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Thomas Howard, prominent Catholic convert and writer, dies at 85

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John Burger - published on 10/16/20 - updated on 07/18/22

Author of "Evangelical is Not Enough" remembered by those who were influenced by him.

Thomas Howard, a highly acclaimed writer, scholar and prominent convert to Catholicism, died Thursday at a hospice in Beverly, Massachusetts. He was 85. 

Howard is survived by his wife, Lovelace, and their two children, Gallaudet and Charles.

“His private persona was just as loving and brilliant as his public one,” Gallaudet Howard told Aleteia in an email. “He was a marvelous father: he adored us for who we were, not who he thought we ought to be, and incarnated a kind of charitable hospitality of spirit toward us that made us always turn back toward him for refuge from the storms of life.”

Howard was reared in a prominent Evangelical home. His sister was well-known author Elisabeth Elliot, whose missionary husband was killed in Ecuador. Howard became Episcopalian in his mid-twenties, then entered the Catholic Church in 1985, at the age of 50. 

In making that decision, Howard cited the influence of great Catholic writers such as St. John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, Romano Guardini, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Adam, Louis Bouyer, and St. Augustine.

Howard was an English professor for nearly 40 years. Early on, he was noted for his studies of C.S. Lewis (whom he had met in 1961), including his book Narnia & Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C.S. Lewis

His other books included Christ the Tiger (1967), Chance or the Dance? (1969), Hallowed be This House (1976), Evangelical is Not Enough (1984), If Your Mind Wanders at Mass (1995), On Being Catholic (1997), and The Secret of New York City Revealed

Evangelical is Not Enough was republished by Ignatius Press in 1988, with an added chapter on Howard’s becoming Catholic. In a Facebook post on Thursday, Ignatius President Mark Brumley said that even though he preceded Howard in becoming Catholic by a few years, “he was extremely influential in helping me make sense of my conversion and in speaking to Evangelical friends about it. 

“There simply weren’t many former Evangelicals who had become Catholics when I was looking into Catholicism now over 40 years ago,” Brumley said. When Brumley himself was an Evangelical, he knew about Howard as author of Christ the Tiger and Chance or the Dance? “He was something of a ‘big deal’ to many of us,” he wrote, “especially those of us Evangelicals theologically and imaginatively influenced by C.S. Lewis.”

When Howard first published Evangelical is Not Enough in 1984, Brumley remembers wondering if he would “go all the way” and become Catholic. “You see, the book really isn’t an apologetic for the Catholic Church so much as an apologetic for liturgical worship — Howard had become an Anglican/Episcopalian. Which of course for some Evangelicals is tantamount to converting to Catholicism.”

A year later, in 1985, Howard did indeed become Roman Catholic.

“He was a Catholic convert but also a pontifex in his own right — bringing together Catholics and Evangelicals,” Brumley reflected. “Even after his Catholic conversion many Evangelicals continued to read him. This … was the work of the Spirit.”

Howard received his B.A. in English Literature from Wheaton College, his M.A. from the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. in English Literature at New York University, with a concentration in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. From 1970-1985 he was professor of English Literature at Gordon College, outside of Boston, then at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, 1985-1999, where he later became emeritus professor. He later taught at the College of St. Thomas in Fort Worth, Texas, and at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, a papal institute of graduate studies in philosophy and theology for students from former Soviet countries.

Catholic author David Mills, in a reflection this week in The Catholic Herald, recalled meeting Howard in the late 1970s.

“He invited me to a small reading group he hosted called Beer and Bull,” Mills wrote. “The first book I remember us reading was an Orthodox work called The Way of the Ascetics, all of which was new to me, and a little strange. I also remember being amazed that so lively a man, who loved living so much, took asceticism so seriously. Only later did I see that his deep prayer and liturgical life created the lively man. Behind the effortlessness with which he seemed to move through the world lay a great deal of sacrifice and discipline and self-giving.”

Mills noted that Howard was the first guest on Marcus Grodi’s EWTN program “The Journey Home,” which features people’s conversion stories and debuted in 1997.

Fr. David Barnes, a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, first met Howard when he was a freshman in college seminary at St. John’s Seminary. Later, Howard and his wife became his parishioners at St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Beverly, Massachusetts.

“Having Tom and Lovelace as parishioners and friends was like finding gold,” Fr. Barnes, now director of spiritual formation at St. John’s, said in an email this week. “Their joy, humility, and zeal for the Lord made the parish just that much better. Tom, of course, was a master of words, but his mastery of the English language was always about bringing joy to others and building others up. Tom could strike up a conversation with anyone and build them up.”

The priest clarified that Howard’s “intelligence, wit, and vocabulary were never intimidating because he was humble and charitable. You didn’t need to be his intellectual equal (which would be very difficult) to enjoy a conversation with Tom. He was interested in you. I’d see this all the time at parish events. Tom could (and would) talk with anyone, and thoroughly enjoy it.”

One Christmas, Barnes invited the Howards to a dinner at the rectory along with about 20 other people. He recalled being nervous about how his “rather large dog” would behave. But when Howard saw the dog, his “eyes lit up and he and the dog were best friends for the evening,” the priest said. “Every time I turned around, Tom was sneaking the dog more food.”

Another Catholic convert who was influenced by Howard is Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a well-known author, blogger and speaker. He wrote this week that his younger sister studied at Gordon College when Howard was “the somewhat famous professor of English” there. 

“He played the part to the full with his T.S. Eliot manners, his tweed suits, bow ties and witty repartee,” Fr. Longenecker recollected. “He was an actor and raconteur and reveled in the joy of language. His speech was not so different from his writing style … full of fun words, unexpected turns of phrase, amusing observations and a sense of wonder in it all.”

Fr. Longenecker wrote that it was the missionary spirit in which Howard was brought up that propelled him. “That Evangelical world prized the missionaries — the men and women like Tom’s brother-in-law Jim Elliot and his parents, sister and brother — all who were missionaries,” he wrote. “With that missionary spirit is a great sense of adventure. You can set out and do something beautiful for God. God will provide. Do not be afraid! That missionary spirit is the apostolic spirit that has driven all great Christian accomplishments.”

Fr. Barnes got a taste of that when he was the Howards’ pastor. The parish, he said, “became a bit of a pipeline for receiving Catholics into the Church who were influenced and guided by Tom. … He loved Jesus Christ, humbly sought to follow Him, and to bring others closer to Him.”

Fr. Barnes brought Howard the Sacrament of Anointing about a week before he died. 

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