The following is a letter from Rev. James R. Van Dyke, S.J., president of Georgetown Preparatory School, to the School community on Wednesday, July 30, 2019.
I have to admit that I've been a bit torn the past couple of weeks: I have been fortunate weather-wise, missing the worst of the D.C. heat for the splendid summer climate of Western and Central New York and returning in time to enjoy one of the longest, driest, and most temperate spells since I arrived here. But while I have enjoyed the summer, like many of us, I suspect, I have not much relished our public discourse; in fact I have found it downright depressing. One has to wonder what the future holds, and being an educator I ask myself what sort of world our young people will face as the current situation evolves.
However, a few days ago, in the midst of these rather grim speculations, I was drawn back to part my own story. As I have repeated many times, when I was the age of our current seniors, I had no inclination to be either a priest or a teacher. Part of my resistance to education was conditioned by my dad's experience of school systems; he loved teaching, but couldn't stand what he called "the rigamarole." Yet when I first set foot in a classroom as a second year Jesuit novice in the HAP program at St. Peter's Prep, I loved it. And except for correcting, I always have. But then I've only taught in Jesuit schools. It's not that we don't have our own "rigamarole," but we have something else as well, something much more positive. There are lots of ways to summarize it: "forming people for and with others," "forming people for the magis," "cura personalis," "caring for souls," "finding God in all things" – all are part of the Jesuit lexicon and they come down to the same thing: it's not so much about SAT scores or college admissions (though these are not inconsequential), nor about Division I or a theatre program in New York, nor about résumé building; it's about helping people to find and respond to the image and likeness of the God who created us in themselves and in one another and in our world. It is the core of St. Ignatius' spirituality.
Ironically, of course, Ignatius' own day was not pretty either. The wars of religion were in full swing as he crossed back and forth across Europe. He himself enjoyed the hospitality of the Spanish Inquisition more than once. It was a time when people were quick to condemn and anathematize at even the slightest shade of heterodoxy. But here is where Ignatius is quite different; meditating on the way God had always treated him in his long years of dissipation and through his stumbling path of conversion, he writes a Presupposition to the Spiritual Exercises:
...let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor's proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself (Sp. Ex., 22).
We too live in a sad time of quick and easy condemnations, and it is never just propositions that are condemned, but people themselves. And so I find Ignatius' Presupposition all the more consoling, valuable, challenging, and necessary. It is a none-too-subtle reminder that God does not need us to be right; God needs us to be loving. God needs us to nurture in one another growth – the growth in wisdom, age, and grace that Jesus experienced (Lk 2:52) – to allow ourselves and one another the space to learn.
We live in a world that too quickly labels people us and them, right and wrong, conservatives and progressives, allies and enemies, as though such labels were adequate or helpful. Ignatius invites us to a vastly different reality – a world where God invites us each to be daughters and sons with his Son, to be sisters and brothers to one another, to a world where we are finally friends.
Happy Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola.
Rev. James R. Van Dyke, S.J.