Editorial Comments -
"Life is short, but eternity is forever" - Robert Novak, the columnist who came in from the cold
"Life is short, but eternity is forever" -
Robert Novak, the columnist who came in from the cold
By Karl Keating
JUL. 31, 2007 (www.catholic.com) - You probably are familiar with columnist Robert D. Novak. He has been writing about American politics for half a century and has been the host of, or a long-term participant on, several television talk shows. What you may not know is that he is a convert to the Catholic faith, having been received into the Church in 1998.
He writes about his conversion--and very much else, of course--in his recently-published autobiography, "The Prince of Darkness." The title is the nickname Novak was given many years ago because of his usually dour appearance--no one ever mistook him for a walking happy-face button--and because of his being out of lockstep with other political columnists, who are predominantly liberal.
Let me share with you some of Novak's comments about his becoming a Catholic.
The first invitation he received to consider the Catholic faith came as he was convalescing from spinal meningitis. Jeff Bell--a convert in 1978 and, in that same year, a candidate for the Senate in New Jersey--one evening dined with Novak and Novak's wife, Geraldine.
Novak says, "This was his initial step toward proselytizing me. I have kidded Jeff that he must have figured I was near death and he had better try to convert me before it was too late. In fact, he thought my experience [of illness] might move me closer to God. I thought Jeff was wasting his time if he expected me to become a Catholic. But I began wondering whether there was some purpose in my illness."
He would continue wonder for quite some time. Novak, who was Jewish by birth but never active in that faith, began to attend Mass in 1992. His wife "had grown up in a devoutly Methodist family in rural Texas, but she was nearly as uninspired by her church's ritual as I was by Jewish services. ... I think Geraldine and I both were experiencing spiritual hunger, but only she recognized it.
"When we moved into downtown Washington in 1992, Geraldine walked the few blocks to St. Patrick's to attend Mass. She told me she really liked it and asked whether I would like to go with her. I did and, in contrast to my previous Christian church experiences, I was moved by the ritual."
A few years prior to this, Bell had introduced Novak to Fr. C. John McCloskey. He is described by Novak as "a politically and theologically conservative Opus Dei priest" and "a world-class proselytizer. He brought the abortion doctor Bernard Nathanson, New York gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman, and the Wall Street economist Lawrence Kudlow into the Church, and now he was working on me."
"I was a tough nut to crack," says Novak. The cracking was finished not by Bell, not by McCloskey, and not even by Novak's wife, but by a young woman he had never met before. In 1996 Novak went to Syracuse University to give a lecture. "There was one woman on the College Republicans committee." At the pre-speech dinner, she was "seated across the table from me. She was striking looking, wearing a gold cross on her neck. ...
"Without mentioning the cross, I was impelled to ask the woman a question that normally I would not consider posing. Was she a Catholic? I thought she answered yes and then asked me whether I was one. 'No,' I replied, 'but my wife and I have been going to Mass every Sunday for about four years.' 'Do you plan to join the Church?' she asked. I answered: 'No, not at the present time. ...
"Then the young woman looked at me and said evenly: 'Mr. Novak, life is short, but eternity is forever.' I was so shaken by what she said that I could barely get through the rest of the dinner and my speech that night. ... I became convinced that the Holy Spirit was speaking through this Syracuse student."
A year and a half later Novak was received into the Church, at age 67. Jeff Bell and columnist Kate O'Beirne were his sponsors. At Novak's apartment after the Mass, Senator Daniel Moynihan quipped, "Well, Novak is now a Catholic. The question is: Will he become a Christian?"
Novak writes, "Behind the laughter was the serious inquiry of whether my conversion would change me. Liberals wanted me now to favor redistribution of income and oppose capital punishment, but those changes were not to happen. I do know my new faith has given me a source of strength in coping with an old age that was to be anything but serene."
Novak has been hospitalized several times for cancer and other serious ailments. On the last page of his book he writes, "Beyond the wonders of medicine, I believe that my escape from so many serious illnesses shows the Lord has a purpose for me, and I hope I am trying to fulfill it. ...
"I am grateful for much more than material success. I am grateful for my family, my faith, my country, and having so much fun at the only trade in which I could imagine succeeding. I'd like to think that I emulated Bertrans de Born in stirring up strife but not in wreaking havoc, so that I will avoid an eternity in purgatory with my head in my hand."
(Bertrans de Born was a French poet who died around 1215. He was involved in the struggles between Henry II and the king's son. For his role, Bertrans was called a "stirrer up of strife" by Dante in the "Inferno," where he is pictured as carrying his severed head in his hand.)
I found "The Prince of Darkness" to be an engaging if long (at 638 pages) look back at postwar American politics and the people who have written about it, and I was pleased to see Novak writing at some length about his conversion. I wonder whether those portions of his book might end up nudging others to cross the Tiber. You never can tell.