February 03, 2004,
It hardly seems possible that 40 years have passed since my younger brother's murder just outside of Dacca, East Pakistan (then; now Bangladesh). He was a young priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, dressed in white cassock, and he was on his way to check up on the well-being of an elderly priest out in the country, and the family of one of his associates. He was taking his bicycle on a ferryboat across a broad river. Vultures were circling the water, for there were many dead bodies in it. For the previous days there had been horrific riots between Muslims and Hindus, and multitudes had been slain. Things were quieting down on the day my brother bicycled out of Dacca, and besides "foreigners" were not being attacked, so he thought it was safe. Some of his brothers in religion thought he was being imprudent (some are angry with him to this day). But Dick was never one to be super-cautious; we in the family did not think of him as "the lionhearted" for nothing. He prized prudence. But he also prized charity. Some were worried about the safety of the elderly priest and elderly parents. Dick judged it safe enough to check on them.
He did not live to return, and it was some years before his family at home were able to piece together much of the story. The essence of it is that when he alighted from the ferry on the far shore, he was knifed to death by some young men, who took his bike, his watch, and perhaps a few other small items. His body was never found if it was, his family was never told. I did learn on a visit to Bangladesh in 1998 or so, from a tall, almost toothless and aging retired detective that he himself had found Richard's skull along the river bank some time after the events, and had had the wit to have the teeth examined by the dentist to the college where Richard was teaching. The identification was positive. I was grateful to the detective for positive knowledge.
On an earlier visit to Bangladesh, a young man had run up to me in the lobby of one of the American hotels in Dacca, took the sleeve of my jacket and kissed it, saying as he knelt that it was in respect for my brother, "Father Richard." He regarded him as a memorably good man, whose memory he continued to reverence. That was some 20 years after Richard's death.
A decade later the Bangladeshi ambassador in Washington called me to his office, to speak fondly of Father Richard, to whom, he said too modestly, he felt he owed his career. For Richard had been his professor of logic, and in his year in school he himself had won the national prize in logic, and that was an important first step in his national reputation.
I know that when Pope John Paul II was in Dacca, he remembered my brother in his Mass, which he celebrated in one of the churches where my brother, too, had often celebrated Mass.
This year, luckily, on January 16, the anniversary of Richard's death, my wife and I found ourselves attending Mass at a very busy church in Columbo, Sri Lanka, in the shrine of the Infant Jesus, where at least ten Masses were scheduled for that day. We were visiting my nephew Joseph, and his wife, Tahmina; she a native Bangladeshi, and he the son of another of my brothers, Jim. Joseph had spent part of his adolescence in Dacca, for following in Richard's footsteps Jim, his father, had also felt the allure of Asia, and spent much of his working life there. And now Joe, who is already a decorated career officer in the State Department, has recently spent three tours in Bangladesh, Pakistan (during which Afghanistan was an important part of his beat), and Sri Lanka, with the Philippines now on the horizon as his next assignment.
It was great to be with Joe and Tahmina, and see the young generation in action in Asia. And it was especially touching deeply satisfying, somehow to be celebrating Rich's 40th anniversary in paradise, if not in Bangladesh, just across the Indian Ocean from the place of his death. I was glad we could get to Mass. And it was rather a nice touch that the shrine in which that Mass was celebrated was named for the Infant Jesus of Prague, the homeland of our grandparents. These grandparents had grown up in what in my lifetime was Czechoslovakia, but in theirs was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the lands of Slovakia.
So the generations weave their way through time, come and go, have their moments in the sunlight and the shadows.
Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak's own website is www.michaelnovak.net.