Roanoke Catholic School 125th Anniversary Homily

Roanoke Catholic School

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. (John 6:54)

I am not especially good at anything in particular. I do very much enjoy running.

My dear fifth- and sixth graders, I think I was your age when I discovered that I love running. My father ran a 10K, and there was a “Fun Run” for the kids. About a mile or so. I got it into my head that I would run the Fun Run. I remember feeling like I was going to vomit when it was over, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Now, at such a ripe young age of ten, the idea of trying to run a mile in less than five minutes never even entered my wee mind. It was when I was your age, dear eighth graders, that I first met the most demanding man I have ever known in my life. My high-school track coach.

The immortal Coach Oliver 'Skip' Grant
The immortal Coach Oliver ‘Skip’ Grant
The feeling that I was about to vomit …it happened again. A lot. Through many merciless workouts presided-over by Coach Grant.

Then, when I was your age, dear 10th graders, all the stars aligned. It was a crisp spring afternoon. I never owned a pair of racing spikes, but that day one of the seniors on the team had a new pair, so he lent me his old ones. Our meet was held at the school with the finest track in the conference. And I managed to run a mile in 4:56. I guess I have been basking in the quiet glory of that moment ever since.

My point is: I started in one place, a place where the idea of running a sub-five-minute mile didn’t even exist. Then Coach Grant kicked the butts of all his runners into the kind of shape that none of us had ever imagined we could be in. A whole new kind of accomplishment lay within my grasp. I had a new horizon. Thanks to workouts that seemed designed to kill, I managed to reach the goal.

Seems to me that this is what “education” is. We start in one place, where the world is hemmed-in and small, even though we might not even realize it. Then someone generous gives us exercises to do, which we do not want to do.

But, by doing them anyway, we wake up one day, and the world is bigger, wider, brighter, and more interesting. Not only that. Now, thanks to all the toilsome work I have done under the guidance of someone who wants to see me succeed, I actually have the mental and psychological strength to accomplish something beautiful and impressive in this grand world.

For 125 years, right here on this lovely little plateau, teachers have been giving homework. For 125 years, students have been saying to themselves, “I really do not feel like doing all this homework.” For 125 years, parents of Roanoke Catholic students have been hollering in the house, “Have you done your homework yet?” And for 125 years, students here have been getting smarter, and more creative, and more interesting, and more capable.

But that is not all. Sub-five-minute miles come and go. Truth is, all our successes in this world come and go. Smarter and more creative and more capable—all of these can be for the good, but they can also be for the bad.

There is yet another horizon.

little last supperLike I said, when I was 10, I didn’t even know what running a sub-five-minute mile meant. When I was 15, I ran one. When you’re 14, it feels like endless studying and tons of homework. When you’re 23, you realize it means that now you have some skills that you can use to make the world better. The whole time, while you’re a pilgrim on earth, you wonder, What’s the meaning of life? And Jesus Christ answers: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live forever.

There is yet another horizon of ‘education.’ And there is only one coach, only one teacher who can lead us to it, help us reach it, carry us there: Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, Who says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Who says: Give, and more will be given to you. Who says: Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me. Who says: Repent of your sins, and believe.

This school rightfully takes pride in all of our success as an educational institution. We commit ourselves to upholding the high standards that have been set by all the Roanoke-Catholic students and teachers and parents and coaches and administrators and staff that have gone before us. This is a celebration of the horizons of success that have opened up in this world for all the people who have come together here to form this institution.

But, above all, we praise and bless and adore our Father in heaven, Who has made us His children in Christ. Roanoke Catholic School has a lot of impressive ambitions. But the most important of them all is: We want to give glory to our heavenly Father.

We say we believe that Christ feeds us with His very own Body and Blood from the altar. That’s the faith of the Catholic Church; that’s the faith of Roanoke Catholic School. The world might think we’re crazy for believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but we don’t care. We believe it anyway.

This isn’t just an excellent school with an illustrious 125-year history. This isn’t just a place of academic and extra-curricular success. This is a place where we meet Christ, the Son of God. This is a place where we learn from Him as His disciples, where we seek His mercy, and where we grow strong in spirit by feeding on His Body and Blood. We have a lot of grand horizons. But the most important one is: Eternal life with God.

Apartheid, Sweat, and Coach Grant

Coach Oliver 'Skip' Grant, who seriously did bend some arcs
Coach Oliver ‘Skip’ Grant, who seriously did bend some arcs of the universe

Had a chance to catch a few minutes of the news yesterday evening. Immediately thought of a black man of terrifying moral authority, whom I grew up admiring.

Not President Mandela, may he rest in peace. My high-school cross-country coach, Oliver Grant.

To get us into what he regarded as good shape, Coach Grant dispatched us on courses he had devised, covering huge swaths of the city. If you know northwest Washington, his names for our assigned runs—‘Ward-Tenley,’ ‘Westmoreland-Western,’ and the dreaded 11-mile roundtrip ‘Naval Medical’—these names might mean something to you. Something terrifying. We ran all those miles on a daily basis.

On especially hot days, Coach Grant, who knew no mercy, often prescribed ‘Scott Circle, with Normanstone.’ This run took us past the impressive building that was then the Embassy of South Africa. Which meant that we saw the sidewalk marches of the anti-Apartheid demonstrators and heard their chants, “Free South Africa!” Then, after practice, we would go home and listen to Bono and U2 sing rock songs against Apartheid.

anti-apartheid demonstrators south africa embassy

That was all a very long time ago. My generation and I have grown old. Coach Grant retired 15 years ago. The last time I saw him, he had mellowed enormously, and the relentlessly demanding tyrant who made a man out of me, with buckets full of sweat in the Washington summer heat—he has become an indulgent grandpa.

But the demands of justice have not mellowed. If we think that the world is a more just place now than it was in 1985, we are fooling ourselves shamefully.

1. The innocent and defenseless unborn child.

2. The undocumented immigrant whose home country has been rendered unlivable by drug violence.

Back in the 80’s, if you didn’t stand up for the blacks of South Africa, cool people regarded you as a loser. Frankly, I was much more concerned with coming out alive after one of Coach Grant’s workouts. Nelson Mandela was in prison on the other side of the world.

But in the 2010’s, if we do not stand up for the innocent and defenseless unborn child and for the undocumented immigrant who has to live a shadow-life right here in our own country—if we don’t stand up for these people, I’ll tell you what: We are losers. Whatever reward Nelson Mandela now enjoys, we will not receive it—unless we stand up in 2014 for the unborn and for immigrants.