Why Michael Novak was a true American gentleman

Why Michael Novak was a true American gentleman

Why Michael Novak was a true American gentleman

Author Andreas Widmer with Michael Novak. (Credit: Andreas Widmer.)

Giving of himself to others was Michael Novak's great gift. And this great, genuinely Catholic mind, who died Saturday at the age of 83, will continue giving to us through his more than 50 books. Our best tribute to him is to carry on his work, to imitate his spirit.

Commentary

I treasure a memory from April 2014, the weekend of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII’s canonizations. It was a warm evening in Rome, and a small company of family and friends were gathered outside the Swiss Guard quarters at the Vatican for a reception celebrating The Pope & the CEO, the memoir of my time as a Swiss Guard assigned to Pope John Paul II.

Michael Novak, a man who in a sense saved my life, gave remarks on the meaning of the Swiss Guard as a prelude. I listened, and as I did, I had one of those sublime moments when you suddenly swell with wonder at a blessing.

How did I, an ordinary kid from a hidden town in Switzerland, come to be celebrating the canonization of one mentor and have another, one of the great public intellectuals of our time, present at my party?

I met Michael Novak during a deep low in my life. I’d been cheated out of all I owned, hated my life, and questioned the good in humanity.  My temptation was strong to try to flee the corrupt material world for a pure and safe spiritual existence.

Then a title caught my attention: Novak’s Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. “What kind of oxymoron is this?” I thought. Business is base and material, while a calling is spiritual and from God!

Novak’s argument closed my escape hatch: he showed me how the material world is the necessary platform from which to build a spiritual existence. Even my chosen field of business, far from being concerned with money alone, could be a path to holiness.

Building a business, he argued, is work, and thus a participation in God’s creative power. Human freedom allows us to betray this call, to ignore its spiritual significance, even turn it negative, but the invitation of God to participate in his creative process is imprinted in our very being, made in the image and likeness of God.

When we work, we don’t simply make more. We actually become more as we grow in virtue, apply our creativity and hone our skills.

Novak’s articulation of what Pope Francis calls the “noble vocation of business” changed and ordered the way I thought about my life.

When I eventually met Michael in person, I was surprised at his humble demeanor. He was soft-spoken, kind, disinterested in himself — a true American gentleman. Discussions with him always led me to self-discovery and even our disagreements helped me grow.

When I was asked to help establish the new business school at The Catholic University of America, I believe it was because of the integration of my Catholicism and business knowledge, an integration I first learned from Michael Novak.

So it is no surprise that one of my first hires at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship I direct was Michael. He was glad to return to Washington and to the Catholic University, and I had the great privilege of bringing the person who inspired my thinking on principled entrepreneurship to our teaching team.

Mine is but one of thousands of stories of how Michael influenced and mentored people. Giving of himself to others was his great gift. And this great, genuinely Catholic mind, will continue giving to us through his more than 50 books. (I recommend beginning with either Business as a Calling or The Fire of Invention. Either will challenge and inspire you.)

I will miss Michael: his joyful presence, the challenging discussions, his incredible charm, and his poignant observations. But our best tribute to him is to carry on his work, to imitate his spirit.

I was very blessed to see him during his last days. Though he suffered a lot, he was cheerful and encouraging. His parting words to me very well sum up the content of all his books: “Andreas, don’t forget that God loves you very much – so go and love others as well.”

Andreas Widmer is author of The Pope & the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard, and Director of the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America.

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