“I’m going away to a secret place for a couple of days,” said Father Eric Freed to his congregation New Year’s Eve. Then, in the Japanese he fluently spoke, he sang his own recessional out the door of Saint Bernard’s Church and into the night.
It was the last time he would speak to us and, in its eerie beauty, what he would have said if he had known what the night would bring. And maybe prophetically he did.
Hours later, he would die in his own rectory at the hands of someone he would likely have fought to protect. There are cruel ironies in the fate of this man we loved. In his own way, he helped me understand these sacred mysteries.
Father Freed was saying mass the moment the Vatican selected its new pope, Pope Francis. I remember dashing across the street from my office, handing him the news during his homily. “We have a new pope,” he proudly announced, and I knew at once that I was meant to be a messenger.
When a baby cried in church, Father Eric would smile. “It’s God’s voice,” he would tell his parishioners at St. Bernard’s Church. He would read my columns, and when I mentioned his rapture with other peoples’ kids and he slyly made note of my words. “Thanks for being clear that the babies aren’t mine,” he laughed.
His humor disarmed me. That’s why I had always liked the priest who assumed leadership of the parish three years ago. When I told him I was happy about that, he replied, “Yeah, I guess you’re stuck with me.”
He had promised to have coffee with me to discuss linguistics and football, his other passions. He had also promised to help me find a Latin American mission, there to use my Spanish and love for children. He had a way of helping me think beyond myself.
Through Father Eric, I began my weekly visits to St. Joseph Hospital. Every Sunday morning, he would dispatch me from mass to “go complete your mission.” I would walk hospital hallways to visit the sick, some gravely ill. I hated clichés meant to comfort people. “Everything will be fine” seemed inadequate to the very sick and Father Eric told me that just being there was sufficient. Often, that’s all I had.
He knew that’s all he had too. The day Nina died. Father Freed stood at my front door to embrace me. Then, he walked to the intersection outside our house to pray over Nina.
Forgiving—that was a tougher assignment. In one of our last conversations, I told him that I had forgiven the driver of the truck that killed my Nina. He nodded approvingly, knowing how difficult and fundamental that is. As one of eight children, he learned to forgive. It came with the territory.
At Nina’s funeral, and scores of others, Father Eric referred to life as parenthetic, preceded and followed by something divine. We could be sad about the ones we miss, but comforted in knowing we never lose them. I feel that way about him.
I’ll prefer to remember the sound of him pacing upstairs in the rectory, a football game blaring from his two televisions. Yes, two. He didn’t want to miss a sports moment. Better still, I’ll remember him when a baby cries.
As Father Eric would close, “I’ll let that be my reflection.”