you, my classmates.
Sebastian Adamowicz, I hope you never forget the coffee morning fastbreaks or the number 73. I know you will go on to do great things, just like how you led us to a state title.
Paul Hebert, I know I will miss the random wall and hearing about your 5:30 am workout. I can’t wait to meet up in a couple of years after we have both joined the military.
Paul Reilly, how can I forget all the crazy Scandinavian folk songs you got stuck in my head? Or the time you were enraged because someone cooked bacon on your forge? Good luck at trade school and make some awesome knives.
Declan O’Reilly—oh, where to start? Between swimming across that river in France, or the room we shared this year, we have so many memories. But I know the experience we shared together as kitchen prefects cannot be matched and, for good or ill, will never be forgotten.
Peter Kelly, I will miss the fun we have shared and the mischief we have gotten into. I feel that it was yesterday when we were running from Jack Davis after jokingly telling him the seniors were buns. We showed him.
Nathan Bird, I hope you don’t forget that trip to Boston. I know I won’t. We went everywhere! That was the day I really got to know you and see how hilarious you are. Hopefully, someday I’ll get a chance to go shooting with you.
Joe Bell, you are one of the funniest people I know. I will never forget the time you wrote a very convincing Rhetoric speech on why our class deserved doughnuts—which we did.
Joe Landry, I remember the first time we went camping together and I was thinking, “Who is this crazy guy climbing up trees to set up a lean-to?” What’s funny is, you weren’t just climbing the branches; you actually were pulling yourself up inch by inch with a rope wrapped around the tree. I’ll miss you and thanks for being such a good prefect for my brother.
Michael Kaufman, from the first time I met you, I knew our time together was going to be a blast. I never will forget the time we bought $40 worth of senior food in coins; or when we tried to learn sign language so we could talk in class. I have to say, you are the only person I know who has gotten into trouble for reading too much. I can’t wait to hear about whatever crazy idea you get or contraption you build. You are probably the smartest person I know.
Aidan Hofbauer, we spent a lot of time working out during free time, even though most of it was just us talking. It makes me so happy that our dream to win states came true. We would always talk about winning and how if we could gain ten extra pounds, it might be enough to give us an edge over the other team. I can’t thank you enough for the motivation you gave me.
Aidan Gibbons, I will never forget all the time we spent as roommates. They may be the fondest memories I have. Ever since the first week we spent together in soccer camp, you have been one of my best friends. We have had some good adventures, from almost making our way into Trump Hotel, to camping out in the biggest blizzard in years, to our haunted barn room that we had so many ideas for, but none of them worked.
My classmates, you have made my time at Gregory the Great Academy wonderful. I say these things not as some final farewell that you might hear at a funeral, but rather as a farewell at the completion of a journey. Shakespeare wrote, “Journeys end in lovers meeting, every wise man’s son doth know.” Our journey is ended, and I love you all. In a few moments, when we receive our diplomas, our lives will be forever changed. We will no longer be students, but alumni. Our time at Gregory the Great has come to an end, and I can proudly say that there is no other group of guys that I would have desired to make this journey with. We will always be friends, and a part of us will never leave this school behind.
To my fellow students, especially my brother, Jude, I say, no matter how hard it gets or how unpleasant the moment may seem, always remember the good things you’ve done at Gregory the Great Academy, and the students who went before you. You have been tasked with keeping the tradition and culture of this school alive, so do it with pride. Even when you’re sitting in a freezing cold ice bath or waking up at 7am after a late banquet, never forget the task you have been given. You are on a journey, as we were, and it is up to you not to lose your way and remain true to the course. Make your beds every morning and make them well.
The journey that Gregory the Great Academy is is no easy journey, but it is one that rings with the laughter of friends. It is full of excitement, new people, trials, and triumphs, but what is most important is that Gregory the Great Academy challenges us to live life to its fullest for the greater glory of God. Our life is full of journeys and the journey’s call, but it is up to us to embark on them or not. If we choose to undertake the journey, and choose to do so every morning, willing to rise to the occasion, to give our all, the things we will learn and the things we will remember will be unparalleled. The journey of every St. Gregory’s boy begins with making his bed and it ends with a hard-fought goal reached. Even a little thing like making your bed can be, must be, the start of something great.