Headmasters Address, 2021 Graduation

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

Let me begin by saying a few words about these fellows behind me.  They have matured from a pack of charming and silly squirrels in  their freshman year to strong and happy young men. They love a good joke, they love one another, and they love good conversations. And they have more to say in class and more questions to ask than any teacher could possibly answer. They are not afraid to think for themselves and to listen to one another and, of course, to mock one another, as well.  They take themselves and one another seriously but not too seriously. These guys are full of fun – but there is in them something deeper than fun – one might call it joviality – the happiness and confidence of Jove himself, certainly having much to do with the presence of joy. In his famous poem, “Character of the Happy Warrior,” William Wordsworth opens by asking a question: “Who is the happy warrior?” Well, these fifteen men are happy warriors. Here they are. Too bad Mr. Wordsworth isn’t here to meet them and find his question answered. For this is a class of happy warriors and I’ll do my best to tell you why.

In their junior year, these gentlemen learned a poem called “God’s Grandeur” which begins:

The world is charged with the Grandeur of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil crushed.

And then the poem goes on to ask a question:

Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Why is it, the poet asks, that men do not hear or reckon God.  If God’s grandeur is so shining, why can men no longer see or hear him in his world?  For an answer, I’d like to look to an essay by Erich Heller called the Hazard of Modern Poetry.  Heller argues that the loss of a universal symbolic language such as once prevailed in the Christian Middle Ages makes it impossible to be a poet in the modern world. Erich Heller, interestingly enough a secular Jewish Academic from the University of Chicago, , explains in this remarkable essay that the loss of the symbolic world is due to a loss of belief in the Eucharist that began with the protestant reformation.  What an extraordinary claim for a secular academic to make: that without the Eucharist, without the belief that God became man for us and becomes flesh at every liturgy and mass, the symbolic order of the world falls apart, leading to the lamentable loss of poetry.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor comes at the problem in a different way: in his book A Secular Age he explains that the modern world is a world from which God has been evacuated and everything has been re-organized around this lack or absence of God. Although difficult, it is still possible, he maintains, to have faith in God in such a world – and Taylor himself is a Roman Catholic – but there is still a very real problem for the believer. Simply stated the problem is that the world he is in –with all of its symbolic cultural forms, are not Catholic. As Taylor poignantly expresses the situation – a Christian believer today is in precisely the same predicament as an atheist in the middle ages.  He can live and profess his faith but the world he is in stands in complete opposition to him at every level. So he is like a man living in a house that contradicts through its architecture, it’s style, its color, its furniture his very purpose and meaning.  And yet that’s the only house he has to live in.  One might say that the cosmic house medieval man lived in was Chartres cathedral whereas the secular cosmic abode is Walmart.

So how is a Catholic to act when he finds himself in such a predicament, we may wonder?   Can one be a poet in a non-poetic age?  Can one truly live one’s faith in a world from which God has been thoroughly drained?  One might think these two questions entirely unrelated, but I think the two are intimately related: Can one be a poet and can one be a Christian in a world such as this?

Well, I think we have already gotten the answer from the secular literary critic Erich Heller and the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor.  Men cannot see or hear God because in Heller’s terms the world has lost its coherence – the language of reality has been scrambled, making it seemingly impossible even for poetry to thrive, much less man. And in Taylor’s terms, the world has been re-arranged, albeit incoherently, around the death of God. The world as men now organize it and manifest its cultural significance denies the reality of God altogether – and even Christians cannot escape having to live within that new dis-organization.

I think both Taylor and Heller would assert that for us Hopkins’ poem can no longer be felt to be true.  Despite his faith, they would say, even a Christian man can no longer feel the presence of God pulsing in the world, can no longer sense the beauty of God’s order in his daily life.

But are they altogether right?  Or can we still seek, and find, and begin to see again the grandeur of God in an age such as ours?

The young men standing behind me would I think scoff at these wise old beards proclaiming the death of poetry and the death of Christian feeling in modernity.  And yes, it’s true they are young and perhaps overconfident, but are they not in some respect wiser than these much more learned men? Do they know something too?  I could be wrong here, but I think these youngsters behind me would answer this question with a rousing affirmative.  “Yes, we can still see the grandeur of God and Yes we can even be poets; maybe not at the caliber of Hopkins, but we can knock out a pretty decent sonnet or two if pushed.”  And I believe them; I think they’re right: the proof is from their own lived experience in a place like this where one is able to foster within the secular culture at large, a Christian culture where God can be seen, felt, and heard afresh.

So maybe we all should ask: what have you guys been doing for the last four years at Gregory the Great that has given you this confidence?  Well, lots of things: to name a few, you have been singing, praying, reading, talking and laughing, playing soccer, playing rugby, learning math, history, logic, and much much more.  That’s what you’ve been doing.  And you are about to put on a play and then go on a long pilgrimage together.  And you know, you truly know this, that these activities have begotten in you a sense of purpose, poise, and happiness.  But what will you do in the hereafter? What happens after the pilgrimage? Where will you be then?  How will you contend against the great forces that array themselves against you?  How will you remain, in William Wordsworth’s words, the Happy Warrior?  How will you continue to be a child of God in a world that denies him?

And now is the time for me to begin to give you some advice: The advice is in latin, so get ready: Age quid Agis!  For those who need a translation, that means: Do what you are doing.  Continue to do the same things you have been doing here!

OK, you may think that sounds absurd, and you’d be right – or at least partly right. Yes, I suppose it’s true you can’t continue to do all of those things you have been doing here exactly as you have been.  And if you strove with might and main to do just that, you’d just end up back here with us.  Which wouldn’t be the worst fate.

But in all of this tapestry of activities and experiences what have you been really doing?  I think Erich Heller helps us a bit here – you have been receiving through play and through work and through study and through conversation the language of God – the Logos itself – you have been taking part in the beginnings of a reconstruction of that lost symbolic world of God. Through a guided seeking you have been finding sometimes with great effort and sometimes effortlessly that lost forgotten world that Heller and Taylor consider so far from us today.  And you have learned in the small confines of this place what it means to thrive in God’s world.  You have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.  You truly do know that the world is charged with the grandeur of God because you have seen it. This, I believe, is what you have been doing.  And this is what you must keep doing.

But how?  How does one translate the little life of a boarding school into the grand life of your calling? And here is where we return again to poetry.  Why is poetry so important, especially for a Catholic in the 21st century?  Because putting the world back together belongs most fundamentally to the poet, to the maker of songs and stories. Atheist though he was, Shelley was right in saying that “poets are the unofficial legislators of mankind.” The persuasive power of the poetic word is overwhelming. Which is why a bad poem or a bad song or a bad story harms the world because we live and feel and see through these poems, songs, and stories.

After the senior class watched an excellent film version of Shakespeare’s 12th Night, Sam Guerrero was inspired to tell us that he watched Godzilla versus King Kong with his sister and afterwards realized how dumb it was.  Good!  But I warrant that his gift of discernment could only come from having entered deeply into better stories, and songs – that better persuade one of their goodness, beauty, and truth. The greatest story of all is the story of God’s creation of the world culminating with his entrance into it as a man! The only story with a truly happy ending.  This story convinced mankind that although more wonderful than any story told before – it is also true.  And because this story is true, that cosmic symbolic or poetic order that Erich Heller considers defunct and laments is still there waiting to be re-discovered.

Hopkins finishes God’s Grandeur with these words:

But nature is never spent.
There lives the dearest, freshness, deep down things.
And though the last lights off the black West went
O morning at the brown brink eastward springs
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods
With warm breast and with Ah! Bright Wings!

Gerard Manley Hopkins agrees wholeheartedly with our graduates here that man can know God and can see him even in this poor world.  But we have to work a little, we will have to dig a little for those freshness deep down things.  And good poetry and good music and good songs refreshed and illumined by the Spirit of God will enable us to do the digging.

So keep close to your heart the songs and stories and poems and prayers that you have learned, reflect on them, learn from them, live from them: Age Quid Agis – for it is through these ikons, these seeds of the Logos of God that you will continue to deepen your sense of the beauty and goodness and truth of God’s world.

I will end by reading the conclusion of the poem by William Wordsworth which I hope will be for these seniors both a fitting end to their journey here as well as a call to a new beginning. This should become the next good poem you take to heart:

‘Tis, finally, the man, who, lifted high,
Conspicuous object in a nation’s eye,
Or left unthought of in obscurity,
Who, with a toward or untoward lot,
Prosperous or adverse, to his wish or not,–
Plays, in the many games of life, that one
Where what he most doth value must be won;
Whom neither shape of danger can dismay,
Nor thought of tender happiness betray;
Who, not content that former work stand fast,
Looks forward, persevering to the last,
From well to better, daily self-surpast;
Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth
Forever, and to noble deeds give birth,
Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame,
And leave a dead, unprofitable name–
Finds comfort in himself and in his cause,
And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws
His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:
This is the happy warrior; this is he
That every man in arms should wish to be.

Jacob Landry, Valedictorian Address, 2021

Reverend Father, Faculty, Dormfathers, Families, Alumni, Students, and Classmates,

Here we are at graduation. It is hard to know what I can say on behalf of my class to signal this moment. Looking to Our Lord for inspiration, as we’ve been taught to do when in doubt, the only thing I can think of is, “It is finished.”

Now, I know that’s a little on the heavy side, and this isn’t quite the same thing as the Passion, but overstatements are often what you get when you borrow phrases from Jesus. It is finished, though. And it was very hard, and very important, and a labor of love (sometimes). And now, it really is finished. Our time here is over–and that is a very striking and strange thing to say. Sometimes, it seems like I’ve lived here my whole life. Other times, I feel like I showed up a month ago, and today, I feel like a child who asks regretfully, “Is it already time to go?”

When I look back at my four years here, I can honestly say without any reservation that I have come to love this school deeply. Gregory the Great Academy has made me the man I am today, and I hope that man will prove worthy of all that he has been given. But whatever doubts or even fears I may have regarding the future, I am at least confident that the formation I have received here will guide my steps for many years to come. And for that I am very grateful.

Since I have already dared to take Christ’s words for my own, I will venture to continue speaking in large terms, and tell you that I firmly believe this school provides the best education offered at any high school in the world.

How’s that for school pride? I do sincerely believe it, though, and I say it with humility. I would go so far as to say that this school provides one of the truest educations to be found anywhere, an education that focuses on who we are: creatures of minds, bodies, and souls in need of saving. Our reason, of course, makes us human, and our bodies make us healthy, but to forget our souls, as many ordinary schools do, is to forget that we are eternal things dwelling in the physical world,

But beyond this, and perhaps even more importantly, I have learned what friendship is, and I have experienced the joy of it. Both of these things are rendered almost inaccessible to teenage boys these days, for the world is ever more opposed to the real, preferring shallow and superficial things. But the real is really here, at this school, and I have felt its impact and its influence–largely in those who sit behind me. In their company I have encountered so many experiences; good times, hard times, work, play, songs, jokes, fights, adventures, and real camaraderie.

On behalf of all of us, I would like to give a real and heartfelt thank you to all the teachers who taught us and most especially to Mr. Fitzpatrick, who made the simple stories we read as freshmen meaningful and brought “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” to life for us. And to Dr. Sladky who managed to both relay enormous amounts of material concerning History and Physics and make it interesting and relevant. You formed our minds and enabled us to not only receive a great intellectual education, but also to enjoy it.

Music and poetry are essential parts of our formation and education. Our music ranges from energetic rousers, to the beautiful polyphony you just heard in the chapel. We also juggle, learn and recite poetry, and take our music and singing and poetry out on the roving road. We thank Mr Culley for his active and lively spirit as our headmaster and for first bringing juggling and all the joy that comes with it to our school; and also Mr. Williams, for all his efforts in training us to be good musicians and good men.

While all these things given to us by these men are essential to our school, and are truly excellent things, a key component that makes Gregory the Great unique is the spirit in which it educates us through our physical bodies. There is nothing quite like our athletic program, and most of my best memories are of playing rugby in blizzards or freezing rain, even though there was nothing quite so difficult, painful, tiring, or trying. But, at the same time, there was nothing quite so enjoyable or rewarding. And though struggling through the frozen wet of February may seem terrible (and it was), it makes the coming of Spring  and the winning of a State Title that much better. Our thanks to Coach van Beek who can train a group of 60 boys to be a state winning team. Thank you for all the practices, especially the hard ones.

But as every school forms the mind and the body in some manner, as I mentioned before, Gregory the Great forms the soul with particular care. This is primarily through Lauds, Mass, Rosary, and Compline, with plenty of extra devotionals thrown in there, too, like Vespers and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and so much more. I would like to give a sincere thank you to Father Christopher, for his tireless and constant care for us in administering the sacraments as our chaplain.

I would also like to thank Mr. Burger for his dedication to our farm program. Although I certainly didn’t like it at the time, the experience of killing and eviscerating a chicken is definitely something every boy should claim. I can say that now that I’ve done it. Mr. Burger does an enormous amount of work to almost single-handedly sustain our farm. Thanks for bringing good food from our fields to our refectory. Good luck next year with the cows.

It may seem that this speech is only one long list of thank you’s, but that’s because my heart is truly overflowing with gratitude. I have been happy here, and that is no small gift. To all those who assisted in the running of this school, teachers, faculty, dormfathers, thank you.

Younger students, I have this to say to all of you. By the beginning of next year, you’ll only probably only vaguely remember this speech, I know that’s how it was for me. But if you remember anything, remember this. One of our core virtues as Highlanders is “focused on the present.” This is a lesson which has taken me too long to learn, so I encourage you, stay focused on the present moment. Don’t live your day just waiting till practice is over. Don’t live your week waiting for the weekend, and don’t live the months waiting for break. Each moment at this school should be treasured. Don’t sell your time here short. Enjoy every second.

Standing here, I have only recently learned this lesson, but it is something I will take into the rest of my life.

And now, it is finished for us. We leave all this and all these people behind. What lies beyond this education? Well, one thing we will certainly bring with us from this school is our friendships with one another. To tell you the truth, and it’s strange to think about now, but I almost left the school my sophomore year because of the intensity of the changes that coming to this school entailed. I remember when I decided to stay though, and my mom asked me what changed my mind. I answered, “My friends.” Coming to this school and meeting the guys on this stage has changed my understanding of what it means to be friends and how much friendship means. I hope to make more someday now that I know how, now that I know something of what friendship is, having found it in those conversations after a  hard practice, the comfortable lights-out chats, and the silences between songs.

Our trials together as friends at this school of friendship make the good things poignant–which is perhaps the largest life lesson that we stand to learn here at the end of this leg of our educational journey. Our happiness and joy in good things and good people is great because it is hard earned. Our time rejoicing together is rendered more valuable and precious because it is brief after long endurance of difficulty. Life is good but it is short, I am told, and we are blessed to have been given what I pray will be a lasting taste of what is good, true, and beautiful, so that our life, though short, can be well lived.

And so my friends and classmates, I would like to thank you last of all. We have had an incredible adventure, and though our four years together are finished, I’m glad it’s not quite over–though it will be very soon. Thank you for being my friends, and for keeping me here at this school. Thank you for your time, your help, your hearts, and for all the memories that we now share. I wish you all well wherever life may take you.

It is finished, but I leave confident in facing life, and being able to find joy in it.

Thank you.