Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com. (Photo by Renata Grzan Wierczorek, RenataPhotography.com)
Michael Novak, theologian, author, professor, Templeton Prize winner, and former ambassador, died Feb. 17, surrounded by his family after a battle with cancer at the age of 83.
As the tributes to Michael Novak pour in from around the world, citing his accolades, accomplishments, and awards, there is one significant but largely unknown part of his legacy that deserves a special spotlight.
I first met Michael back in 1999 as a student of the Tertio Millennio Seminar. The three-week event in Krakow, Poland, brought together American, Polish, and other students from the former Soviet Bloc. The seminar offered an espresso-shot of Catholic teaching and Catholic culture to many of us who had never experienced the rhythms of Catholic life in prayer, meals, Masses, fellowship, and intellectual rigor.
At our initial meeting, I was a bit star-struck by this mental juggernaut of a man — an ambassador, author of over 40 books, public intellectual. Michael quickly melted my reserve during our meeting. I had arrived a day early, so he took me and a few other students out to dinner at Krakow’s famed Wierzynek restaurant (serving customers since 1364). I was amazed to find how approachable and engaging he was. That night and throughout the seminar he made himself available to the students at meals, bus rides, or over gin and tonics. These exchanges were not monologues — but real dialogues in which he asked deep and penetrating questions, offered advice, and simply got to know us.
A few years later, I become the organizer of the Tertio Millennio Seminar and spent several more summers in Krakow with Novak. While those who worked for him knew he could be demanding at times, his charity and thoughtfulness was ever at work. These were the qualities in him that seemed to only deepen as he got older. At a time when most people are settling into the last years of their life quietly, Novak poured himself out all the more. Yes, he kept publishing books, but he also reached out to the next generation in the work he did at Ave Maria University, Acton University, the Dietrich von Hildebrand Project seminars, and countless other events. He loved engaging with younger people, challenging them, offering advice and even true friendship.
Two years ago, my family and I spent several days with him at his beach home in Delaware at Christmas time. He was tired and in a lot of pain from an old football injury that was giving him chronic trouble. In our time together, we heard no word of complaint, but received his warm smiles as he moved slowly and his kind thoughtfulness about how to make our family’s stay more enjoyable. My husband and I marveled too at how his razor-sharp wit remained. During our several days together, Michael was never more animated than when speaking about his beloved Karen, who passed away in 2009. Her extensive artwork, displayed through his home, and photos of them together, drew out many memories that he shared with us of their life together.
The last night of our stay, my 5-year-old daughter came down with the flu. I was up all night tending to her and nursing our 3-month-old baby. When we got up in the morning before our hastened departure, Michael looked at me and said with a smile, “You look terrible.” Yes, he was right. I felt terrible. Perhaps some would be offended by such a remark, but I knew Michael’s honest confession was wrapped with concern. Also, his brutal honesty made me treasure all the more the compliments he had paid me as true and not just lip service.
Upon our leaving, Michael gave my daughter one of the beautiful conch shells that had been collected from a nearby beach years before. At a moment when most octogenarians would be anxious for a sick child to leave with her germs, he was ever kind and gracious.
Michael did not rest on his laurels, but was always seeking out ways to help others and give them opportunities that would enrich their lives, careers, and families. This impulse can be seen in his books, too – how to improve the lives and minds of others. When I approached with him with the request to endorse my first book, where others had been apprehensive to stick their neck out for a new author, Michael was warm in his response and effusive with his endorsement.
Yes, Michael will be remembered for many things and his legacy will live on in his books, lectures, and his own family, but it will also live on in the spiritual family he fathered. So many of us who came into contact with him were drawn in by his smile, humor, generosity, sage advice, and the personal interest he took in our lives, despite not having anything to offer back but our gratitude. Michael knew the importance of community and building the up Church one soul at a time. I pray his spirit will live on in our minds and hearts, writings and lectures, but hopefully also in our charity and generosity.
In the final days of his life, Michael’s daughter Jana reported on Facebook that although Michael was able to say very little, he said to his sister, Mary Ann Novak, “God loves you and you must love one another. That is all that matters. God bless you all." What a fitting final testament to the way he lived his life. Thank you, Michael, for loving us.
Michael Novak, Requiescat in pace.