Every year on December 8th, the Saint Gregory’s community celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The regular daily routine is forgotten for the day, and the students instead attend a beautiful High Mass, participate in a sevens rugby tournament, and attend a banquet in the evening. Over the years, several traditions have formed surrounding the school banquets. At every banquet for example, each class sings a folk song they have been especially preparing for the occasion. But there are also some traditions that are particular to certain banquets. One such tradition is the singing of the Boar’s Head Carol by the senior class as they process around the room with the object of their song. Such traditions, says Hilaire Belloc, nourish the soul in a mystical way and help to make sense of the strange and perhaps even horrifying fact of our mortality. At Saint Gregory’s we wish to show the students under our care the importance of good and beautiful traditions so that they in turn might show it to their families and communities and thereby make the beginning of a restoration of what is quickly and tragically being lost in the world today.
Man has a body as well as a soul and the whole of man, soul and body, is nourished sanely by a multiplicity of observed traditional things. Moreover, there is this great quality in the unchanging practice of Holy Seasons, that it makes explicable, tolerable, and normal what is otherwise a shocking and intolerable and even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing. I mean, the mortality of immortal man.
On March 12, fourteen hundred years ago, Pope St. Gregory the Great died. As his honorary title proclaims, he was a great man and a great pope. But this greatness was his not because he wanted to make the Roman papacy great again—which he did. St. Gregory was called great because he was good—the servant of the servants of God, as he phrased it. His greatness was achieved in a spirit of humble reluctance to be great: a spirit of holy meekness. In fact, greatness was the very thing Gregory did not desire, and it was in that desire that he achieved greatness.
This reluctance to be great is a mystery at the heart of St. Gregory the Great’s grudging yet accepting rise to papal power. It is a mystery to be embraced in following the standard of St. Gregory—and the teachings of Christ, for that matter. The reluctance to be great is a measure of both sanctity and sanity, and it is, therefore, a cause for greatness through the virtue of meekness. Meekness is not weakness. It is the noble desire to sit at the lowest place. It is strength. Though the meek do not resist evil with force, they overcome it with patient and enduring goodness. The meek are those whose reason guides impulse, restraining anger and passion. They are not free from anger or without passions, but have the will to control and master them. In this lies strength, virtue, and greatness.
The reluctance to be great is not necessarily a sign of laziness or selfishness or mediocrity. The reluctance of Gregory, and of every great man, is a sign of knowing oneself in relation to God, and embracing the humility that Christ taught us by becoming Man—even by His Own reluctance in the Garden of Gethsemane. St. Gregory was well used to worldly turmoil and the need to rebuild from the ruins, but he did not seek the glory that accompanies such tasks. The world is ever in need of reform and the re-establishment of faith. Gregory was the man to bring this to the world in his lifetime, and his example and leadership are not obsolete. The problems of a crumbling culture which he grappled with are still absolutely real and absolutely relevant. History and reason tell that the best leaders are not those who have ambition for greatness, but rather those whose power in leadership lies in a quiet dedication that is not focused on being great. This is the secret of St. Gregory and it is why he was great.
The boys of St. Gregory’s celebrated the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception with a day of feasting. It was the second of four banquets they hold every year, and which are central to the spirit of their school. The Academy is a family and the domestic meal is the expression of community—it is a sign and celebration of the gratitude that follows and flows from those labors of love and life that bind people together. This is especially the case when celebrating the familial ties that all share under the Motherhood of the Mother of God. As Catholics, we are a people united by the hallowed ties of family and faith, who have the strength to smile in the face of tribulation and yet rejoice in the good things of heaven and earth. Banquet days at St. Gregory’s are days of enjoyment (in Latin, fruor, “I enjoy;” related to “fruitfulness”)—not days of mere pleasures. The sturdy fare heaps high on the boards together with that type of plenteous cheer that is well grounded in the sweat and suffering that begets true enjoyment. Our banquets, like our salvation through the Mediatrix of all grace, is the fruit of toil and trust. This is the heart and origin of the Immaculate Conception Banquet, and it is an experience that is slipping away from the culture at large. The idea and ethics of meals is deteriorating into a hurried and harried pre-packaged affair punctuated by interruptions. If anything can help reverse the trend, it is those old-fashioned and sacred approaches to food and fellowship that remind us what it means to hold a Feast Day and why it is important.