How Grateful We Are. That’s Why We Cry.

I first met Tom Cornell in November of 1981. Campus Ministry at Notre Dame was starting a draft counseling program in response to President Carter’s reinstitution of draft registration, which itself was a response to the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. We wanted to help students write up Conscientious Objector statements in case they were drafted into the military. Our plan was to form a team of faculty and staff around the University to meet one-on-one with students to help them discern their consciences and decide what to do. We needed to be trained. People said: get Tom Cornell.

Two of us picked up Tom at the airport. We went to dinner, talked about our plans for the next day’s workshop, Tom jotted down some notes, then our conversation got more freewheeling—which was when I got nervous. We talked about the peace movement back in the day. Tom was intense, opinionated, and, if his stories were true, radical. He told his stories with an edgy vocabulary that came easy to him—words like “revolution,” “anarchism,” “Trotskyist,” and “The MOBE,” short for the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. When I mentioned that our office was relying on literature published by NISBCO (the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors), an organization sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, he immediately harrumphed, then sneered, “oh, you mean the American Fiends Service Committee?” and then recounted an offense the A.F.S.C. had committed back in the day. As he finished, he gave what I have come to call “the stare”: eyes trained on yours, pursed lips, hallowed cheeks, followed by a protracted, awkward silence.   

At that moment, I knew I had to say something to him. We had a rather tame group of faculty and staff to carry out a rather tame project: counseling students and putting statements on file. Period. I was nervous that Tom would scare them off and torpedo the whole program. So at the end of dinner, I told him we needed him to tone things down for the presentation the next day. He just nodded and said, “all right.” I was nervous dropping him off at Michael and Margaret Garvey’s house that night, nervous picking him up the next morning, nervous driving him to campus, nervous putting out the coffee, juice, and doughnuts. After introducing him, I stood in the back, scanning the room, nervous about the training he was about to give, about the outlandish things he was about to say . . .

Well, as it turned out, Tom’s presentation was brilliant. He spoke eloquently. His points were clear, concise, knowledgeable, and appropriately serious, yet also reassuring. He quoted the Gospels, the popes, Gandhi, King, and Dorothy Day. He expounded on traditional Catholic teaching on war and peace and explained the Church’s recent and rapid evolution at Vatican II on matters of conscientious objection and non-violence. Most of all, he assured us that the work of counseling young people on the moral implications of participating in war was central to a life in Christ and the mission of the Church. By the end of the day, our group was ready and willing, our program was launched. In the years ahead, we counseled students, placed dozens of their CO statements on file, and represented three ROTC students in the legal proceedings that led to their being disenrolled and discharged (honorably) from the military. That was the beginning of my relationship with Tom Cornell, more than forty years ago now.

Looking back, I should not have been surprised at his stellar presentation that day. At that time, I did not know many particulars concerning the central role he played in furthering the Catholic Church’s witness to peace in the United States. In 1963, Tom Cornell organized the first public demonstration against the Vietnam War. In 1964, he attended the Merton retreat at Gethsemane on the Spiritual Roots of Protest. A few weeks later, on New Year’s Day in 1965, he and Jim Forest (“Jimmy,” as Tom called him) launched the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Later that same year, in October of 1965, Tom burned his draft card while a proud Dorothy Day and A.J. Muste looked on—an offense for which he was eventually convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. Weeks later, in the throes of the tragedy of Roger LaPorte’s self-immolation, Tom formulated statements to the press on behalf of the Catholic Worker and the Catholic Peace Fellowship. For months after, he and Jim struggled to keep CPF together in those tumultuous times—and they did. So the work of the CPF continued for many years: the talks, conferences, putting out the CPF Bulletin, and the CO counseling, helping as many as fifty young men a week at one point. The records of the CPF’s work are now located in the archives at the University of Notre Dame.

Tom’s role has been made clear in the many obituaries published in the wake of his death. In the National Catholic Reporter he is described as a “Catholic Worker stalwart”; in Religion News Service, as a “Dorothy Day Lieutenant”; in Crux, as a “‘giant’ in Catholic peacemaking”; in America, as “one of the architects of the American Catholic peace movement.” It is also important to note that Tom carried out his work in the Catholic Worker and in the peace movement as a loyal son of the Church. Much like his mentor Dorothy Day, he “loved the Church for Christ made visible” (her words), by which he (and she) meant the Mass, the other sacraments, the Gospels, the martyrs and saints, the social teachings, a rich spiritual tradition, and so on. His attitude toward the Church was one of confidence without being triumphalist.

Tom liked to tell the story of the day he went to A.J. Muste’s office at 339 West Lafayette Street in New York to tell A.J. (as he called him) that he had decided to devote his life to promoting a peace witness within the Catholic Church. David Dellinger was walking by, overheard the conversation, popped his head into the office, and offered his unsolicited advice: “Tom, don’t waste your time with the Catholic Church; it’s a relic of the past. The future is with the Trotskyists!” That was in the mid-1960s.

Tom’s framework, his entire worldview, was shaped by Catholicism. And it was out of this Catholic worldview and traditional practice and belief that Tom’s work on conscientious objection emerged. In Catholic teaching conscience is an interior witness to the law of God. To follow one’s conscience is to walk along the path that leads to God. When it comes to war, we are thus called to follow the Voice within and conduct ourselves accordingly, asking whether or not we may participate in any war, to which pacifists say no; or, in case of those who subscribe to just-war teaching, whether we may participate in a particular war or in a particular operation within that war. Tom was ready to discuss the just-war tradition out of his belief that an honest regard for those principles would lead one to resist most, if not all, modern warfare. For him, the key to Conscientious Objector counseling was to be careful, respectful, nuanced, and mindful of the dignity of each and every person who came to him. Concerning the approach of the CPF during the Vietnam War, he said this: “We don’t counsel conscientious objection, non-cooperation, resistance, interference with the Selective Service,  or anything else. We counsel young men.” He was a true personalist. He refused to allow important matters to be reduced to slogans and cliches, ready-made formulas.

At the same time, Tom maintained a broad ecumenical spirit in his work in the peace movement. He was on the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation from 1965-1979, and in conversation with  Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists—church groups of all sorts. And in the spirit of Vatican II, he was also in conversation with other religious groups, Jews, Buddhists, and secularists. He was opened-minded and had a generous spirit in finding “concordances,” as Dorothy Day used to say, quoting Pope John XXIII.

Those were exciting years. The Catholic Church, at least a significant wing of the Church, was becoming a genuine sign of peace. Tom had had a hand in starting Pax Christi USA. A decade later, he served as a formal consultant to the Catholic bishops in the United States as they drafted their pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace. He was one of the representatives of pacifism and nonviolence (another being Gordon Zahn). But, of course, the bishops also brought in to testify some big-picture, big-shot policy makers, like Casper Weinberger, and big-shot theologians like Paul Ramsey; unfortunately, they listened more closely to them.

Given the state of the world then and since, we are allowed to ponder: What would have happened if our dear shepherds, successors to the apostles, had listened more to “the little shots,” like Tom Cornell and Gordon Zahn, who grasped the real big picture? A picture of the cosmos governed by justice, tempered by mercy, enveloped by the love revealed in Jesus Christ, especially in his teaching and example on peace.

These highlights were but moments in Tom’s life, moments alongside many more mundane, as is true with all of our lives. Tom told me once that he went to the Catholic Worker in order to do great things, heroic things. They put him on peeling potatoes and carrots, and he wondered, when do the great heroic acts start? The next year, 1963, he met Monica Ribar “over a pot of soup,” as Monica says. They courted and got married the next year; soon Tommy and Dierdre came along, and they were a bona fide Catholic Worker family. This was Tom’s greatest achievement, but it was not his alone; it was a marital achievement.

If Tom were asked later in his life what he identifies as, he would probably say, “patriarch!” One time, he introduced himself to a student at Notre Dame like that. But wherever there is a patriarch, there is also a more important matriarch. That would be Monica, Mary Ribar Cornell. The NCR last week referred to Tom as a “stalwart.” Monica was—still is—the stalwart behind the stalwart.

It is hard not to think that Tom and Monica’s lives included some hard years. The early years on the Lower East Side, then to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Newburgh, then New Hampshire. Tom (and Monica) lived a modern-day, married mendicant existence. Lady Poverty. “This, then, is pure joy,” as Peter Maurin used to say. We get hints of this in Dorothy’s diaries: a family in financial straits. In Dorothy’s diary entry for August 1, 1979, we read,

Tom Cornell and Monica visited. He wants to leave [the FOR] and return to the CW. But we pay no salaries. They would like to be “family in residence” at new farm near Newburgh. He was a loyal friend when I was going through a grueling time at Kenmare St. He and Monica are beautiful people. Two kids. 

And another entry a year or so later: “Tom Cornell visited this afternoon. He met his wife, Monica, at the Catholic Worker. They have two lovely children.” Well, in 1982, they did come back to the Catholic Worker by starting a house and working two soup kitchens in Waterbury. They stayed there for more than ten years. Tom was also ordained a deacon in these years, first for Hartford, later transferred to New York. And he continued his peace activism. Talks, writing, counseling.

In December of 1990, in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm (or as we later called it “The First Petroleum War”), five of us—me, Margaret Garvey, Maureen Sweeny, Bill Cavanaugh, and Tom—went to counsel U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany who were facing re-deployment to Saudi Arabia and who had come forth as conscientious objectors. It was a chaotic time: soldiers submitting applications and commanders rejecting them outright; some being forcibly deployed, tossed onto C-130 transport planes in handcuffs and leg irons; soldiers going AWOL. Tom’s voice of experience was a rudder: listen to their stories, help them sort out their feelings and fears, advise them of the risks, and support their decisions. That was a tough time. The nation wanted to prove itself capable of getting beyond Vietnam. Beyond, into what?

A few years after that, Tom and Monica did finally make their way back to the New York Catholic Worker by settling at Peter Maurin Farm in Marlboro where they have been ever since. But it is not true, as one report had it last week, that Tom went to the Farm in his retirement. He incardinated into the New York Archdiocese and served at St. Mary’s Church in Marlboro as a deacon. He taught at the Archdiocesan seminary. He continued giving talks. He would come to Notre Dame every year or two where he would regale students with his wisdom and wit and stories. And in August 2003, as the U.S. was gearing up for the invasion of Iraq, he prodded me to go there with him—by way of an email that appeared in my inbox: “Christmas in Baghdad? Could happen.”

So we went for three weeks that Advent and Christmas season. With the help of Voices in the Wilderness, we spoke with Iraqis living in Baghdad, paid courtesy calls to Iraqi cultural and Muslim leaders, and even joined in celebrating a Christmas Eve Mass with the Chaldean Catholics in Basra. On the way home, we visited the office of Justice and Peace at the Vatican to report on what we saw in Iraq. This was at Tom’s insistence, part of his commitment as a dutiful deacon of the Church. All the while, he also continued as a dutiful Catholic Worker, heading down to the City for Friday Night Meetings, meetings for the Dorothy Day Guild, editing the newspaper, and tending to hospitality, cooking, and other household duties at the Farm.

It was during these years that Tom and I became closer. At about the time of the attacks on 9/11, several of us at Notre Dame approached Tom, Jim Forest, and Bill Ofenloch about restarting the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Their response was spontaneous and generous: go for it; we will do all we can to support you. Tom was thus able to extend his decades-long commitment to supporting conscientious objectors to war. In the spring of 2007, he and Jim received the Saint Marcellus Award for their lifetime of peacemaking. Throughout these years, he became a mentor to another generation of young people working for the Catholic Peace Fellowship: Shawn Storer, Mike Griffin, Ben Peters, Lauren Beyer, Sheila Payne, Michael Schorsch, Brenna Cussen, Dan Baker, Aimee Shelide, Maria Surat, Jon Schommer, Leah Coming, Michael Thomas, and Joshua Casteel.

Tom continued to be a mentor to me, both when he came to Notre Dame and when I visited him in Marlboro, usually in the summers when I was visiting family in Albany. I would drive down in the morning, stay the night, and head out the next day. This is how I remember him most: sitting in the kitchen eating dinner, always fresh vegetables, thanks to Tommy; or watching as he meticulously made me a perfect omelet; all the while guests coming through. In these latter years, his most important personal encounters were with people coming to see him at the Farm: his children, of course, and grandchildren, all of whom he was very proud; and a steady stream of visitors from near and far, students there to help for the summer, wandering pilgrims struck with the Catholic Worker vision and way of life, friends from the Bruderhof, people up from the houses in the City.

Tom was especially good to young people turned comrades—good for them too. Shawn Storer said recently of Tom, “I’ve never met a more encouraging Christian.” And a few weeks before he died, I sent him Ben Peter’s manuscript on the life and work of Gordon Zahn; he read the first chapter, but then sent a message to me, via Monica, that the manuscript would have to wait.

Tom’s persistence, his loyalty, his constancy over time: I think that is what I sensed about him after his visit to Note Dame some forty-plus years ago now, when I was twenty-seven. And I have felt it from him steadily, unswervingly, ever since. As when he would sign off on his letters with “Resist!” or, in Italian, with “coraggio!” Where did Tom get this spirited, undaunted confidence from?

Well, an answer comes from one time in his life, when he was young, nineteen years old. He came from a working-class family. His father died when he was young. He worked as a kid in a factory, or as an orderly in a hospital, making money for his family, with his father having died when he was young. A kind of brokenness was there in his background. But he made his way to Fairfield Prep, and then on to Fairfield College. 

It was in 1953, while he was at Fairfield College, that he met Dorothy Day—first in reading The Long Loneliness which, he said, “spoke to my condition,” and then in person at a Friday Night Meeting. He wanted to see the Catholic Worker for himself. He took the train to Grand Central Station, then the train down to Union Square, and from there he found his way, amid the noise of the L and the smells of the streets and the bustling crowds, to 225 Christi Street. He went upstairs to the Friday Night Meeting, which had already started. Soon someone pointed over to the corner and whispered to him, “there’s Dorothy Day.” Gray hair up in braids, knitting, with the needles clanging loudly when she did not like what was being said in the discussion. At one point, someone defended the idea that we have a right to defend ourselves from attack because we all must have security. This was at the height of the Cold War. So Dorothy stood up and spoke: 

Security, security . . . I don’t want to hear any more about security. There are young people here today. They don’t need to hear about security . . . How will they do great things, if all they are concerned about is their own security? . . . Think not of the morrow. Consider the lilies of the field. Don’t worry about what you’re going to eat, what you are going to put on. If the grain of wheat does not fall into the ground and die, it remains alone, but if it falls into the ground and dies, it bears a great harvest.

Then and there, Tom later recalled, “she had me. I knew I would never get away.” As for me, I remember that Friday Night Meeting vividly—and I was not even born yet! That is how powerful Tom’s storytelling has been. It has been reality-creating.

Tom explained the impact Dorothy Day had on him in an interview recorded in Rosalie Riegle’s Dorothy Day: Portraits from Those Who Knew Her. He said: 

I knew Dorothy. She opened me to the world—the really most important currents, a mystical current. This was the most important thing in the universe, and she put me in contact with it. I was able to participate in it. What more can you ask? (Pause.) How grateful you are. That’s why you cry. (Long pause.)

Tom Cornell. How grateful we are. That’s why we cry.

Grateful for Tom’s life—what a life! Grateful for God’s help through the hard times. Grateful for Tom making it easier for us to be good. Grateful for his stories, his laughter, for so many good times. Grateful for the glory days of the past. And even more grateful for the glory days ahead. Grateful for Tom putting us into contact with the mystical current that carries us home.  And so we pray, In Paradisum, deducant te Angeli . . .

May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs greet you at your arrival

and lead you into the holy City of Jerusalem.

May the choir of Angels greet you

and like Lazarus, who once was a poor man,

may you have eternal rest.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This text was originally delivered as a eulogy for Tom Cornell at St. Mary Catholic Church in Marlboro, NY on 10 August 2022.