‘I Believe in the Beatitudes’

Remembering Thomas C. Cornell
Tom Cornell, 2007 (CNS photo/John Thavis)

The illustration on the program for the funeral Mass for Thomas C. Cornell said it all. A colorful mandala by Commonweal and Catholic Worker artist Rita Corbin declared—and illustrated—“Pray, Study, Work for Peace & Justice.” Tom Cornell, who died on August 1, had done precisely that nearly every day of his eighty-eight years.

A graduate of Jesuit schools with a New England upbringing, Cornell arrived at New York’s Catholic Worker headquarters in 1962. He had read Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness in college, had heard her speak, and had applied for his conscientious-objector status, which he finally received after a four-year delay. (It took that long because, at the time, “Catholic conscientious objector” seemed an oxymoron to his local draft board.)

On coming to New York, Cornell was immediately dragooned by Day into editing the Catholic Worker paper, an on-the-job training assignment at which he quickly excelled. But life at the Worker included far more than correcting galleys and laying out the pages. It required living with the poor in poor circumstances, serving countless meals, welcoming waves of guests and seekers, and publicly demonstrating against war and other injustices. As an editor, Cornell interviewed striking mine workers, traveled to Alabama to cover civil-rights developments, demonstrated at a nuclear submarine base, and personally inaugurated the first public protest against the Vietnam War—all in his first year and a half at the Catholic Worker.

Still, there was community life to be lived—and redeemed—on a daily basis, and Tom had an eye for reporting on that as well. As he noted, the atmosphere at the Chrystie Street house was “tremendously dynamic.” To prove his point, he begins a 1963 column by describing the sound of shattering glass from the Worker’s first-floor storefront window, “a window we replace often.” The column then transitions to a scene at New York’s Centre Street courthouse. Here Tom accompanies a young Beat poet to a court hearing. The man’s name is Szabo. An illustration accompanying the article—unusual for the Catholic Worker paper—highlights the young poet’s Elvis-like features and Fonzie-like carriage. Significantly, he sports a large crucifix around his neck.

Tom reports that the first thing he hears walking through the marble corridors is the booming voice of a red-faced Irish cop. “Hey kid,” yells the officer at Szabo, “What are you wearing that crucifix for?”

“Well, it’s like I feel an identification with Jesus,” the young man replies.

Policeman: “What do you mean by that?”

Szabo: “I believe in the Beatitudes.”

Policeman (laughing uproariously): “It sounds like a pretty shitty organization to me!”

Whether writing or speaking, Tom would often offset his ingrained “New England conservative instincts” with a wry—and sometimes ribald—humor. At the end of that “Chrystie Street” column, he returns to the scene of the shattered window. But now he describes a different sound: “There’s quite a racket downstairs,” he relates. “The fellow who broke the window just came back and kicked down the door.”

He marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965, and burned his draft card on several occasions that year.

That same year at the Catholic Worker, Tom met and fell in love with Monica Ribar. They married the following year. At the time, Tom was helping to cofound the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF); years later he would also be involved in launching Pax Christi USA. Under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the CPF counseled hundreds of young men during the Vietnam era to follow their conscience in making decisions about the war. Tom became a mentor to many young men, some of whom remained lifelong friends. At the same time, he continued his active involvement in civil-rights issues and antiwar demonstrations. He marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965, and burned his draft card on several occasions that year. (He had the chutzpah to ask his draft board for a replacement card so that he could burn it again.) To protest a new draconian law passed to deter such actions (penalties of up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine), Tom helped organize a huge rally in New York’s Union Square. It was there, on November 6, 1965, that he read a searing statement lamenting that the “grave crime” listed in the new statute was not “the destruction of life but the destruction of a piece of paper.” His speech was met with threats by a group of counter-demonstrators who yelled derisively: “Burn your bodies, not your cards!” (Tom would later serve six months in federal prison for burning his card.) Part of Tom’s statement that day appeared in Commonweal, accompanied by the editors’ call for an immediate end to all bombing of North Vietnam.

But these are simply sketches from the earliest chapters of Tom’s long, peripatetic life of protest, witness, dissent, welcome, and pilgrimage. Over the course of the next sixty years, he worked with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, ran a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Waterbury, Connecticut, traveled the world on peace missions, advised the U.S. bishops on their 1983 pastoral letter on war, raised two remarkable children (and later delighted in five grandchildren), was ordained a Catholic deacon, and, for the last thirty years of his life, lived and worked with Monica at the Catholic Worker farm in upstate New York.

Tom had a strong background in Latin, which he enjoyed brandishing, and a finely trained analytical mind. He put these to work, in season and out, as a writer and speaker, defining and then defending such quixotic notions as anarchism, decentralism, the sacredness of life at all stages, and nonviolent unilateral disarmament. He was always ready to encourage others but was also ready to correct and enlighten when necessary. For example, he reported for Commonweal on a 1968 meeting in St. Louis of a group of American Catholics called the National Committee on Catholic Concerns. He concluded bluntly that it had not clarified the issues under discussion, let alone “come to grips with serious and urgent proposals” raised by the group itself.

Tom admitted having what he called a “Jesuit hard head,” and was always happy to bring it to bear when editing others, including Dorothy Day. He took pride in correcting her syntax (not always to her liking), and sometimes deleted elements of her rambling style. Yet he readily admitted that her columns held vast treasures: whole paragraphs of incredible insight and understanding, which were an invitation to self-reflection and delight. He judged rightly when he commented that their spiritual depth had “the power that you associate with an Avila.”

In his last years, Tom suffered greatly from the effects of shingles and a chronic, exquisitely painful neuropathy. Still, he carried on, welcoming guests to the Catholic Worker farm (“this incomparable community”), helping edit the Catholic Worker paper, being present to his family, serving as a deacon, mentor, and member of the board of the guild for the canonization of Dorothy Day, and planting trays of onion seeds when confined to sitting on the front porch. His final published words in the Catholic Worker (August-September 2022) were a riff on Catholic Worker anarchist Ammon Hennacy (d. 1970). The inimitable Hennacy, Tom wrote, was “sometimes a ‘pain in the ass,’” but “he was always very dear.” To the end, Tom could be both witty and appreciative.

He was buried on the feast of the deacon martyr, St. Lawrence. Like Lawrence, Tom had given his life daily in service of the Beatitudes. As St. Leo the Great said of Lawrence, so we can now say of Tom Cornell: “Let us rejoice…over the happy end of this illustrious man of God.”

Published in the September 2022 issue: 

Patrick Jordan served as a managing editor for the Catholic Worker and for Commonweal.

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