Network, the Catholic social justice lobby that has been run by women religious since its founding 50 years ago, will get its first lay leader effective April 6.
Mary J. Novak was chosen to succeed Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who had run Network for the past 16 years.
She is an adjunct law professor at Jesuit-run Georgetown University -- and "mission integrator" at the law school, helping students, staff and faculty grow in trauma-informed lawyering and pedagogy in the Ignatian tradition.
"I did not seek out this role. I was approached and invited to apply, and I have to say the idea of following Sister Simone Campbell was a little intimidating at first," Novak told Catholic News Service in a March 23 phone interview.
But in the course of conversations with staff, the search committee and Network's board of directors, "I fell in love with the mission and I fell in love with Network," Novak said.
One thing she and Sister Campbell share is "we're both lawyers. All that comes with that -- the discipline in our thinking -- we're both contemplatives in action," she added.
Novak has extensive experience in a number of related fields.
She practiced water, energy, environmental and natural resources law after graduating from the law school at Santa Clara University in California, and also served on teams pursuing appeals for men on California's death row.
Novak also earned a master's degree in pastoral studies from the Washington Theological Union, spending time in Kenya applying the Catholic peacebuilding "learning circle" process in the context of the nation's post-election reconciliation.
Within the church, Novak assisted the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as it navigated the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 2009-15 doctrinal assessment; served as the founding board chair of the Catholic Mobilizing Network; and two years ago made a lifetime commitment as an associate in the Congregation of St. Joseph.
Asked whether she had a sense that all she had done in her life had led to this moment, Novak replied: "In fact, I have had two people say that exact same thing to me when I was invited to assume this role. This is how I know it's the work of the Holy Spirit. I had no idea I was being led to prepare for this. This brings together all the different threads of my life."
Sister Campbell, in a March 23 email exchange with CNS, said she was taking a four-month sabbatical once she hands over the reins to Novak.
As for a possible next step, she added, "I am curious about creating some form of 'public listening.' It seems that much of the polarization of our time comes from a lack of listening deeply to each other. I learned this during Network's Rural Roundtables in 2019."
While in the public eye largely for the "Nuns on the Bus" tours that spotlight domestic policy issues during presidential election years, Sister Campbell said she believes her key piece of work was writing the "nuns letter" that helped secure passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. "I know of 29 votes that we secured in the House with this letter," she added.
"At the time, I felt it was my 'Nunc dimittis' moment. If I never did another good thing, my life had meaning," she explained, referring to words St. Simeon uttered: "You can dismiss your servant now."
"However," Sister Campbell said, "I was naive in thinking that we had accomplished health care reform and could move on to housing policy. It turned out that we had to fight tooth and nail -- in a nonviolent way -- to protect what we had accomplished in the ACA. But it has been worth it all!"
Most recently, she was pleased by the passage in March of the American Rescue Plan, which she said "makes historical investments in the children of our nation" to "provide struggling families with a lifeline."
She is hopeful for Senate passage of the For the People Act, which ensures voting rights and access, but wishes Congress would provide immigrants with a path to citizenship.
The House passed two immigration bills with citizenship provisions March 18, but their fate in the Senate is uncertain.
"Immigrants are the lifeblood of our nation," Sister Campbell said, "but some members of Congress persist in demonizing them."
That institutions founded by religious are turning to lay leadership is nothing new. The trend accelerated after Novak's current employer, Georgetown University, picked layman John J. DeGioia as its president 20 years ago.