In Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation, the philosopher and theologian Michael Novak and businessman William E. Simon Jr. have teamed up to highlight what Harvard professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon has called “The Hour of the Laity,” a real revolution in lay leadership in the Catholic Church. It’s a collection of profiles in Christian witness, offering both encouragement and a menu of options. And in All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire: Moments of Beauty, Sorrow, and Joy, Novak reveals his heart and soul, with poems he penned throughout his life, including some about his late wife, Karen. Novak talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about both fall books.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You went to Rome to cover the Second Vatican Council and hoped to pay your way by writing articles? Who was paying rates then that might make that possible? Did you pull it off?
MICHAEL NOVAK: We carried with us a famous book of those days, Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Well, each day cost a little more than that, but each time I sold a book review for about thirty dollars or an article for maybe ninety, that was like adding an extra week — or two weeks — to our budget. Once you set aside the weekly amount for our pensione, the cost of two meals out was not high, if you picked local places. Karen and I were both Depression children, able to get along on a little. Since we were newlyweds, Signorina Baldoni started to pray that Karen would conceive in her pensione, put us in “a room on the corner” (which was supposed to bring good fortune), and made sure Karen had a poached or soft-boiled egg every morning, in addition to the normal generous layout for the rest of us. Midway through, I took over a contract for a book on the Council (The Open Church, still in print) that the author was unable to fulfill, and so that solved our problem in one fell swoop.
LOPEZ: You use the phrase “social justice” in the book. That’s a phrase that has largely become a buzzword of the Left. Is it worth taking it back?
NOVAK: Don’t forget that the reason Leo XIII went searching for the new habit of mind and action that was later named “social justice” was to develop an alternative to statist forces such as Communism and Socialism. He wanted a habit that would enable the no-longer-rural Catholic people to achieve their social goals without falling into statism, that is, massive dependency on the state. That is why it is so sad to see many partisans of “social justice” nowadays, even in the United States, work uncritically to expand the federal state.
LOPEZ: The book gets into immigration early, through the eyes of a first-generation American from a Mexican family. The book notes that the Catholic Church grows in the United States, in part due to immigration. But look at a place like Los Angeles, and you realize some of those Catholic immigrants are not legal immigrants. How can we address this? There’s a definite gap between those looking at them pastorally and those looking at the issue as a public-policy one. How should lay Catholics be addressing this issue, as Catholics?
NOVAK: I never forget that I am the grandson of immigrants (from Slovakia, in the mountains of central Europe). This means treating new immigrants (from wherever) with a warm welcome and kindness. Illegal immigration is becoming a severe problem in many countries around the world (especially capitalist nations, which immigrants overwhelmingly prefer), no ducking it. Here it is the right and duty of each nation to set up orderly requirements and procedures. Meanwhile, at our U.S. birth rate (and abortion rate) our country has a severe infant deficit. We do not have nearly enough young workers to support the elderly, who depend on them. So it is right to encourage our nation to organize a good flow of immigrants. But it is wrong to foment lawbreaking through illegal entry.
LOPEZ: The Alliance for Catholic Education program at Notre Dame comes up in your book and is an undervalued gem there. Are programs like that and the Fund to Protect Human Life the hope of the place? Or will football and bad leadership kill the place, at least as a beacon for Catholic education?
NOVAK: The Alliance for Catholic Education has produced some great Catholic leaders for the future, and so have many other Catholic initiatives at Notre Dame. Some of the greatest lay (and priestly) thinkers in the world are on the faculty at Notre Dame. Don’t undersell the place because its Board of Trustees has become so secular and/or religiously shallow. . . . And would that the whole world hit such high standards for excellence as the Notre Dame football squad has down the years, despite its downturn periods. Kathryn, don’t ask me to bet against Notre Dame, ever!
LOPEZ: I walked by the Peace Corps building in Washington, D.C., the other day and thought of what a mainstay it has been in the American story in the last few decades. What the Kennedy family, too, for reasons good and not-so, has as well. You write about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and other groups — I’d count ACE among them — that are organizing and training servants. Can any of these play a similar kind of role in our national story?
NOVAK: Sargent Shriver was at the forefront of the Peace Corps (and Jobs Corps), and — with his great wife, Eunice — at the head of the Special Olympics. They surely knew how to inspire people, as Jack and Bobby Kennedy did. Cumulatively, though, I’ll bet all the young Christian (not only Catholic) volunteers serving around the world to help the poor, and to spread “the good news of second chances” taught us by Christ, are doing even more, although anonymously.
LOPEZ: What has impressed you most about Bill Simon’s sense of calling?
NOVAK: Bill Simon is one tough, persevering, steady, hardworking, always-thinking guy, and as cheerful as sunlight. When he decides to do more reading to become deeper in the ways of the Christian soul, he will spend a lot of time over books, but keep seeking out more, and before you know it he will have learned 60 of them deeply, and still kept going. At first, I tried to say no to doing this book, too many commitments already made. You don’t say no to Bill. Persistent cuss. And new arguments that eventually cut to the quick.
LOPEZ: Is this book about profiles in the Church getting beyond post–Second Vatican Council confusions and debates?
NOVAK: Yes, new generations are just getting on with it. They don’t even know about yesterday’s rivalries.
LOPEZ: Who is your favorite profilee? What is your favorite new group or project out there?
NOVAK: I loved the variety of Bill’s nine (he took charge of searching them out), and the little lessons that every one of them taught. The woman who said “her credential” for running parishes as “pastoral assistant” (CEO on the practical side) is “my baptism.” The accountant who learned of dire accounting needs in his parish — and others, and the diocese — who still does what he loves to do, but now with the extra sense of serving the humble needs of the Lord and his people.
The young teacher and youth leader, former doctoral student, who gave up a “life of abstractions” to be among poor people he loves, and who love him. The convert who was sitting in front of a portrait of the crucifixion in her parish church, when she felt a quiet but overpowering sense that the Lord wanted something more from her. The very successful businessman who felt early in his successes that “there has to be more to life than this,” and committed himself to bringing his personal skills to help the needy in a distinctive way. Like nine Gospel parables, no?
LOPEZ: We have had our Kennedys and we miss our WFB and Father Neuhaus. Who are our up-and-coming young Catholic intellectuals who give you hope and happiness for the future?
NOVAK: Golly, there are a ton of them. I used to wonder who would replace the old warhorses. I no longer worry one bit. There are a lot of them, and they begin higher up on the learning curve than my generation did. We are getting swamped by their greater talents. You, Kathryn, and Ramesh, Derek Cross, Brian Anderson, Ryan Anderson, all those on the mastheads of our prominent journals, young professors. Take over you already have. For that the Lord shaped you.
LOPEZ: You live in Ave Maria, Florida. Why live down in a Catholic ghetto instead of influencing the powerbrokers of Washington?
NOVAK: My second vocation is teaching, and I love it. This is also a rare place, steeped in a deep Catholic culture. At the age of 78, I feel much nourished by being here. So many of my academic colleagues here are from the Ivy League and other top schools, and some of the other ones are even better! At a certain point, it is good to send a new generation forth into battle. Our graduates are special. You watch and see their success rate.
LOPEZ: What’s the fire, the flames, you focus on in All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire?
NOVAK: The transitoriness of life has often struck my heart and mind, everything around us reminds us of it — a rose pressed in an old Bible, fires from a log leaping into nothingness. The play, of course, is on Hopkins’s line that all nature is a Heraclitean fire: All is change, all is vanishing, flashing forth the glory of God.
LOPEZ: Do you have a favorite of those poems — a real intimate window into your life so far?
NOVAK: I love a lot of them, for bringing back sharp memories otherwise forgotten — pieces snatched from the flames! My favorite two, of course, are the two for Karen at the end. The haunting emptiness, the warmth of laughter, sure knowledge that she surrounds me with care.
LOPEZ: Why should everyone write poetry?
NOVAK: Because at heart everyone has a soul that sometimes sings. The sheer effort of matching this lilt to words is good both for your sense of words and for the intensity with which you will observe things in the future. Poetry sharpens our touches, tastes, the scents we smell. Open a bottle of cologne — is it even close to the one your father sometimes wore? Brings back no memories at all? Poetry grabs onto passing things and fully dwells in them awhile.
LOPEZ: What if you’re bad at it? Does it say something about your soul?
NOVAK: Being first class at it is not the point; I know for sure I am not. One does it for the sheer enjoyment of the thing. It is worth it, and it is worth doing badly. Your life will be more joyful for the effort. And real poets will mean more to you.
LOPEZ: I loved this: “Do not neglect the humblest modes of inspiration. Close your fists around them quickly while in your grasp, seize them in mid-flight. They evanesce into the night.” But who has time?
NOVAK: A wise teacher once told our class: Keep a worn journal by the bed, and write in it every night — five minutes, no more — jotting down the most memorable image (or even insight) of the day. Four minutes if you must. But do it. You will be surprised how this will teach you to notice many vivid images each day, and many insights. Only choose one at night, though, “to snatch from the flames.”
LOPEZ: What is “the sacramental sheen by which the world of our Creation shows itself”?
NOVAK: The world shines like shook foil: Hopkins. The beauty of earth is all around us, if we notice, and in it the glory of God. To be a theist is to say “thank you” with glad heart many times a day.
LOPEZ: What is a “torment of beauty”? Why would it be such a good torment?
NOVAK: Don’t some beautiful sounds, sights, scents overwhelm you? So that you can hardly bear to be still? Beauty of many kinds is at times too much. It is a torment, overcharges inner equipment.
LOPEZ: “I wish that I had truly been a poet, not an amateur . . . so that they might be worthy of the Creator from Whose sweet hands they came. I did my best.” Reminds me of what Mother Teresa of Calcutta said about being called not to be “successful but to be faithful.” Is that something of what you had in mind in publishing this collection?
NOVAK: Some real poets have looked at some of my verses. They tell me how poor each is, undisciplined, not really poetry yet, possibly highly charged prose. Too dominated by Hopkins and a few other favorites.
All true, but oh! so much fun, and it has enriched so many other moments of my life, by teaching me habits of observation and joy. And on some special occasions, such as birthdays, a little more elegant than just “short remarks” — as long as a laugh or two is implanted in them.
After reading this volume, two or three friends have written how much they enjoyed moments of laughter, followed by mistiness, a smile here, an LOL, a heart wrench. How happy their notes made me!
(For more on William E. Simon Jr. and Living the Call, read KJL’s recent syndicated column.)
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.