In Gratitude to John Garvey

In early 2019, I was working at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., which had been my professional home for almost fifteen years. My work dealt mostly with the application of Catholic social teaching to policy and cultural issues. I wrote a book on Catholic citizenship. I helped organize and teach a seminar on Catholic social teaching which took me to Poland for three weeks every summer. I loved that work. I loved the people I worked with. I still do.

But by the summer of 2018, my work had turned more and more to some of the blossoming crises in the Church, in particular the abuse crisis reignited by the revelations about Theodore McCarrick. When I learned that the president of The Catholic University of America, John Garvey, was launching a new project to help the Church respond to the crisis, I was intrigued.

It was John Garvey who ultimately persuaded me to join The Catholic Project. He is convinced, as I am, that there is no challenge or crisis the Church faces that can be adequately addressed outside the context of the Church’s fundamental mission to evangelize. As he put it: “Come back to Church; we won’t hurt your kids anymore,” isn’t a compelling way to proclaim the Gospel.

At a moment when the bishops’ credibility was tanking, John Garvey wanted to find ways to strengthen the role of the laity without clericalizing them. He wanted to help people see the vocations of laity and clergy, not as antagonists engaged in a power struggle, but as collaborative and complementary. He wanted to try to recapture and reclaim a sense of the responsibility of all the faithful for the mission of the Church in line with the vision of the Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen gentium). And without hedging on hard truths or getting bogged down in internecine debates and ecclesial politics.

That work is compelling enough in its own right, but what I’ve come to appreciate over the past three and a half years is how much John Garvey and his wife Jeanne – it’s hard to think of one without the other – embody precisely this integrated vision of the lay vocation.

On second thought, “integrated vision of the lay vocation,” is a far-too-stilted way to describe what I mean. At the risk of causing them some slight embarrassment, let me try to illustrate the point.

First, you must know that the President’s offices are in the same building as his residence. When the Garvey’s extended family is in town visiting, I can hear their grandchildren’s voices. When it’s laundry day, I can hear the hum of the washer from my desk. And sometimes at the end of a workday, I can smell something delicious cooking upstairs.

John and Jeanne Garvey with some of their family members. [Photo: Catholic University]

And when John Garvey gets a call on his mobile from his wife saying she needs help carrying in the groceries, he unabashedly and without hesitation will excuse himself from a meeting, race off to help, only to reappear five minutes later – and pick up the thread of the meeting precisely where he left off.

Another story: The Garveys had a new puppy in the house and with Jeanne out, John was left to watch the dog. I joined him in his office with a visiting scholar whose work he was interested to hear about. President Garvey began the meeting with a preemptive apology: the dog was not yet house-trained which might necessitate an interruption to the meeting. Of course, nature eventually called, and in a flash, there was the President of the Catholic University of America on his hands and knees cleaning dog pee out of the carpet while still asking insightful questions about his guest’s work.

If John was ever much embarrassed by such occasional intrusions of domestic life into the “workplace” he has never showed it. It never occurred to him to send someone else to help with the groceries or clean his own puppy’s mess. These are small things, but the smallness of such things should never be confused for unimportance. Allowing others to see the small things in our lives is a sign of both confidence and trust. It’s a great compliment.

That confidence and trust pays dividends. I remember a phone call from John a few years ago, when he learned that my wife and I were mourning our second miscarriage in seven months. At such a time, outside attention isn’t always welcome. It was more than welcome from him. He understood. He’s a husband and a father. He knows.

I’ve learned that lots of people here have their own Garvey stories. Hearing them, a pattern emerges: “He remembered my name.” “She took the time to listen.” “They made me feel at home.” “They made me feel welcome.” Sometimes the little things add up to make the biggest impression.

For the past three and a half years, my office has been a small room off the back hallway – past the laundry room and a guest bath – on the second floor of a university building which happens to also be the Garvey’s home. Today, that hallway is filled with boxes and packing materials. By tomorrow, it will be empty, save for a stray scrap of packing tape or bubble wrap here or there.

The Garveys are leaving Catholic University after twelve years. No one haughty has ever radiated joy, and they are a joyful pair, John and Jeanne Garvey: unassuming and generous, patient and self-effacing. They have been models of both Christian marriage and lay leadership, in the big things and especially the little ones.

I count myself blessed to have had the chance to get to know them during their time here. There have been some big changes at the university during their time here, mostly for the better. But it’s those thousands of little things that I am most grateful for, and which I cherish most.

Thanks for the little things, John and Jeanne.

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.