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The Little Way Of Tom Sullivan

Tom Sullivan, 1961-2021 (via Carlo Lancellotti)

A tribute from a friend:

 

I knew Tom too, and have been praying for him daily since I heard he was severely ill (he died of cancer this morning in Houston, in hospice care). Everything Carlo says here is true. I wrote this about Tom last week, on my Substack:

I mentioned to you in a post the other day that my old friend Tom is dying in Houston, where he has lived for the last few years, working as an academic librarian. He has esophageal cancer, and has been moved to hospice to await the end. Tom and I met in the early 1990s, when we both worked at The Washington Times. We stayed in touch over the years. Though we weren’t really close, we were fond of each other. I always admired Tom’s sweet spirit. He was, and is, a generous friend.

When we first met, I was on my way into the Catholic Church. Tom was an enthusiastic member of Communion and Liberation, the international Catholic movement founded by Monsignor Luigi Giussani, a priest of Milan, in the 1950s. He invited me to come be part of the local community in Washington. I went to a couple of events, liked everybody I met, but didn’t feel that its spirituality was quite right for me. I’m not much of a joiner, anyway. It’s strange, because I can see theoretically the need for community, but I have such a difficult time being part of one. This is a character flaw of mine, I concede. Anyway, Tom and I remained friends, and I admired, even envied, the sense of joy and solidarity he had within CL, even though I, for reasons of my own, couldn’t be part of it.

A couple of years after I left Washington for Florida, Tom moved from DC to New York City, and joined up with the CL community there. We renewed our friendship when I moved to New York in 1998. More recently, Tom took a job in Houston, where there is a strong CL community. They received him, and he built a good life with them.

When a mutual CL friend of mine and Tom’s told me some days ago that Tom was dying, he generously put me on an e-mail list of Tom’s friends, so I could receive updates. What a gift that was. I’m half a world away, unable to do anything for Tom but pray, but I am seeing in the almost daily e-mail updates what love is, and what love in community is. Tom turned sixty this week; his parents are dead, and his brothers are on the East Coast. His CL family is, practically speaking, his family. The members of the community who are keeping us updated tell us about how the CL folks are taking turns sitting with him, praying with him, telling him how much they love him, things like that. People from CL back East who know and love Tom have been flying in to say their goodbyes. The Houston CL family has been coordinating it all, so Tom won’t be worn out, and so the travelers will have a place to stay. Tom, we are told, is losing his ability to communicate, but he had joy on his birthday because of all his friends.

When Our Lord calls Tom home — it won’t be long now — he will be surrounded by love, as he has been in this passage. It’s an incredible thing to have seen, even from the outside, from a distance. That man is so cherished by his CL community. He never married, but he did not live alone, and he is not dying alone. What a testimony to the power of Christ’s love, and the charism of Monsignor Giussani’s work. If the only thing you ever know about CL is that through the bonds of community it forged, it gave meaning, love, and life to Tom, and those bonds of love tightened and brightened as Tom’s natural life came to a close. Don’t we all want that? Don’t we all want to be free like that? Tom never made much money, but he dies a rich man indeed.

 

Tom, who is loved

On the e-mail list of Tom’s friends and family, this appeared today or yesterday, can’t remember which:

I met Tom so many, many years ago when he was in Washington DC and got involved with the CL community there. Back then, we would have retreats and vacations with everyone on the East Coast (and beyond) showing up. Right away we clicked as book lovers and lovers of “talking other peoples’ ears off”! We were the kind of CL friends that see each other at all the events, say hello, chat and move on… I am guessing, but I can’t remember anymore, exactly, that it must have been the mid to late 1980’s.

Then, at some point, in the 90’s, he moved to New York and joined our CL community there. In 1998, I started working as the CL National Secretary and Tom was working with Sandro Chierici from Ultreya. Ultreya and McGill University Press were overseeing the translation of Don Giussani’s “Religious Sense” (and ultimately so many more of his books). Tom was working on the promotion of this book here in the U.S. So, our paths began to cross quite a bit. We travelled all over the country promoting the books, going to the American Booksellers Association Trade Fairs, Catholic Press Association Conventions, etc. I remember going to New Orleans with Tom for the Catholic Press Association Convention. It’s the only time I have been to New Orleans and we had a great time. I was still drinking at that time and Tom, who enjoyed a beer or two, but could never keep up with my kind of drinking, dutifully followed me to all the bars in the French Quarter and was an admirable, if not expert, drinking buddy!!
At the same time, Tom was living in our tight-knit CL enclave in Brooklyn. We did A LOT together: Mass on Sunday, followed by breakfast at Joe’s (I think that’s the name of that old, long-gone diner on Court Street). Parties at 505 Court Street, School of Community, the first Way of the Cross over the Brooklyn Bridge (well only halfway, the first couple of times…) Tom and his clunky old Honda, or was it a Toyota (?), drove us (me mostly) all over the place. We went for a diaconia in Washington, DC and Tom did NOT take me to the Smithsonian or the Washington Monument. He did take me to wander around his favorite used book warehouse, somewhere down there. We “perused” for hours and left with WAY too many books in his trunk!

Books! Books! Books! Tom’s passion. I remember when he moved to one of his apartments in Brooklyn (the one in “tony” Brooklyn Heights). He did not have tons of furniture or artwork (mostly CL Christmas and Easter posters, lol!), none of the usual trappings of a bachelor, like a huge TV or stereo, but BOXES and boxes and boxes of books! I remember joking, as he did not have a couch for us to sit on, that we should make one (Lego-style) out of all his books, throw a blanket over it and, voila! A sofa! He was against that idea, as it would make it difficult for him to find “that book” when he needed it!

Tom was there for it all. If you were at any CL event and didn’t see Tom, you were not at a CL event! He was like Woody Allen’s “Zelig”. Not necessarily at the center of the action (unless he was performing his obligatory yells and yippees at a vacation rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”!), but always in the “picture” of the whole group taken at the end of every get together. He came to every “public event”, beginning day, vacation, retreat, diaconia – EVERY one. He came to your wedding and your kid’s wedding. He came to your kid’s Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Graduation. He came, if he could, when your parents passed. He wasn’t the center of attention, he wasn’t the “responsible” or whatever. Nonetheless, he was there and he did whatever he could to help share our CL experience with all he met and to celebrate our beautiful “Communion and Liberation”.

Like me, he never married, had children, or joined “Memores Domini” (that I know of, lol!) He lived his solitude with dignity and faith and relished in and cherished the family that CL created for him.

I had always hoped we would all end up together at the “CL Old Folks Home” (by the way, I hope someone is working on this…? I am sure our Italian friends are on it, so we should follow suit!). Tom and I would argue over the answers to the New York Times Crossword puzzle and talk over each other as we overshared about our new favorite book.

Alas, that is not to be. I loved Tom and I will miss him. Our paths diverged when I came home to Upstate New York and he moved to Texas, but as is the case with a true friendship, I always felt his presence in my life. He was one of those people that I knew, knew absolutely, positively, if I needed him, he would be there for me in whatever way he could.

Oh Tom. You dear man. How loved you were. What a great intercessor all of us have gained this day. May your memory be eternal. It’s important to talk about people like Tom. We think of saints as heroic figures, dramatic figures. If a saint Tom was, it was because he was always present, always interested in everyone around him. As far as I know, he never fell in love, romantically, but love was ever-present in his life. What a man.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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