Valedictorian’s Graduation Address 2024

Reverend Fathers, Friends, Families, Faculty, Alumni, and, for the time being fellow, students,

These last four years of my life have been full of surprises–winning rugby state championships, juggling in the streets of Scranton, songs in the refectory, discovering great heroes and learning their deeds – and to top it all off, now I am going togive a speech – and I hope I will surprise myself by getting through it without making too much of a mess. But I’ve been hit with the surprise of a broken nose twice in my time here, so I’m pretty used to people looking at me funny.

Four years ago, I arrived in the back parking lot of this school at the beginning of my freshman year with the firm intent of getting out of here as soon as I could. But, you guessed it, I had a surprise in store. I met returning studentswho were best friends with one another and whom I believed were insane for wanting to be here. I met my new classmates, whom I thought I could never possibly be friends with in this seeming penitentiary. Yet now, surprise surprise, I find myself on this stage with a heavy heart saying goodbye to the best school I could ever have gone to on behalf of the best friends I will ever have.

Surprises continued to leap at me every step of my way. Before arriving, I had not a thought in my mind for push-ups in the snow, pig chores in the morning, praying with all my heart in a chapel, or living my life in a generally radical and intense way. Andyet, here I was, at 5 pm on a slushy, terrible February day, my thoughts turning longingly to the warm shower at the bottomof the hill as Coach blows his whistle, but then, surprise!, he tells me to gather the equipment and head down to the creek for an ice bath. For those who haven’t experienced it, this is one of the most hope-shattering things known to man. Not only have you had a miserable practice, but now you have to go down to the creek, break the ice with sledgehammers, and hop in for five minutes. “Just get through it,” I said to myself, “Think of how happy you’ll be once it’s over.”

These tough aspects of life that I discovered upon arrival here certainly were not what you would call pleasant, yet so many good surprisesresulted. Even though it was hard at first, I only became happy when the school worked and chiseled at my character and I shifted from “just getting through it” to genuinely enjoying the challenges thrust upon me. And that would catch meby surprise as well, every now and again, even though I still didn’t see the whole picture. That was yet to come. In these ways, myclass’ time here, and really any boy’s time here, is punctuated by surprises. Looking back at it all now, one of the most surprising surprises, funny enough, is how unsurprising it all really is. My experiences of the past four years are filled with adventure, discovery, and ultimately delight at the discovery, and it makes sense that these surprises should leave a young man with real cares for God, for the world, for friendship, for living life well, and for truth, goodness, and beauty– and for seeing Mr. Hanisch clock air time on his lawn mower as he ramps up the front hill.

Not only has my physical and mental transformation surprised me, but maybe even more surprising is the spiritual change. Before arriving here, I did not enjoy prayer, and I would often dread the long hour attending Mass on Sundays, waiting for it to end–just getting through it. But now, I cherish being in the Chapel singing Lauds and Compline, saying the Rosary, and attending Mass and Divine Liturgy. And not only just attending, but being attentive – participating as fully as I can in the life – giving surprises of the divine mysteries, and therefore developing a real and delightful relationship with Our Lord.

I have learned, though, that there is a little more to this school than the improvement of boys’ physical, mental, and spiritual states. From the very beginning of our time here we were told by faculty, alumni, current students, and everyone who had a meaningful connection with the Academy that this was the best school for boys our age. This bold claim surprised me, and got me thinking “What is so special about this place? Aren’t there other schools that do this?

Why is this one the best?” I wondered. One day during study hall, Mr. Williams came into my room and surprised me by handing me a small book. It was labeled, “A Warrior’s Meditation for the Rosary.” I brought it into the chapel and began to read. The purpose of this little book was not so little. It was to help guys like me see, through the mysteries of the Rosary, our purpose as men in fighting as warriors for Jesus Christ. Through this I gained a new understanding of our formation here at Gregory the Great.

What is the ultimate end in being skilled at rugby, being disciplined during clean-up, being able to demonstrate Euclidean propositions, or being able to get Kevin O’Brien to be quiet during study hall? What is the point of knowing about warriors like Achilles, or Beowulf, or King Alfred of the White Horse? What is the point of standing in ranks like singing soldiers during the Divine Liturgy?

Every challenging action we engaged in as students at this Academy was directed to our formation as warriors for Christ. Our world today seems bent on creating soft, weak, and cowardly men who will recoil when surprised with what Hamlet calls, “The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” This attack on masculinity, though, strikes beyond the physical or the emotional–it strikes at our spiritual being. Our world desires to takemen by surprise in its own slave-seeking way, like an ambush or a trap.

So for the past four years we have been challenged daily, testing the limits of our manly capacity for work, play, and prayer, surprising ourselves with what we can accomplish and be. And this rigor, though very difficult at first (and still difficult), has grown into a surprise of joy in our lives. We are, as William Wordsworth famously phrased it, “surprised by joy.” And,as Wordsworth also noted in his poem about the Happy Warrior, joy is indeed a warrior’s surprising response to the battle.

This year, for our senior Theology seminar with Dr. Lefler, we read and discussed Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A part thatstruck me was when the Riders of Rohan rushed to besieged Gondor’s aid and arrived at the battle right in the nick of time. Asthey fall on Mordor’s armies Tolkien describes the Rohirrim: “And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them.”

These warriors, faced with pure evil, charge ahead with joy because, even though they know their danger and imminent pain, they are resolved in their cause. They don’t “just get through it,” like my freshmanself told me to do before my first rugby game. Rather, they found joy in battle and they relished in the fight for their freedom. And, to our surprise, so have we. We have found joy in this place and in each other, joy in our battles, joy in our prayers, joy in our studies, and there will be joy in the tears we will shed as we leave this place.

I remember Mr. Fitzpatrick telling us in Humanities class long ago and far away now that Aristotle said that the secret of humor is surprise. However, Aristotle also stated that surprise was the secret to tragedy as well, and, standing here today, Ican relate to both of those realities: to things that are funny and things that are sad, in the context of this speech. I look back now on the moments of discovery I’ve experienced at this school, I think of the good times, and I laugh at the twists and turns of our adventures together; but I am also sad that, after our last pilgrimage to Italy together, we will all be shaken by the words of Lord Byron’s poem:

So, we’ll go no more a roving
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
   And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
   And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
   By the light of the moon.

What is funny, though, and therefore surprising, is how much of my four years here came into perspective just in writing this speech. So much of what I did diligently at this school took on meaning only after I had been at it for a while and thenhad to express it here in writing–and the surprise of battle joy is among the attitudes I have suddenly discovered is mine. Andit has been a part of all our lives in many ways. It is central in our juggling escapades, and the way we look at the stories of great menlike Don John of Austria who danced on his deck at the Battle of Lepanto.

It is the beating heart of many of the songs wesing, where men have passion for their fight, and it is manifested in different ways. Our school song, “The Minstrel Boy,” sings of ayoung warrior bard with a proud soul going to war with his father’s sword girded on and his wild harp slung on his back. Yet we alsosing songs like “The Town I Loved So Well,” which displays passion through sadness at the loss of something held dear, in this case one’s beloved hometown caught in the fires of war.

This is one reason why our folk music tradition is such a vital part of our culture–it participates in forming us into passionate men, both on the battlefield and in the playfield, in joy and insorrow. The songs we sing teach us how to feel rightly and these feelings are often surprising in how they seize us or suddenly become meaningful.

And now, all at once, feelings stored in my memory of the songs we have sung are suddenly taking on a new shape and a new sheen, as my classmates and I find ourselves placed here as though in the story of some song, a joyful song, though this maybe a sad turn in the tune. We must leave the town we love so well as we receive our diplomas and step off this stage. Other surprises await. But this place that has made us into warriors will forever be in our heads and hearts and hopefully in ourhands.

As we walk out into the world that is pitted against us and our faith in many ways, we will hold the brotherhood, the tales, the music, the prayers, the juggling, the sports, and the culture we have shared here at the Academy as weapons against the enemy snares that lay in wait for us, and as stars that will continue to guide us toward the good, true, and beautiful. On behalf of my class, I want to thank our parents and everyone that contributed to making our education here possible, because without them, we would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime that this school truly is.

To conclude, I would like to say to all the remaining students, never forget the life that you are so blessed to live here. Wait for it. You’ll be surprised, too. One day in just one, two, or three years, your time will be up, and you will be standing on this stage like weare about to leave this building, the front field, the water tower, the plateau, the barn, and your best friends, and discover that what you may thought was a prison or an asylum (like I did) is actually a second home and a warrior’s training ground. Giveyourselves to all your hard and happy times as much as you can. I miss them already, even as we will miss all of you dearly.

God bless you, thank you, and farewell.