Thomas Howard, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 85, made the journey from catholic evangelical to evangelical Catholic as gracefully and admirably as any who have made the journey. Though the adjective and noun changed places, Tom’s heart for the gospel never wavered. Neither did his gracious and generous friendship with all the evangelicals and Catholics for whom his influence was deep and abiding. When I was a seminarian at an evangelical seminary, I first heard about Tom as the evangelical who said that that was not enough. And a few years later, I came to know him as the Catholic who helped lead me toward my own conversion and faithfully served as my sponsor when I was received into the Church.
My most acute memories of Tom are of sitting together in the parlor of his house at Beverly Farms, sipping gin and talking about his friendship with Malcolm Muggeridge; frequently going to Mass together at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, followed by lunch afterward at Union Oyster House; and visiting the discalced Carmelite sisters in Danvers, to whom he introduced my wife and me. Tom had a deep sense that these things God had given us were infused with the presence of grace, and thus the order of salvation to which they belong. He accounts for this in his wonderful little book Hallowed Be This House.
Tom’s journey toward Rome, after a lengthy stop in Canterbury, was driven by his discovery of, and deepening appreciation for, the grace and beauty of liturgical worship. But he always retained a deep appreciation for the fervor of what he called the “trusty Protestant Fundamentalism” of his youth and early adulthood. In his short apologia, Lead Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, he writes gracefully about the “earnestness” of the faith in which he was raised. And he celebrates the lasting effect of that legacy, and the abiding influence it had on his Catholic life.
More than any other mentor in my conversion journey, Tom taught me about the incarnational nature of God’s gracious intervention in our lives. While he never lost his admiration for the enthusiasm of his evangelical heritage, Tom came to believe that the things of heaven are communicated to us by the stuff of earth. And even those evangelicals who could not follow him all the way to Rome could admire and appreciate the quickening of their own sense of the incarnational forms of grace that infuse our lives and, ultimately, convey our salvation.
Tom came to believe that while the sacramental presence of Christ is certainly communicated by teaching, writing, and preaching, it is most powerfully and immediately known in the sacraments of the Church, sustained and communicated most fully in the Roman Catholic confession and communion. Thus, Tom saw that the liturgical expression of the sacramental presence of Christ was not incidental to, but rather part of the essence of Christian faith and discipleship. As he put it in one place, “Ceremony, ritual, enactment: these forms of ‘play’ touch on the sources of what we creatures are.” Thus, the “ritualizing” of faith “is the quintessentially human mode of perceiving and marking the truth about them.” The physical components of the sacraments “stand . . . on the interface between what we can see and what we cannot,” making the word present and “real to us only in a mystery.”
But just as in his evangelical days he recognized the importance of liturgy and sacraments, as a Catholic he always maintained the importance of preaching, and of the interior subjectivity of faith. Liturgy and sacraments cannot be set against interior faith and an emphasis on the word, but rather are a means of communicating both. This is why he was able to maintain friendship with—and gain the admiration of—evangelicals long into his Catholic journey. Few prominent converts from evangelicalism to Catholicism have been able to sustain a significant evangelical following after their conversions. It is to Tom’s great credit that he did. Both catholic evangelicals and evangelical Catholics will mourn his passing and celebrate his legacy.
Thomas Howard, my beloved godfather, rest in peace.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology.
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