Anniversary of death of Bp. Francis Hodur
16 Feb 2014
“‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17) In the name …
So Jesus starts off today by saying that He has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, not to change it, but to maintain it so that “not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the Law.” (Matt. 5:18) Then what does He do? He changes it. Time after time this morning we heard Him refer to the letter of the Law and then say: “But I say to you …” There’s no merit to that phrase at all unless a person absolutely trusts in Jesus’ authenticity and authority. For if we do, then we can accept that Jesus’ changes are really the fulfillment of the Law, in other words, what it was always meant to say. But that’s all based on how we view Jesus.
With this in mind, let me switch gears to the anniversary of death of our founding bishop, Bp. Francis Hodur. He died on this day at the age of 86 after devoting 56 years to the work of this church. He was diabetic and the disease left him blind in his later years. But even when he could no longer even make it from the rectory into the church, he still preached the Sunday sermon over an intercom. Until the day he died, physically exhausted, he devoted himself to this church of ours. On the day of his funeral, the church in Scranton was filled to capacity with an overflow crowd gathered outside. There’s about 2 to 3 miles between the church and the cemetery. They walked his casket in a funeral procession the entire distance and people lined both sides of the road from church to cemetery.
I know of no picture of the man that shows him smiling, but I remember the stories of the old-timers in Scranton who told how he always had candy to give to the children. I know that he was instrumental in organizing a fraternal for our church so that families could pool their resources to buy a first home or a car. I know that he established an old age home out in the countryside so that those who were poor and had no one to take care of them would have a place to live in their last years. I know he built a youth camp out in the fresh air of Waymart, PA, far away from the dirt and grime of the coal mines that would be the inevitable underground destination for so many of them. When the kids were all loaded into the trucks that would drive them out to the country, Bp. Hodur was there to bless them and to wish them well. This is why so many mourned the passing of this man.
I know that Bp. Hodur wrote often about the slow progress of building a reformed Catholic church. He complained that it was hard for people to let go of the past and embrace change. He had to move slowly, but he moved constantly, and he simultaneously pointed to where we as a church still needed to go. It was sort of like Jesus saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law,” and then Jesus changed everything. Hodur was slowly trying to build a changed Catholic church that still remained Catholic in her essentials. And to do so he had to lead by example, not by office. He didn’t, for example, call his church a cathedral after he became a bishop. It was always St. Stanislaus Church. For many years he was our only bishop. Then as the church grew and added other bishops he accepted the title of Prime Bishop, a title that comes from the Latin primus inter pares, the first among equals. And whether he was our only bishop or our Prime Bishop, his humility never waivered. He didn’t don fancy attire. Look at the picture when you get a chance hanging from the choir loft. It was the official portrait of our founder and when I was in Scranton it hung in the first room of the rectory. It is a simple, even poor, black cassock that he wears. There is no ring on his finger, and our first bishop seldom even wore the bishop’s mitre. And it may have been a Polish custom, but his parishioners called him Father Bishop. It was the authority of the man. It was his example that allowed him to slowly but surely change what it meant for us to be Catholic.
My mother traveled to Scranton once as a child and until her dying day remembered meeting the bishop in his church. One of the first stories my father-in-law told me was that he carried the American flag at the bishop’s funeral. It was a privilege never forgotten. Ed Wykowski told a gathering of us in the rectory that as a child he shook the hand of Bp. Hodur when he visited South Deerfield in 1931. He told us that story 10 years ago, but even then it was over 70 years earlier. There was something about the man. Jesus says to us in this morning’s Gospel that we are not to make elaborate oaths and solemn vows. Instead, Jesus says, just “let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’” In other words, be a person of character. Let what you say be truthful, not only those statements guaranteed by oaths and vows. Hodur suffered greatly because he was a man of character. He chose the difficult path of building a changed Catholic church. He didn’t do it to become a bishop because he didn’t seem too impressed by the superficial trappings of the office. And he definitely didn’t do it to win a popularity contest. The story is told that when Bp. Hodur would board a trolley in Scranton that many of the other passengers would disembark. And yet Hodur never soured. He was excommunicated, he was taken to court, he faced constant little insults like on the trolley, and yet he still forged a church that saw the good in creation, the potential in people and love in God.
We’re planning a trip to Scranton this summer to see Hodur’s church, to visit the mausoleum where he’s laid to rest and to stay at the encampment he built for the children. But the best way to honour his memory is to be true to it. Let us, therefore, work to continue his work, to continue to build a progressive, democratic Catholic church. Jesus fulfilled the Law by changing the Law. Let us work to fulfill our calling as church by following through on the changes that Bp. Hodur devoted a lifetime to, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo