As a blanket of snow covered the city in silence during Washington’s first winter storm of the year, the president of Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland, suggested a return to wonder and awe. In his keynote address, “The Crying Need for Catholic Imagination,” Jesuit Father James Van Dyke urged participants to move minds and hearts of the faithful and join God in setting “an imagination on fire with love.”

The administrator delivered the keynote address at the John Carroll Society’s January Mass and Brunch, an annual celebration commemorating the end of the Christmas season that this year included a Mass for the Baptism of the Lord held on Jan. 13 at St. Patrick’s Church, N.W.

“You may have noticed that our nation, our public discourse, our social media, our larger media, and even our relationships with friends and family and at work have become increasingly polarized and vitriolic. The lens through which our culture seems to read everything is that of suspicion; everyone has a motive, everyone wants something, everyone is hiding something,” Father Van Dyke noted. 

The priest, who focused his remarks on countering the negativity of the present day did not advocate turning to simpler or better days of the past.  “But I do propose that there is something we do need to recover, something that really has been lost, something we need desperately and which our world desperately needs as well,” Father Van Dyke added. “And that thing is precisely the awe and reverence and wonder that our faith proposes.”

Father Van Dyke said in today’s polarized world it is way too easy to be a bean-counter and add up all of the problems in the world and in one’s personal relationships. He noted the ease of tallying up hardships and varied challenges such as sin, corruption, sickness and poverty. “It takes nothing to read about the criminal and to ache at the damage he has done to his victims. It takes nothing to see how I have failed and how far I am from the people who love me and from God,” Father Van Dyke said.

“But it takes enormous imagination, enormous creativity, enormous hope to see that these are each moments of incredible grace, that the realization of sin is an opportunity for reconciliation, that the moments of pain can give rise to compassion, that the less-than-perfect child is an invitation to incredible love, that the worst place we can find ourselves opens the possibility of finding God there.” The same hope which is the path to understanding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist even in a dark world, the priest added.

According to Father Van Dyke, imagination is more important than test scores, career prospects, a sense of discipline – while all important, most students also need creativity “to see beyond the awful truths of our world and see all the possibilities, all the hope, that our loving God sees in it — that our loving God sees in us. Because they will need the sense of awe and reverence and wonder that makes life worth living, and people so worth loving, and families worth raising, and marriages worth honoring, and priesthood worth celebrating.” 

Before being named president of Georgetown Prep in 2017, Father Van Dyke served as the founding principal at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School and taught English in several high schools in New York. A native of Buffalo, he graduated from Canisius High School there before completing a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Virginia.  Father Van Dyke received Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees from the Weston School of Theology and a Master of Liberal Arts degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1981 and received his final vows in 2005. 

Immediately following the presentation, Msgr. Peter Vaghi, pastor of Church of the Little Flower, in Bethesda, Maryland, and chaplain of the John Carroll Society, awarded Father Van Dyke the organization’s John Carroll Medal. “Father Van Dyke gave a new prism in which to see the beauty of our Catholic faith,” Msgr. Vaghi said. “In times like this a new prism is helpful, encouraging, faith-building and consoling.” Msgr. Vaghi urged the audience to “get our Catholic imagination going. Ordinary time is a great time to deepen our prayers, to deepen our spiritual life – a time to deepen our faith.”

The John Carroll Society is an organization of Catholic professionals sharing the faith in service to the archbishop of Washington. The annual January Mass and Brunch is sponsored in conjunction with graduates of the following Catholic colleges and universities: Assumption, Boston College, The Catholic University of America, Fairfield University, Fordham, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Marist, Marquette, Marymount, Notre Dame College of Maryland, Notre Dame College of Ohio, Providence, Trinity, University of Dayton, University of Notre Dame, University of San Francisco, University of Scranton and Villanova. The keynote address often focuses on an area of education while new members to the society are formally welcomed.

Despite the continuing snowfall, more than100 people attended the brunch. For Deidre Hill, a society member and parishioner of St. Patrick’s, the keynote “spoke deeply to my experience of being Catholic. We have to take people where they are and grow them where they are,” she said.

Carol Bates, society president, said the brunch provides a great time to highlight new members and for Catholic adults to hear from educators. The chair of the event, Edward O’Connell described Father Van Dyke’s address as “inspiring. It’s a great way to end the Christmas season with an exclamation point,” O’Connell added.

Earlier against the backdrop of Christmas poinsettias lining the altar at St. Patrick’s Church, Msgr. Vaghi delivered the homily for the Mass of the Baptism of the Lord. “By that most memorable and humble action of our God, Jesus makes the waters of Baptism holy and ready for you and me,” Msgr. Vaghi said. “Whatever our individual vocation, be it laity, priest or religious, we celebrate and give thanks for our own baptisms on this particular Sunday.”

Within the Sacrament of Baptism, the faithful are reborn as a child of God, united to the body of Christ, the Church, and entrusted as a temple of the Holy Spirit, he continued. 

Jesus’s baptism – “his bowing down in a river” offers an “unforgettable example,” Msgr. Vaghi said. “Importantly it is you and I whom he identified with in the Jordan River – people like us then and now – sinners.”

The vocation to holiness offered at Baptism continues, the priest noted.  

“By Baptism, a radically different way of living becomes possible,” Msgr. Vaghi said. “A new life of grace begins.”