R.I.P. – Rev. Joseph A. Novak, S.J.


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.

Ignatius and the World

I’ve been thinking much about how strange it must have been to be an early follower of St. Ignatius. Being a “contemplative” engaged with the needs of the world was a new mindset, different from old school monasticism which didn’t fiddle with the machinations of living and praying within monestary walls.

Much like ourselves, these folks found that the needs of the world left them little time for prayer, so Ignatius encouraged the use of his examen at least once per day. Seeing God in all things gets easier if you try to do that daily. The spiritual life is about mindfulness and seeing beyond sensory experience to find God lurking there.

This past week I had the pleasure if hearing the stories of several students during an imaginative prayer meditation and the deep sharing that followed. It gave me confidence that God indeed continues to lead me to places that I will find much fertile ground with which to serve.

At the same time the search for those who are healthy and who have much to give to leadership is taking precedence. I imagine Ignatius must have faced similar challenges but also saw similar rewards.

Today pray that good things continue to happen and that we can see God in all things.

Mobile Blogging from here.

If you’re thinking about doing service…


then I’d like to introduce you to the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service. They are fantabulous (that’s a combo of fantastic and fabulous)! I go to a lot of conferences and I’m pretty hard to impress, but from the quality of the speakers, to the dedication that they all collectively have in working for the needs of the poor, to the resolve they have in connecting young people to the many organizations they work alongside…it is all amazing.

I was honored to be asked by them to be a keynote speaker on the last day of their national gathering, mostly because a good deal of the people there represent organizations that I greatly admire. From the acclaimed Jesuit Volunteer Corps, to Vincentian Volunteers, to Catholics on Call…I was somewhat intimidated and wondered if anything I could say to them would be valuable. I think I succeeded simply by sharing with them the stories of many people who have been part of service experiences that I’ve met over my years in ministry and then highlighting the spiritual longing that they hoped providing service would awaken or embolden. “After all,” I said at one point, “Young people are choosing to do service with a religious organization rather than Americorps or the Peace Corps because of that spiritual element.” So my message was to build their organizations to be more particularly spiritual in nature, as much as possible–to point them to Jesus and to tradition and to Catholic Social Teaching.

I got the biggest laugh I’ve gotten in awhile when we discussed the ecumenical and interfaith aspects of young people participating in service–which was a great question posed by the Rev. Michael Wilker of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps who was also gracious enough to join me for lunch later. My response was varied but I wanted to express that most often people aren’t even choosing between denominations anymore–rather they choose between spiritual and atheism, mostly because they become ‘spiritual tinkerers” as Robert Wuthnow of Princeton notes in his acclaimed book After the Baby Boomers.

The laugh came when I offered the following: “And look, we Catholics have all we can do to not argue with one another! Never mind a bunch of other denominations. Heck, if the Franciscans could just stick together and stop breaking themselves up into little groups, they’d probably rule the world!”

Note to self: Tell that one again.

So I’d like to encourage anyone who is considering doing a year long service program or who’s thinking about doing some kind of service experience to do so–but to be aware of where Jesus is showing himself to you in that experience and to talk about that and to let the fine people from these amazing organizations mentor you spiritually.

You can check out all of the service organizations that there are to choose from on the CNVS website.

And be sure you tell them that you heard about them from me. A special word of thanks to Jim Lindsay, CNVS’ Executive Director, Nikki Rohlng the Associate Director and to Alyssa Sickle their events coordinator for all their hospitality and for the invitation. Keep up the good work!