Thirty-nine years ago Father Richard Hodge wrote to his Provincial Minister, David Temple, about a special tour of duty which he had just completed as a reserve chaplain in the United States Navy. It was a seminar in which he took part together with seven other chaplains. Richard was the only Catholic priest, and being senior in rank, he was also, as he put it, platoon leader and spokesman for the others. It was a very busy time of visiting a different command each day, and Father Richard had to give the orders and check the crew. Nevertheless, while the others were eating lunch Richard found time to steal away and celebrate Mass.
In the days before ecumenism was such a popular word, Father Richard was doing it. He rubbed shoulders with chaplains and servicemen of different faiths and denominations, earned their respect and gave his. He ministered to people who were seeking God with a sincere heart, who were going into combat or who were in the thick of it. He went to them as a minister of God, a servant of Christ, and as a son of St. Francis: he himself wrote that he always wore his habit when conducting the interdenominational services. The poor Francis, the Herald of the Great King, threatens no one and welcomes all.
Father Richard was proud of being a friar, a priest and a chaplain in the United States Navy. His idea of a good friar and faithful priest was conditioned and modeled by his military training: responsibility, dedication, order and discipline were some of his outstanding characteristics. Yet they were part of him long before he became a Navy Chaplain, and it is safe to say that it was his priestly zeal and his religious vocation as a friar minor which inspired him to volunteer to minister to the thousands of young men whom he met during his four years of active service.
In a few months, Father Richard would have turned ninety-one. He was born in San Francisco and educated in the Bay Area until he was twelve, when he went to St. Francis School in the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville, founded, and conducted at the time, by our friars. It is not surprising, then, to find him at St. Anthony's Seminary, Santa Barbara, two years later. In 1921 he entered the Order as a novice at St. Elizabeth's, Oakland and remained there afterwards for philosophy. He made solemn profession right here at this Old Mission in 1925, and it was here that he was ordained to the holy priesthood two years later.
His pastoral ministry was long, varied and rather outstanding: he was an educator, first for ten years at St. Anthony's Seminary, and then for two years as founding principal of St. Mary's High School, Phoenix. A few months after the beginning of the war in the Pacific, Father Richard became Chaplain Hodge of the heavy Cruiser "USS Salt Lake City. In four campaigns he was awarded nine battle stars, a Letter of Commendation, numerous area ribbons and a Presidential Unit Citation. Part of his official service record reads that on March 26, 1943, when the USS Salt Lake City was kept under continuous and concentrated fire for over three hours, Chaplain Hodge "by his actions, gave to each man increased strength and faith in Divine Providence. Throughout the action, in complete disregard of his own safety, he visited stations throughout the ship, showing a smiling and confident face to all those encountered, and greeting each group with a cheering word. He cheered and comforted the wounded, ministering to their mental and spiritual needs as effectively as did medical personnel to their physical requirements. His conduct was described as "exceptionally meritorious."
There is an episode in the life of St. Francis which came to mind spontaneously when I read of this heroic action of Father Richard: Francis, who had hoped to preach in Syria, found himself stranded on the Dalmatian coast. He asked some sailors if he could join them on their trip to the Italian port city of Ancona. He got a curt "no" for an answer, and so he and his companion became stowaways. During the voyage a bad squall came up and the ship was thrown so far off course that it was only with the provisions stowed away fro Francis that the crew was save from starvation. When they finally came into port, the sailors realized that it was due to the presence of Francis that they had been saved from the sea, and they praised God who works his wonders in the deep.
Perhaps it is a bit ingenious to place the maritime records of Richard and Francis side by side, but I believe that you can easily see the heroism and the faith of the father reflected in the son.
Father Richard attained the rank of Commander in the Navy, and it is this
title that many came to know him by. It described his pride in the service
which had become his field of ministry as a priest, as a friar and as an
educator. It signified the virtues which he wished to see in himself as a
friar and a priest, and which he wished to see in the priesthood and in
the order: devotion to duty, to people, without counting the cost; respect
for others, hard work, concern for peoples' relationship with God. He
"WAS" a commander: he commanded respect, not by force, buy by example.
It is noteworthy, too, that Father Richard's pride in the Navy did not
blind him to the evil he found there, and he spoke out against abuses even
when this got him into trouble. He was not always popular but he was ever
sincere and unafraid to state his convictions.
Some months after the conclusion of the war, Father Richard returned to the Province Mission Band and the parish work in which he had been engaged before entering the service. Then, just as he had been chosen to begin a brand new venture in education, the province chose him to be the founding pastor of a new parish in new territory, with a growing, developing population: Holy Family in Pueblo, CO., where the Arkansas river divides the city and marks the northern edge of the New Kingdom of St. Francis: two cultures meet there, the midwest with the southwest, the "anglo" with the Hispanic. It was all new for Father Richard, as it was new for the province of Santa Barbara. Listen to the reasons which the minister, Father David Temple, gave for choosing Richard: "there is need there for a real priest, who will give evidence of the fruit of the Franciscan life, who is a capable organizer and will be able expertly to chart the development of the parish. The greatest confidence is placed in you." Father David's works could inspire you to become what he said you already were, if you were not that just yet; in this case, though, they described the man, the priest and the friar that Father Richard had become. The confidence was not misplaced.
Father Conan Lee supplied for him in Pueblo on one occasion, and when Richard wrote to the Provincial to thank him for the great service Conan had given, he said that this experience would no doubt give the people pride and confidence in the Franciscan Order. Just as he was proud of the Navy in which he had served, he was even more proud of the order to which he belonged. This was not the pride that St. Francis told us to avoid. It was rather, a good kind of pride, the kind we call self-respect, a desire to do the right thing in the right way, with care and concern. This kind of pride was very important to Richard and, I think, it is a virtue which we can use in good measure today.
If I have talked this morning about the life of Father Richard rather than of the Gospel it is because I believe that in many cases the lives of our confreres are a type of commentary on the Scripture: not perfect, not complete, but valuable. It is also because I believe that the life of each of our friars has a lesson fro the province. While some of us write about Franciscanism, Richard lived it: sincerely and in his own way. He paid his dues; he fought the good fight, he ran the race, and so he is credible; he is a believable witness of the resurrection of Jesus, of the Franciscan vision. He is also an example of what we want to cultivate at every level of formation: discipline. This is a word which I heard many times in Rome, in the Congregation for Education and in our own office of formation and studies. There is no substitute for it; it expresses itself in putting other people first, in fidelity to prayer, in celebrating or assisting at Mass, even when that means you have to miss or cut short your lunch, or your visit with friends. Discipline is the basis of heroism like Richard's.
In his long life, Father Richard saw many changes in the Church and the Order, in the priestly ministry and in the military. He saw some of the projects which he initiated and developed given up or changed: we no longer have a mission band, nor Holy Family Parish, nor many friars engaged in the educational apostolate. Our methods of formation are quite different these days. I wonder what all of this meant to Father Richard. I do not know, but I suspect that despite confusion and suffering, the loyalty and faith which sustained him throughout his life did not falter at the end. One evidence of this is the encomium which he received from the diocese of Orange, when after nine years he left its service at age seventy-eight: "Father Hodge has performed in an exemplary fashion and has been a source of inspiration to all the priests of the diocese no matter their age. He is a special inspiration to all of us who are younger, who truly see a man who is willing to see and exercise his ministry in the priesthood as a life-time commitment and not just a mere job."
This morning we thank God for Father Richard; he has left all of us much to live up to, for the Province of St. Barbara is what it is because of men like him. What it will be, depends on the responses of men like you and me. May his memory inspire us to be worthy of the heritage he leaves us. May he rest in peace. Amen!.
John Vaughn OFM- Old Mission Santa Barbara, CA. 22 February, 1993