John Thomas Ford, C.S.C. - 1932-2021: A Tribute by Dr. Kenneth L. Parker

John Thomas Ford, C.S.C.

The field of Newman Studies suffered the loss of a great scholar and mentor when Fr. John Ford, CSC passed from this life.

He died peacefully on 29 December 2021 at Holy Cross House in Notre Dame, Indiana, after a protracted struggle with cancer, and a short bout with COVID, from which he was thought to have recovered. We do not begrudge him the next stage of his journey toward the Beatific Vision; yet, we mourn the loss of his encouraging presence, even as we celebrate the achievements of his life. Though he is best known among us as a leading North American scholar of the life, work, and influence of John Henry Newman, his life story reflects a diversity of interests and the many ways he influenced those who came into contact with him. While this tribute can only touch the surface of his rich and varied life, it is an effort to share with you some of the reasons to be thankful for Fr. John Ford's well-lived life, and to remember with gratitude his generosity of spirit and Christian example.

John Thomas Ford was born on 21 November 1932 in Dallas, Texas, and was the only child of Thomas and Leonara (Senn) Ford.1 He attended elementary school at St. Vincent's School, led by the Sisters of the Holy Cross in Logansport, Indiana, and graduated from Logansport High School in 1950. While attending the University of Notre Dame Fr. Ford received his call to serve God as a Holy Cross priest and entered the Holy Cross Novitiate in Jordan, Minnesota, on 15 August 1951, professed final vows on 16 August 1955, and was ordained a Holy Cross priest on 10 June 1959. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1955 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, he went on to Holy Cross College in Washington, DC to earn his master's degree in theology in 1959. In 1962, Fr. Ford received his doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. In 1962, Fr. Ford taught theology at the University of Notre Dame and served as prefect in Cavanaugh Hall before he left that fall to teach at Holy Cross College in Washington, DC until 1967. In 1964, he was appointed assistant superior at the Foreign Mission Seminary and later became Superior until 1968. From 1968 to 2018, Fr. Ford served on the faculty at Catholic University of America (CUA), in Washington, DC.

I first came to know Fr. Ford toward the end of his years as Chair of the Department of Theology at CUA (1977–1983). I was writing my PhD thesis under the supervision of Eamon Duffy at Cambridge University and anxious to find academic employment. Having applied unsuccessfully for a position in the history of Christian spirituality in his department, I wrote to Fr. Ford to ask advice on how to improve my application materials. He responded with a generous suggestion that we meet when he was in England later that year. He spent a day with me, offering sage advice and encouragement that saw me through the difficult process of beginning an academic career. My experience is but a single example of many lives he touched in that way. As the director of 63 dissertations, 16 on John Henry Newman, he knew the fears and frustrations of the young, and managed their struggles with a pastoral touch.

A notable dimension of Fr. Ford's life work was his passion for ecumenical dialogue. In the post-conciliar era, he served as a member of the United Methodist/Roman Catholic Bilateral Dialogue (1971–1977), the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches (1981–2011), the Roman Catholic observer-consultant for the Consultation on Church Union (1974–1988) and its Theology Commission (1982–1985), and the Reformed/Roman Catholic International Consultation (1987–1988). His work in the field of ecumenism was recognized in 2014 by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement with their Paul Wattson Christian Unity Award. His graduate students benefited from his ecumenical work through his course on The History and Theology of the Ecumenical Movement.

Another notable aspect of Fr. Ford's work for the Church and in his university was a focus on Hispanic ministry and the history of Hispanic/Latino theology. Fluent in Spanish (with knowledge of five other languages), he not only coordinated the Hispanic/Latino Program at CUA from 1997 to 2016, but also taught three courses on the undergraduate and graduate levels on Hispanic Catholic history, Introduction to Hispanic Ministry, and Hispanic/Latino Theologies. Fr. Ford also worked to promote the study of John Henry Newman in Spain and Latin and South America.

As the author of well over 100 articles and essays, and several edited volumes, much space could be devoted to his scholarly engagement with the ecumenical movement or Hispanic ministry, but his more prolific contributions as a scholar and teacher have been in the field of Newman Studies. Indeed, Fr. Ford is best known to our readers for his role in promoting devotion to and the study of John Henry Newman here in North America. He formed generations of CUA graduate students in the life and works of John Henry Newman through his graduate seminars on Newman's writings. He was among the earliest collaborators with Fr. Vincent Giese in creating the North American organization that became initially known as "The Friends of Cardinal Newman." This association modified its name as John Henry Newman passed from venerable (1991), to blessed (2010), to saint (2019). Dr. Katherine Tillman notes that Fr. John Ford was "always there in his usual background position, a steady, self-effacing and devoted consultant and speaker, regularly presenting outstanding talks and celebrating the conference Masses." She explained that because the Friends desired to promote devotion as well as scholarly engagement, Fr. Ford proved a flexible and encouraging presence: "There were usually two tracks at the conferences, the one more biographical and hagiographical, the other more strictly academic. Fr. Ford gave very popular talks located in both tracks, depending on the scheduling need, always a ready consultant." Dr. Tillman does not recall him ever missing the conferences, which began in 1982 and have continued to the present. A popular feature was Fr. Ford's "Newman trivia" evenings, the last of which was held when the conference was hosted by the National Institute for Newman Studies (NINS) and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, July 2016.

When the National Institute for Newman Studies was founded, in 2002, its core collection started with the library obtained from the estate of Fr. Vincent Giese. Fr. Ford proved a ready source of advice and counsel to the co-founders of NINS, Mrs. Catharine Ryan and Fr. Drew Morgan. In addition to embarking on the ambitious project of digitizing all of Newman's published works in those early years, the co-founders wanted to create a journal devoted to articles on Newman and Newman-related topics. Fr. Ford accepted their invitation to be the founding Editor of the Newman Studies Journal (NSJ). The first issue was published in spring 2004, and he served as Editor for the first ten years of its existence. When asked to reflect on Fr. Ford's life and work, Mrs. Ryan stated,

"Fr. John Ford had a brilliant mind. His lectures and articles were always filled with significant content, yet his delivery style was so clear that it was easily grasped by his readers/listeners. His wit was understated yet ever present. But most of all, he was kind and generous with his time and wisdom. I will be forever grateful for the guidance he gave to Fr. Drew Morgan and me in the early days of NINS and for the many years he served as Editor of the Newman Studies Journal."

The first ten volumes of the NSJ stand as a monument to Fr. Ford's commitment to make Saint John Henry Newman accessible to the informed lay person and intellectually challenging to the faith-filled scholar. His legacy continues through the Newman Studies Journal, now a highly respected double-blind peer-reviewed academic journal, published through the Catholic University of America Press, and NINS's e-publication, The Newman Review, which regularly publishes articles aimed at the informed lay reader. NINS recognized its debt of gratitude to Fr. Ford by awarding him the inaugural Gailliot Award for Newman Studies in October 2016.

As we reflect on the life and achievements of Fr. John T. Ford, may we also be challenged to follow his example of selfless service to others. May he rest in peace.

Fr. Ford's funeral mass will be at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, 10 January 2022 at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. Mourners may join via livestream at Burial will be in the community cemetery at Notre Dame.

1. Portions of this tribute are borrowed from the obituary of Fr. John Ford, circulated by the United States Province of Priests and Brothers, Congregation of Holy Cross, Notre Dame Indiana, 5 January 2022. 

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