Do you know young people looking for causes that would give their lives immeasurable value for the future? Before his violent death, young Father Richard Novak, CSC, started a movement that desperately needs the labors of a new generation.
My younger brother was murdered at age twenty-eight in Bangladesh, in the waning days of the 1964 Muslim/Hindu riots that left several thousand dead. It was January 16, not quite two months after the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
When the news was reported to Pope Paul VI, he exclaimed: “A martyr!”
My brother was just an ordinary kid from western Pennsylvania. Some of his uncles and cousins were steelworkers, his grandfather had been a miner of soft coal, just outside of Johnstown. Rich smoked in high school, called himself Nick, and took sen-sen on his way home from school so his parents wouldn’t know about the smoking. Frail from an early childhood disease, he was still hard as nails. At 130 pounds he played defensive end in touch football, and he never let a runner get outside him (he got to the passer more than once). My nickname for him was Richard the Lionhearted. He did not like to lose. He was fearless.
He was also a holy kid, and a prankster – both at the same time. You only had to watch him at prayer, faithfully keep the seminary rules, on all occasions practice unusual humble charity. But in the Novitiate he also tied a heavy black thread to the outdoor porter’s bell just outside the main door, and then drew the cord up through a window and inside to his bed. A few minutes after lights went out, the bell ominously clanged. Whoever ran with puzzlement to see who was there always found nobody. Only silence.
About twenty minutes later, when all was still, the bell would clang again. No one ever caught him. No one ever suspected the innocent and holy Dick. (He kept changing his name in different locations. It amused him. Richard, Rich, Dick, Nick, Rick. He used them all).
Practically everyone in our family has prayed to Rich (my name for him), and felt strengthened.
The library at Notre Dame College in Dhaka is named for him. You can still meet highly educated Bangladeshi whom he taught or ministered to. His name stirs affection and admiration.
Fr. Richard Novak by Karen Laub Novak
Rich wrote some beautiful, affecting poems (indebted to Gerard Manley Hopkins) about love and giving his own blood. Two were published in First Things years ago. His dream was to become the best Christian interpreter of Islam, a dream that seized him during his college years at Stonehill. That’s one reason he was in Dhaka, to study Arabic at the university, as well as teach at the college – and, long-term, to prepare a report for his Provincial on new forms missionary work might take, and how to prepare young men for them.
Alas, Rich never got to finish all this work. There’s a scholarship in his name in the Notre Dame Theology Department for promising students of Muslim-Christian Studies to spend a year or so in Jerusalem’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute. Another scholarship for unusually bright students is awarded in Father Richard’s name by Stonehill College, where his beautiful silver chalice, which he had designed in an ancient style by French monks, is still in use.
There’s a lot to learn from his life, brief as it was. Maybe you know a young person eager to change the trajectory of the human spirit during the coming generation, especially in a deeper sort of Christian-Muslim interchange – maybe a young missionary, or unusual youth. Our young people may be helped by learning young Father Richard’s story, just an ordinary kid who gave his life for that change fifty years ago. He seemed like a care-free American kid, but one who cared a lot. Those around him knew that they should not try to keep him from doing what he knew he must do. He was lighthearted day-to-day, but very serious about his life’s work.
I see him in his last hours, in his white cassock and blue windbreaker, on his blue bike in very dangerous territory, trying to find the missing Hindu family of one of the Medical Missionaries’ Bengali helpers in Dacca, whom he had never met. For four days, Rich had been asking the Medical Missionary Sisters at their hospital how he could help – the people dying in the streets troubled him greatly. On the fifth day, Sister Superior, seeing the violence abating, told him of the missing family. Once he got his superior’s permission, there was no way anybody was going to stop Rich until he found them.
They were taking refuge with many others in a factory building, when he was subdued, close by, stabbed, and thrown into the murky river. His body was never found. His murderers were convicted many months later. Despite my father’s plea for clemency, one was sentenced to death, the younger ones to prison. President Johnson telephoned my father to console both him and mother.
During JFK’s death and burial, my mother’s heart went out to his family (and the whole nation).
Death now struck agonizingly close to home. My mother held onto her calm and dignity – “like Jackie Kennedy,” she told a friend later. I figured she was praying incessantly to the Mother of Sorrows.
That was the name of our parish church, where Rich said his first Mass.