Tom Bethell was an editor’s dream. He owned the patent on clean, engaging, delightful copy. Tom, British-born and educated, became our Washington correspondent in 1976, writing the Capitol Ideas column for the next four decades or so, never missing an issue until well past retirement age.
He had arrived in America in 1962 and reflected on his 50 years here in 2012. Not yet a conservative, something about U.S. liberals troubled him:
I became an American citizen [in 1974] … and learned to drop the condescension that so many Brits adopt toward the United States. I also noticed the automatic anti-Americanism of the liberals. Watergate! Everyone was saying what a crisis it was. If so, why were they so gleeful? Ditto America’s defeat in Vietnam. They quietly relished that, too.
“Surely Malcolm Muggeridge was right,” Tom wrote in 1977. “The behavior of our contemporary ‘liberal’ can be explained only in terms of a death wish…. Take Soviet expressions of good will at face value. Kill off unwanted, unborn infants who have done no harm to anyone, but keep alive convicted murderers.”
And now Tom has died, at 84, after a beautiful, productive life. We here reprint the Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth’s deeply insightful panegyric that he preached at Tom’s funeral mass on February 25.
– Wlady Pleszczynski
Panegyric preached by Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth
at the Solemn Requiem Mass for Tom Bethell
February 25, 2021
The Church of St. Thomas Apostle, Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.
Preaching at the Solemn Requiem for G. K. Chesterton in Westminster Cathedral on Saturday 27 June, 1936, Monsignor Ronald Knox chose as his text a verse from the 48th chapter of the Book of Ecclesiasticus: “Blessed are they that saw thee, and were honoured by thy friendship. For we live only in our life, but after death, our name shall not be such” (Eccles. 48:11). I am tempted to apply these same words to Tom Bethell, to whom we bid a fond farewell today with this Requiem Mass. I surely cannot be the only person present here this morning to be convinced that Tom’s name will continue to be mentioned, his views cited, his story told, long after today. What more could a writer want? Surely, the author of seven books and hundreds of articles could wish for no greater accolade? But just as I am confident that Tom Bethell will be remembered, so I am equally confident that he held little desire for notoriety, and far less for fame, or celebrity. I say this because I am sure that as someone who spoke with absolute conviction, and with unimpeachable integrity, Tom Bethell was more concerned about the ideas of which he spoke and wrote. In a way which was strangely counter-cultural and refreshing in our time, Tom was much more concerned about the message than the messenger, much more enthusiastic about the content than the vehicle of its communication.
It will be for the members of Tom’s profession, his fellow journalists, and others, to offer some assessment of the significance of his commentary. That is not my task here today. I wish to say, however, just a little about what made Tom Bethell the man we all knew him to be. Tom was born with two great advantages: firstly, he was a Englishman (you have to permit and excuse me this conceit!). We all knew and loved Tom’s honeyed speech, which so magnificently betrayed him as a son of that “Sceptred Isle,’’ long after this wonderful country had become his home, in every sense. Secondly, he was a product of a really fine education, initially with the Benedictines at Downside, and then at Newman’s alma mater, Trinity College, Oxford. One of the monks who taught Tom at Downside was Dom Hubert van Zeller, himself a prolific writer and commentator. He summed up the Benedictine approach to formation Tom would have received when he wrote, “Friends, suffering, marriage, environment, study and recreation are influences which shape character. The strongest influence, if you are generous enough to yield to it, is the grace of God.”
Well, I think Tom was generous enough to yield to it, and his education served him well, equipping him not only with the tools of his trade but, even more importantly, the Catholic faith that would be the guiding beacon throughout his long and fruitful life. I had cause to remind Tom during these last weeks that in the old days, the Benedictine’s boast was that at schools like Downside they offered an education not as a preparation for life, but rather as a preparation for death! Tom understood, and demonstrated beautifully that death is like everything else in life: something which one can either do well, or not. As he became increasingly aware that time was running out, Tom was eager to die well, and God granted his wish and he had a wonderful death, with the fullest consolation of the Sacraments, and every help the Church offers as we lose our hold on this life and face God and eternity. As someone whose privilege it has been often to assist the dying, I shall never forget Tom’s devout reception of the last sacraments, and his desire for us to visit him frequently in his last days. A real Catholic man to the end, Tom has taught us as much in his dying as he did in his living.
For many people, the name of Tom Bethell is synonymous with style and erudition, and an unshakeable willingness to unmask the bankruptcy of what he increasingly saw as the authoritarian imposition of a new orthodoxy and a new world order. He made his challenge with great aplomb, with a thorough preparation, and with unfailing charm and wit, which made him a fearless adversary and an effortless conqueror of those who were less well prepared and therefore more easily defeated. Tom was not oblivious to the charm of his Englishness. When I arrived in Washington 12 years ago, Tom was the first person to tell me not to lose my English accent — “You can get away with all sorts speaking like that!,” he said, and he was right.
Of course, he could be rather difficult at times, and he certainly had a will of iron and did not suffer fools gladly. I think I may be permitted to say, however, that he was painfully aware of this and could often be his own worst critic. For all his self-confidence, at times he could be childlike in his trust of others, and certainly in his ever-youthful enthusiasm. He conceded the gift of his friendship easily and was fiercely loyal to his many friends, some of whom shared his views and many who did not. He was capable of real affection while not being sentimental or over-sensitive. One had the sense of a man who was in many ways “happy in his bones.”
The greatest source of happiness in Tom’s life, and he spoke of this often, with an even greater conviction than he brought to all his theories or conspiracies, was his marriage to Donna. Tom understood that marriage is a genuine call to holiness. Tom had met his match in Donna, in every sense of the word — someone who shared his passion for justice and truth, and could bake scones and even make clotted cream. What a magnificent team they have been! Donna, it is to you that we offer our heartfelt condolences and the assurance of our prayers in this time of your loss. We likewise wish Tom’s dear sister, Anne, and family here this morning, and in England, together with all who are watching the live-stream of this Mass, every consolation in their sorrow.
One of the many things that brought Tom and Donna together was a love of their Catholic faith, and in particular their love of this ancient form of the Church’s liturgy, which is the surest expression of that faith. It was this form of the Mass that brought Tom into many of our lives and is for many of us the place where we met him and saw him most. Tom loved the Traditional Latin Mass, and in multiple ways it is the perfect expression of his worldview, in that it equally recognizes both the majesty of God and the appalling drama of our human condition. Nowhere is that more the case than in the Requiem Mass, so expressive of the truth that for all of us there comes a time when the greatness of our achievements, and whatever recognition we have in the eyes of others, is of little importance in comparison with the God before whom we must all stand.
Tom Bethell understood this, in a very profound way, and he used his God-given gifts of mind and heart to bring others to an awareness that God is our Creator and that he is to be worshipped and reverenced in this life, not only by what we do in church but in the way we live our lives. Tom did his very best to defend truth, and justice, and beauty. As one whose surname in Hebrew, Beth-el, means “House of God,” we might even ascribe to Tom those words of the psalmist: “Zeal for thy house has consumed me” (Ps. 69:9), for often we saw in him a real urgency to communicate the truth which devoured him, and a genuine willingness to be a humble servant of that truth.
It would be very remiss of me not to mention that Tom would want me today to ask you to remember to pray for him. I don’t think there was ever an occasion when we met and he did not ask for my prayers. I am also confident in telling you that he will most certainly be praying for each one of us. To end where we began, I do believe we can make the words of Ecclesiasticus our own, in blessing Tom Bethell’s memory and in commending him today to the merciful arms of God. Tom, “Blessed are they that saw thee, and were honoured by thy friendship. For we live only in our life, but after death, our name shall not be such” (Eccles. 48:11).
And so, Tom, we must bid you farewell, and we do so in the way we know best and the way you loved most. You go with our prayers, our gratitude, and with our love, and in the words of St. John Henry Newman: “And Masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven, Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.”