By Father Stephen Gregg
Special to The Texas Catholic
Born in 1933, Father Roch Kereszty, O. Cist., has already outlived more than one tree planted in his honor — partly an effect of the Texas soil, into which he himself was transplanted from his native Hungary in the early 1960s.
As a teacher and priest, Father Roch has fostered many vocations — like all of us in the photo — and it is a good time to reflect on how a teacher and a Catholic school can bring young people to their true callings.
Father Roch counts many priests among his former students, including three of us here at the abbey, Father Lawrence, Father Francis, and myself, and also a fourth, our abbot, Father Peter. And many priests outside the monastery have relied on him to help them persevere in their priestly vocations. Furthermore, countless married couples have found in him not only a helpful counselor but a true spiritual father for their challenging vocation.
One student of Father Roch’s, who, while completing his novitiate here, discerned a vocation to marriage, even included Roch as the middle name of his first child.
A priest and teacher can do a lot, but especially for children. When we of the class of 2001 came to Cistercian in 1993, Father Roch was 60 years old, close to the age of our grandparents. Not every 60-year-old is ready to deal with a group of 10-year-olds for eight years; we often think that the best teachers will be the young and energetic ones who will “connect” with the students. But Father Roch captivated us in the opposite way, by disconnecting us from what we knew. When we first met Father Roch, at a swim party in the summer before fifth grade, he was a tall, grey-haired man, with hands that enveloped ours and with the accent of Dracula, talking through a microphone and speaker that hung around his neck because of vocal chord surgery the year before. At our age, he was simply Darth Vader. This was our new teacher… nothing like the sweet lady from fourth grade.
But far from being out of touch, Father Roch was almost intimidating in how he inspired us. When we arrived, we had already heard of him as a revered spiritual figure and a renowned theologian; he was, as Abbot Denis would say with an ironic smile at our graduation, “famous…for his humility.” Father Roch would eventually tell us the stories of his entry into monastic life: how as a young man he defied his mother’s wishes and joined the underground novitiate after the Soviet-backed government had closed the monastery; it was like a spy thriller. He earned a degree in Library Science — how exciting! — so that, riding his bike to country libraries, he could sneak off with important texts of theology and philosophy to study in secret. Religious life and serious study of the real tradition were acts of defiance, not only to the Soviet world of his days, but also to the consumerist, individualist life of our own times as students. Of course, he would also tell us of the mean nicknames they gave him as a kid, “the old man,” for one, and, after a bad slip in ice-skating, “the ice queen.” We completely true-bred
Dallasites had suddenly inherited an immigrant grandfather from the old country, with his own weird attitudes and manners, with heroic and funny stories to tell, with a foreignness and brilliance that terrified and excited us.
It is a hard thing to replicate, but this is what the Catholic school can offer at its best: a glimpse of the heroic and hilarious heart of God himself. Father Roch moves faster than ever now, thanks to the generous gift of a motorized wheelchair. May we all keep pace with him as we race to echo for others God’s call to true life.
Father Stephen Gregg, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.