HIS IS THE TIME for baccalaureates, commencements, and the start of summer break. At Gregory the Great Academy (GGA), a newly formed school in Scranton, PA, this is the time to celebrate the conclusion of a successful first academic year. Students at GGA are offered a very unique experience. We recently featured a detailed look into Our Lady of the Atonement Academy (part 1; part 2). Also not long ago, I shared remarks about the relevancy of a liberal arts education in a disinterested, post-Modern world. At GGA, not unlike Our Lady of the Atonement, I am happy to say that the liberal arts tradition seems alive and well.
Following is an interview with Matthew Williams, a teacher at the Academy. I first met Matt in Pittsburgh at a CMAA Colloquium, where he has been a familiar face over the years. You will surely be impressed by these insights into a school that, although not specifically a choir school, takes music & liturgy very seriously.
FR. FRIEL: Tell me briefly about the history of Gregory the Great Academy.
MATT WILLIAMS: Gregory the Great Academy is a new boarding school founded from a community of friends, staff, and families from the former St. Gregory’s Academy which was run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter for 19 years. While we are not associated with the FSSP in any way, the new academy is founded in the same traditions of teaching a classical liberal arts education in the Catholic tradition for boys in grades 9-12. We are pleased to have just completed our first full year in operation.
FR. FRIEL: What is your role at Gregory the Great Academy?
MATT WILLIAMS: I am the music director and schola master at the Academy. I also currently fill the role of “head dorm father,” which means that I manage the dorm staff and oversee the daily schedule of the students.
FR. FRIEL: In your experience teaching young people, have you observed the liberal arts affecting their hearts and minds? If so, in what ways?
MATT WILLIAMS: This is a great question because it gets right the heart of why our method of education is so important in these times. At the Academy, our boys are educated in a way that frees the intellect and engages the imagination in order to help them discover those things that point toward God, Who is the ultimate Truth. Classes are taught in a conversational style between the students and teachers, rather than what you might expect from a typical classroom. The result of this method is that students become engaged and interested in the subject matter. During literature class for instance, Aeneas and Odysseus are not just left to be the main characters of old books, learned simply for a test at the end of the quarter. They become heroes to the boys, and the battles fought and lessons learned from their journeys are taken in and remembered, and the poetic lines of Virgil and Homer can oftentimes be overheard outside of class. It is a great thing to observe this happening, because it means that the education our students are receiving is not just a gathering of memorized facts, but a reality that has become a part of who they are.
I should note, perhaps, that one reason our liberal arts program has been so successful is that our students undertake a “technology fast.” The boys are required to leave their cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices at home. At first this may seem alarming and even backwards in today’s society. However, once a student is removed from the glowing distractions of the world, we have observed that he will begin to develop hobbies, socialize, read a book, or perhaps learn a new musical instrument. The point is that they are free to be active in the doing of good things. Our school has become a living and joyful place unattached from the web of addictive technology in which many youths find themselves tangled these days.
FR. FRIEL: What role do music and liturgy play in the life of GGA?
MATT WILLIAMS: Music informs all that the students do at the Academy, and it is viewed as part of their personal formation into good Catholic gentlemen. We impress upon them how important it is to share their Christian joy with others through the gift of music, and we have found them to be more than willing to undertake this mission. They sing on the streets to passersby, in coffee shops, restaurants, and almost anywhere they can find an audience. It is an inspiring thing to see young men so excited to share the joy of God with others through this venerable art of music, and many listeners can attest to that fact. Yes, music is everywhere at the Academy, and it is common for teachers to begin class by singing a song or reciting a poem with the boys before launching into the day’s work.
Regarding our formal music curriculum, each grade level has at least three music classes per week, which include music theory and history, sacred music, and a weekly folk music class. Additionally, students who show more interest in music may audition for the schola cantorum, which is our liturgical choir.
Our liturgical and spiritual life at the Academy is one of a vigorous and manly charism. The students (and staff!) sing heartily during the Divine Office and Liturgy. The liturgy is taken very seriously, and oftentimes the boys will volunteer to lead the daily prayers and singing. Currently, we are blessed to have a Byzantine-Ruthenian chaplain, which has been a learning experience for all. Those who are familiar with this beautiful liturgy will know that it is musically demanding on the congregation, due to the fact that it is almost entirely sung. This was new for us, coming from a mainly Roman tradition. However the students adapted well, and, in the upcoming year, we will be continuing to explore even more authentic Byzantine chant and learning to sing in Church Slavonic.
The western tradition of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, so loved by our community, also continues to thrive. Every student at the Academy is taught to read and sing from chant notation. We have been blessed to have several priests come to our chapel and celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite during the school year, and the schola has even had the opportunity to sing for liturgies of the Anglican Use. All of this has given the students the wonderful experience of musical and liturgical diversity and helped them to see how truly universal our Church is.
FR. FRIEL: Does your schola cantorum do any traveling?
MATT WILLIAMS: The schola travels to liturgies throughout the Northeast whenever possible. Most recently we were blessed to sing for the Extraordinary Form at St. Boniface in Pittsburgh, PA and St. Peter’s in Steubenville, Ohio. We also sing for Masses locally at least once per month. Over the past several years we have been invited to various places throughout Pennsylvania and New York State. If any of your readers would like to host our schola cantorum for a liturgy, they are free to contact the Academy. We also have released several recordings, which are available on our website.
FR. FRIEL: Can you speak about the “ten adjectives” the school uses to describe itself?
MATT WILLIAMS: The ten adjectives are: Liturgical, Festive, Brotherly, Formative, Imaginative, Musical, Integral, Small, Amateur, and Experiential. Rather than treat them all individually, I will attempt briefly to summarize them for your readers. These words characterize our education at the Academy and provide a description of how we approach our vocations as educators. For instance, we are liturgical in nature because the liturgy is the center of our daily lives, and we are sure to make it so. We are festive because our faith and life at the Academy is a joyful expression of what it means to be Catholic. As a boys’ school it is only natural that we encourage brotherhood amongst the community, and so on. For a more detailed explanation I invite your readers to visit our ”About Us” page.
FR. FRIEL: Your school claims to form young men into “Catholic gentlemen.” What does this mean?
MATT WILLIAMS: At Gregory the Great Academy, we prepare our students to become active Catholic men and leaders in our society. Our goal is to educate young men to love and seek the good, the true, and the beautiful before they are influenced by the world to do otherwise. Many of them will go on to upstanding Catholic colleges, join the military, become husbands and fathers, or even enter the seminary. After their time at the Academy, it is our hope that they will fulfill God’s plan in their lives joyfully as strong and practicing Catholics in an increasingly hostile world, ready to live and stand firm in their faith.
AM VERY GRATEFUL to Matthew for his help with this interview, and I wish him and all those at GGA a very refreshing summer break!