For noted Catholic theologian and philosopher Michael Novak, the location of his Funeral Mass, just like the conclusion of his storied academic career, was in the end, a matter of his life coming “full circle,” said his daughter, Jana Novak.
The Feb. 25 Mass of Christian Burial for Michael John Novak Jr. was held at the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
The ornate, intimate church with stone vaulted ceilings is near the Catholic University of America where Novak studied in 1958-59, and where this past year the renowned scholar returned as a faculty member of CUA’s Tim and Steph Busch School of Business and Economics.
On Feb. 17, Novak died at the age of 83 at his home in Washington, the city where he had spent most of his professional career, and where he and his wife Karen Laub, who died in 2009, raised their three children.
“It made sense. It began and ends here,” said Jana Novak in a eulogy after the Mass, speaking to a crowd gathered at the university’s Heritage Hall.
Extra seating was set up in the Crypt Church to accommodate the crowd attending Novak’s Funeral Mass. His mourners included many dignitaries: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Tom Monaghan, the Domino’s Pizza founder who also founded Legatus, an international organization of Catholic CEOs.
Novak, known for his kindness to a wide circle of friends, had befriended Pope John Paul II, President Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and mentored generations of academic, business and public policy leaders.
The congregation included CUA faculty, staff and students, along with seminarians, women religious, families with young children, and numerous colleagues from Washington-area think tanks where Novak had worked.
Father Richard Mullins, a member of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri who serves as the pastor of St. Thomas Apostle Parish in Washington, was the main celebrant of the Mass. Among 14 concelebrants was Father Derek Cross, also an Oratorian, who gave the homily.
A colleague of Novak’s at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington before becoming a priest, Cross described Novak as a wordsmith and the author of shelves of books who sometimes struggled to find the right words.
He noted that Novak had studied the saints and mystics of the Church who experienced dark nights of the soul, and knew that God can reveal himself to those who endure periods of spiritual emptiness and difficulty.
One of Novak’s greatest sorrows came when his brother, Holy Cross Father Richard Novak, was murdered during a political upheaval in Bangladesh in 1964. Father Novak’s chalice was used at Michael Novak’s Funeral Mass.
In his homily, Cross quoted some of Novak’s poems and said the scholar believed everyone should read poetry, and even try to write it, because “it is the language of our soul.”
The priest noted how the concept of caritas was central to Novak’s life and work, not simply meaning charity, but reflecting God’s gift of love that people are called to share. He noted that Novak requested the famous Latin hymn “Ubi Caritas” be sung at the Mass. That hymn’s first two lines, translated into English are, “Where there is charity and love, God is there.”
Cross said when friends came to visit Novak in the last days of his life to bid him farewell, the scholar told them, “God loves you. You must love one another. That is all that matters.”
In the last chapter of his most famous book, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” Novak describes caritas as reflecting God’s compassionate and sacrificial love.
In that book, in which he offers a moral defense of capitalism as the best economic system to enable people to reach their potential and overcome poverty, Novak wrote, “A system of political economy imitates the demands of caritas by reaching out, creating, inventing, producing and distributing, raising the material base of the common good.”
After the Mass, people interviewed by Crux reflected on Novak’s legacy, as a teacher, a mentor and a friend.
“I think Michael helped all of us to think of public life in all its aspects – politics, economics and culture – through a theological lens,” said George Weigel.
Weigel – a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington – served as a pall bearer at his friend and colleague’s Funeral Mass.
“He knew, like John Paul II, that only a vibrant moral culture would make democracy and the market work properly. That’s a huge contribution,” Weigel said.
Novak, he added, “also showed that the leadership in Catholic intellectual life in America, particularly as applied to public policy, has decisively shifted to lay thinkers.”
John Garvey, CUA’s president, reflected on what an honor it was for the renowned scholar to come home to the university as a faculty member in the last year of his life.
He admired Novak, he said, “not just as a scholar. He was a wonderful human being. He made you feel like a better person to be in his company.”
Considering that Novak devoted so much of his life to reflecting on business as a vocation and that his thinking had such an influence on the university’s new program that he joined, “There couldn’t be a better patron saint for the business school than Michael Novak,” Garvey said.
John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, noted that although he didn’t always agree with Novak on some issues, “He was a good man and a great mind, and always gracious.”
Carr earlier worked at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when the nation’s bishops issued a 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, “Economic Justice for All,” that drew some criticism from Novak and other conservative Catholics.
“Early on, he was to the left of me. Later on, he was to the right of me,” said Carr of his friend. “He was always a man of deep faith and charity.”
As a young theologian Novak questioned Church teaching on contraception and other issues, but later became a strong defender of the Church’s magisterium. In 2013, Novak wrote a book, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative.
Friends also remembered Novak’s personal side. Nina Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, said he supported efforts to combat religious persecution around the world.
Her friend, she added, was a man of intellectual depth who had a great sense of humor. This past fall, she saw him at a luncheon, where he was the only man in a group of about 40 women. Shea gave her friend a bemused smile, and he leaned over and told her, “Blessed art thou among women!”
Margaret Melady, a senior fellow in CUA’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, remembered a time during her late husband Tom’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See between 1989-93, when one of Pope John Paul II’s secretaries called asking them to find Novak – the pope wanted to have lunch with him.
Jim Nicholson, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See from 2001 to early 2005 who later served as the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, remembered how Novak flew to Rome in 2003 and met with Vatican officials to help explain the rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pope John Paul II had warned that such an invasion would be “a defeat for humanity.”
“No American I knew had a better entrée to Pope John Paul II than Michael Novak,” he said.
Novak, said Nicholson, “was a humble, intellectual giant, and that’s not a contradiction in terms.”
At the reception after the Funeral Mass, Richard Novak offered a eulogy for his father, saying, “To many of you, my father, Michael Novak, was a scholar, a theologian, a man of big ideas…To us, he was a loving father…He taught us right from wrong. He led by example, and showed us the value and necessity of working hard.”
Jana Novak said that as her father was dying, he was inundated with emails expressing gratitude and concern. When she asked him if he was tired of all that attention, he joked, “Enough about me. Now let’s hear you talk about me.”
And for the noted scholar and thinker, “the ideas kept coming all the way to the end,” she said.
A key lesson she learned from him, she said, was, “Focus on what we can do, what we can accomplish, not on the roadblocks along the way but on the possibilities within ourselves.”
In 1998, Michael and Jana Novak wrote a book together, Tell Me Why: A Father Answers his Daughter’s Questions about God.
In that book, Michael Novak responded to a question from his daughter about why their family was Catholic, and he said, “You must think of the Catholic faith as a life, a way of living in and with others, not as a club held together by a set of rules and tenets. The empirical test for it is in the living.”
In an interview with Crux, Jana Novak said her father saw his Catholic faith “as being the ultimate framework on who he was, his personality and his life. He saw it as the foundation of everything he was doing, a stone foundation.”