No Man Left Behind: The Good News from Gregory the Great Academy

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I am honored to call all four of the headmasters in the history of Gregory the Great Academy close friends. I include, of course, the founding headmaster, Alan Hicks, even though 30 years ago when I was a young Marine officer looking to become a teacher, he turned me down for a position. I never miss a chance to rib Alan about his decision, or more importantly, to thank him for during the interview recommending to me (or was it assigning?) four books. Three I knew but had never cracked: Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture, and Belloc’s Servile State. The fourth was the work of a man I did not know at the time: The Restoration of Christian Culture by John Senior.

I never had the good fortune to meet John Senior, but I have come to love him in his legacy. Clear Creek Abbey, St. Martin’s Academy in Fort Scott, Kansas and Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania are not merely the handiwork of Senior disciples but are manifestations of his understanding and imagination. Senior’s was a vision for the formation of human persons rooted in a reawakening of man’s capacity for wonder. This capacity found expression in mirth and friendship, beauty and reverence, daring and joy, all located in arts long discarded and even disdained by our tech-burdened age: poetry and calligraphy, Latin and stargazing, reading heroic epics, singing folks songs, and observing the rhythms and harmonies of the natural world.

My first visit to Saint Greg’s was an immersion in Senior. I was invited to tell the Lepanto story to the boys as part of their annual Immaculate Conception celebration. No one celebrates this holy day like Saint Greg’s: Imagine a procession in the snow with a statue of Our Lady, a massive bonfire, male voices chanting prayers from the Divine Office, and then—an intramural rugby tournament, each team name chosen from the Litany of Loreto: Star of the Sea, Seat of Wisdom, Tower of Ivory, Gate of Heaven….  The crown of the day is a great feast in the dining hall—poems declaimed, torches juggled, war songs sung. And all the boys knew all the verses.

Moving as the evening was, I was most struck by a chalkboard hanging on the hallway wall opposite the entrance to the school’s chapel. There the boys of St. Greg’s, the Highlanders, write prayer intentions. One jumped off the board: “For a graduate of St. Greg’s who has lost the faith.” I understood. Here is the whole of the school—young men embraced by a fraternity informed by common prayer, common liturgy, common study, common work, common meals, common sport. A fraternity determined to leave no man behind. A fraternity to which the boys of Gregory the Great will belong for their whole lives–on this side of the veil and doubtless on the other.

I recently sat down with my friends of so many years, Luke Culley, Headmaster, and Sean Fitzpatrick, Assistant Headmaster, to catch up and talk about their academy, what sets it apart from the world, and why it is a place more real than the vast majority of schools.

CC: Luke, Sean, you have heard me tell the story of my first visit to your school and the intention on the chalkboard outside the chapel. Yours is a school hard to describe in a few words, and yet, I think, that prayer intention speaks volumes.

SF: I know what you mean, Chris, and you’re right. Even as a graduate of this school myself, and now a faculty member, I am often at a loss to get at the heart of what makes this community so wonderful. My mind usually goes to what my old headmaster, Howard Clark used to call a “conspiracy of friendship.” That is, etymologically, comrades “breathing together,” living a common life infused with a very particular spirit.

LC: And that spirit is certainly one of joyful solidarity, I’d say – like the spirit that animates, or gives the soul to a family, or a monastery, or a military corps. We certainly do have a mindset of “no man left behind” as that prayer request indicates, which, whether from a familial, or a military, or a spiritual point of view, is one of the highest goals of a Catholic education. The spirit of this school imparts that togetherness through living in community, sharing in conversation about the eternal things, playing rugby (which is a game built on mutual physical support), and of course the spiritual unity of prayer. We’re a school where boys learn to have each others’ backs, which is a very important lesson, especially in the world today.

SF: Yes, we can all use a good conspiracy these days, I’d say.

CC: My first visit to Saint Greg’s included reciting Chesterton’s Lepanto for the boys. When I talk about that poem, I point out that St. Thomas recommends poetry to us when the thing we are considering does not find sufficient expression in rhetoric or prose. St. Thomas means mysteries here, realities that are engaged by the heart more than the mind, I think. When you talk about poetic knowledge here at the school is this something of what you mean?

SF: That’s a great line from St. Thomas, a scholar who wrote a good deal of poetry himself. He’s getting at what John Senior liked to call the pre-rational experience of things, or “poetic knowledge,” which comprehends truth in a clear yet indistinct way: truths such as love, fear, joy, and all the rest of their kind. Everyone knows these things very well, but only as mysteries and Mother Goose rhymes. They are the truths that science can’t demonstrate and rhetoric can’t corroborate, and these truths belong to poetry.

LC: And to poets, too. We all know great poets and artists have a gift of seeing things more clearly somehow, of experiencing them as they really are. We believe that everyone has this ability, but it can become weakened, especially in the artificial world we live in. Take something like your experience of the ocean. You’ve seen it many times. You’ve read about it, seen it on your screen, refer to it casually in conversation, and you think you know what it is. But then, one day, you go to the ocean and see it as if you’ve never seen it before. When that happens, and it happens to all of us, we feel we’ve been given a precious gift and that this is the way we should always experience things.

CC: Is poetic knowledge also an antidote to our own age’s obsession with science and technology?

SF: As Luke was saying, our world has grown so artificial with technology and, at our school, we want students to experience real things as much as possible. That’s why we give our students a life of “technological poverty.” But more importantly, we put them in contact with primary things. 

LC: That’s right, so instead of listening to recorded music, our boys learn to sing and play for themselves. Instead of dissecting dead frogs, they go out and find frogs living in streams and ponds. Instead of reading some textbook’s retelling of Virgil, they read “The Aeneid”. 

SF: And in all these ways, we give a high place to the wonder of creation and the need to continually renew our knowledge, our “scientia” by renewing our wonder. 

LC: Absolutely. As Socrates said somewhere, the beginning of wisdom is wonder.

CC: You must have to put the boys through a kind of screen detox when they arrive? And then there is the filling of the vacuum, if you will. The singing and the juggling fill this role, but they are more than just an alternative to tech, right? Why are singing and juggling so central to the culture of the school?

SF: You’d think so, but rather than revolt, I’d say what we see in the boys is more like relief when they surrender their cell phones. Many of them are glad to have a retreat from all the pressures and distractions devices bring, and it’s not really seen as a privation since everyone’s doing it. And, as it turns out, when you get boys off their screens, they start doing amazing things instead, like juggling and singing.

LC: Right, and the juggling and singing, which we do first and foremost because it is enjoyable, becomes a wonderful outward sign of our communal joy. It’s something we can do together and for others. It’s a great activity and one that appeals to boys who love practical tricks and giving voice to their emotions through music. Music and juggling are our play, which is important to have enshrined in contrast to our work.

CC: And the juggling, of course finds its greatest expression on the Camino de Santiago. Tell me about the senior trip to Compostela.

LC: Sure, for years now, I have taken the graduated seniors to Europe for a pilgrimage. We have done the Compostela to Santiago and the Way of St. Francis to Rome. It’s a great culmination for our graduates because it’s a real pilgrimage. We walk for weeks from town to town with no money whatsoever. We only bring our juggling equipment and juggle and sing to buy food at the end of every day. It is a beautiful but hard and prayerful experience that really taps into the pilgrim spirit that we all should have as Catholics, putting all of our trust in God’s Providence.

CC: You have added to the curriculum since my last visit farming and carpentry components. I know these were part of Alan Hicks’s plans from the first and that your alum, Daniel Kerr is using these as well at St. Martin’s in Fort Scott. I am interested especially in what changes, perhaps, you see in boys who have no knowledge of either before coming to Gregory the Great.

LC: We see boys become confident. You mention our boy Dan Kerr, who came away from here with the confidence to start up a school like ours, and his school is thriving. May there be many more St. Greg’s men who start schools! Whether it’s slaughtering chickens or using a table saw, we get everyone doing everything, especially things that they have little or no experience of. And the result is, we see kids who grow in their confidence to do things. Athletes sing in the choir, scholars ride unicycles, city kids are slopping pigs, country kids learn to tie a Windsor knot, every boy tries his hand at things he never would have imagined he might do in order to discover his talents and gain self-knowledge.

SF: Yes, there’s a real education involved in rolling up your sleeves and getting to work with either a pencil or a shovel, and to be brave doing it. Our farming program and carpentry guild are strong occasions for boys to get back to the roots of culture and learn what kind of men they are. That self-knowledge is so indispensable in the rites of passage to manhood.

CC: Something similar must get underway in a boy who holds a rugby ball for the first time, who puts on that Highlander jersey for the first time. Rugby is not optional here, correct? Everyone plays, yet I’m guessing for most of the boys, it’s their first exposure to the game. I remember (former headmaster) Howard Clark’s wife, Jane, explaining to me that Rugby is a game invented by boys that mothers should not watch. There you have it!

SF: There you have it, indeed. Yes, everyone plays rugby, and I think it’s fair to say that they all love it in one fashion or another. Regardless of skill level, there is a place on our squad for all willing to try hard and enjoy the game, and that sense of belonging on the battlefield is important to boys. Rugby is the4 consummate team sport. In football there are the superstars—the quarterbacks, the receivers—but rugby is the game that depends on every member of the team giving his all.

LC: It’s really integral to our formation, because, believe me, there are fewer things that test one’s discipline and devotion like rugby practice in February up in the Pennsylvania Poconos. When you talk about rites of passage, that’s a big one for us at St. Gregory’s.

CC: Jason Craig, author of Leaving Boyhood Behind, notes that nature provides the necessary rite of passage for girls. Pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and nurturing a new life transform a girl into a woman. For boys, the culture must provide the rite of passage—something fraternal, communal, demanding, even dangerous. I think of my time in the Marine Corps, but I think these opportunities for boys to pass into manhood are rare today. Why, for example are so many young men, devout Catholic men included, not marrying? Are the boys at St. Greg’s aware they are going through a crucible? Certainly their parents must see it?

SF: These are complicated questions, but critical ones. There is a clear crisis of masculinity in our country that is leaving boys insulated and listless, trying and failing to be men in feminized contexts. There are, of course, a lot of factors in this disaster: the politicization of gender and gender roles, entertainment addictions, pornography, drugs, overly stringent liability guidelines, emasculated parishes, and secular cynicism to name a few areas of deep concern. Until we allow boys to respond to their masculinity, we can’t expect them to be men of any worth, or therefore, husbands or fathers or priests of any worth. That is where we come in, God willing. We’re not afraid to take the risk of allowing boys to have rites of passage, encountering the fires of their nature, learning how to fight some and refine others. We agree that boyhood should be left behind, but not one single man.

LC: That’s right, and we provide an environment where all the poison Sean was talking about is shut out. Education is dangerous enough without a toxic culture. We provide a retreat where boys can learn good from evil and virtue from vice, form their taste for the good, true, and beautiful, and then, we pray, enter the world prepared to become a man who will succeed in college and in securing his vocation and in living his Faith.

SF: And, yes, Chris, I think our boys do realize that what they’re pursuing at the Academy is mission critical. Their parents certainly know it, hence why they sent their sons to our school. There are not many schools like ours in the country, and we are blessed to have the autonomy and the tradition that we have which gives these boys a tremendous and unique experience of the good. And that’s why the note you recalled outside our chapel was so striking and encouraging to you. While all too rare in the outside world, you see such signs of robust, even chivalric Catholicism around here all the time.

CC: It seems to me, and I’ll wrap up here, that the most masculine thing going on at Gregory the Great is the liturgy. Here is the heart of the school. It’s why we were made, after all—to worship God. A Highlander is most a man when he is assisting at the Sacrifice of the Mass, don’t you think? And what an added grace here! Two rites, east and west!

LC: Yes, unusual, and really wonderful. Our students sing and serve for both the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. As Catholics, we’ve got to defend the wisdom of tradition and show its relevance, beauty, and vitality; and that’s a task that begins with education and is lived in the liturgy. But who would have thought that an education structured on a bi-ritual experience of Catholic liturgy would prove helpful in turning boys over to Christ? We’ve found that the celebration of both Western and Eastern liturgy allows students to contemplate the essentials of worship in the expressions of two cultures, and get a sense of the universal culture of the Catholic Faith. The fruits of this approach have been striking, with boys growing in knowledge and appreciation of the Mass and the mission of the Church, and this at a time when many struggle with misconceptions about the reality of the Mass and the Church.

SF: I think it’s been a great development in our school, for sure. When you think about it, a truly liberal education must be centered on the liturgy because the freedom that a liberal education seeks is only found when the liturgy opens us up to those realities that transcend the confines of this world. Exposing these young, ordinary Catholic kids to ancient, extraordinary forms of the liturgy broadens the life of the Church for them, which is vital if the Faith is to be an integral aspect of their education. The broader this vision, the broader the Church’s purpose will appear. What’s more, these liturgies are beautifully complimentary. The two rites and two traditions presenting the single reality of salvation appeal to different people’s spiritual lives, posing a strong advantage in their dual celebration. Together, East and West encompass a horizon that is truly eye-opening and inspiring.

By

Christopher Check is president of Catholic Answers.

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