The Novak brothers Joe and Vin are Jesuits who have dedicated most of their lives to the cause of mentoring and educating those who teach religion to others. They founded the Graduate School of Religion at Fordham along with Dr. Jack Nelson, an institution that I hold a Master’s Degree from and which was instrumental in the publishing of my book, Googling God.
At the flourishing excitement of the Second Vatican Council, these three men had the great wisdom to see that religious education was going to soon be in the hands of lay people, alongside religious and that they needed training. Many in the church didn’t have that foresight and thus, much of those in the Gen X demographic received their religious education from in Fr Joe’s words: “someone who was very nice to the pastor and didn’t make waves and who kind of knew the catechism, but had no idea about how to teach!”
So the religious education that was offered to many at this time in the church’s history in the United States was the equivalent of ‘God is love, now draw a rainbow.’ These three men would not stand for that. They knew that the church and moreover these “teachers of traditon” were deserving of a honorable training program, a master’s and doctoral level school was their dream and they lived that dream.
Thinking back, my own parish’s Director of Religious Education, a Deacon, went to school to be trained at Fordham, so I have benefited from the wisdom of these founding fathers since I was a child. Surprisingly enough, I felt my religious education was pretty good. My older sister was a CCD teacher and went through a rigorous training program a the hands of two different DRE’s, both Fordham trained.
But sadness is with our school now as yesterday, after a brief illness, Fr Joe Novak, S.J. passed from this life into his eternal reward.
Father Novak served most of his life as a Jesuit superior, meaning he was either as Provincial, Vice Provincial or the Rector of a community. In the mid 1960s, Father Novak, also coauthored a series of groundbreaking high school religion books.
One of the gutsier things he did as Provincial, was that he willingly sent several Jesuits to the Nigerian missions. Despite the danger and the advice he got to the contrary, he decided that Jesuits from the United States indeed needed to go to Africa and that it would make a huge statement if they did so. It’s because of his wisdom and foresight, that Nigeria has a thriving mission today. Moreover, I would say that because of his dedication, the majority of students in the Graduate School of Religion at Fordham are indeed NIgerian priests, sent here to study often with no winter coats and no place to stay. It has been the long standing commitment to their education that enables these men to be able to study, live and serve as priests in the Archdiocese of New York and elsewhere.
Personally speaking, I didn’t know “Joe” (as he often insisted on being called) all that well. We had one or two conversations at the annual Sapientia et Doctrina awards dinner for the grad school. The school’s motto stood for Wisdom and Knowledge and indeed that is what he shared with us. What he also shared was an unbridled optimism and an encouraging nature. He recommended retreats to my wife and I for married couples and they always were outstanding. “You and Marion should go on this.” he’d say. “Great, great people run this. You’ll love it.” And he was always on target with his recommendations and people knew he stated his reputation on their work and more importantly, their hospitality.
I only remember one extended conversation with Joe. I had congratulated him on receiving the first “Founder’s Award” at the Graduate School of Religion’s Dinner along with his two founding colleagues. I asked him what those early days were like. He responded simply with two words: “Great! Exciting!” He went on to say that they saw a need and they filled it and that the school continues to serve that need. His simplicity was humbling and while proud of his work, he sought no glory in it for himself, but simply was happy to fulfill Ignatius’ great demand of being a “man for others.”
Condolences to the Jesuit Community in New York and especially at Fordham where Joe served as the alumni chaplain. Joe’s brother, the Rev. Vincent Novak, S.J. indeed needs our prayers today as these brothers were very close and lifelong friends.
I know I stand on the shoulders of giants and we lost one of the bigger ones to whom I will always be indebted yesterday.
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him. May Joe’s soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.