Remembering Cardinal James Freeman

Cardinal James Freeman
Cardinal James Freeman

There is a deep gratitude to God for all that James Freeman has been to us. His life was complete – 25 years ago – when, into God’s hands, he commended his spirit. The late cardinal has given so much to so many in his beloved Sydney but also to Australia and he was fiercely proud to be Australian. He once said that if he was overseas, the sight of a Qantas plane would fill him with nostalgia for home.

I was the cardinal’s private secretary from 1974-80 succeeding the late Fr Neil Collins. Fr John Sullivan succeeded me from 1980-84 and was private secretary to both Cardinal Freeman and Cardinal Clancy.

John and I felt we could not let the 25th anniversary of the death of this significant Australian and well-loved churchman pass without recognition, particularly since many who well remember James Freeman are still around, recalling the widespread honour, affection and respect with which he was held in the communities where he was known.

We also want to recall the enormous (though often unseen) contribution to goodness the late cardinal made to these communities in Sydney and Armidale and to wherever he served.

So we gather formally, and publicly, at this silver anniversary memorial Mass to pay our respects and bid another farewell to James Freeman, a person whom his family and friends loved; a person who was admired and respected well beyond the confines of the Catholic Church.

So many of us worked with him, enjoyed his company and were inspired by his simplicity of life style, genuine openness and ability to relate to people.

Such was the breadth of his culture that Jimmy Freeman was just as much at home at the Opera House as he was at a football or cricket match.

When I think of James Freeman, I remember a man who was very genuine. The cardinal was so obviously dinkum, wasn’t he? I mean, what you saw was what you got!

He was unassuming. There was a humble goodness. He didn’t have himself on, nor take himself too seriously. In my own mind, I often thought of him as the “reluctant cardinal” – he never sought honours yet they came to him anyway. He could see the funny side of things; he had a sense of fair play. He prayed, he was wise, he loved the Mother of God. He was sincere; he was gentle, approachable and hospitable. Above all, he was thoughtful, he cared.

There is a mountain of Christian virtue in all those colloquial expressions. However, I am not saying that the cardinal had no faults.

He was human like the rest of us, but the goodness of his character and the integrity of his living explain the universal high regard in which he is held.

The journalist Peter Fitzsimons who, these days, shows a real bias against the Catholic Church, interviewed Cardinal Freeman not long before the cardinal died. The final sentence he wrote said: “I felt I was in the presence of a thoroughly good man.”

A quote that John Sullivan and I would call “a Freemanism” was this: As the cardinal got to the microphone to speak at a function, he would sometimes say: “As Henry VIII said to each of his six wives: ‘I won’t keep you long’!”

That was a mark of the late cardinal’s speeches and sermons – he had an economy of words, not too long, imaginative and eminently practical. A priest said to me once: “when Jimmy Freeman gets up to speak, you are never ashamed of him.”

His Sunday sermons at the 9am Mass at the cathedral invariably comprised three points he distilled from the Gospel, which he then applied in a practical way to the congregation and finished up summarising what he had said.

He once told me that, as he listened to others speak, he found himself sub-editing what they were saying.

Many believe he had a photographic memory. Fr John and I would have been given his text to be handed to the Catholic Weekly reporter, while James himself would deliver his message without any notes, yet practically word for word as we had it in his text.

His style was to write short punchy sentences, with vivid adjectives and balanced phrases to get his message across. It came out of his head written on a pad page with his neat copperplate style of handwriting, but nothing crossed out or rewritten.

He was a gifted communicator and a renowned preacher. I have heard him quote lists of statistics at a function without notes to help him remember the details. Thankfully his handwritten talks are in the Archdiocesan Archives.

An example of his style: “Jesus said ‘If you do it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you do it to me’. It is an ideal that is beautiful in conception, but not always easy in practice.
“It is hard to see Christ in a face that is disfigured by neglect, in eyes that have been bereft of hope, in lips that are curled in the arrogance that is born of despair. It is hard to see Christ in a person whose poverty is self-inflicted, whose demands are consistent and impatient and who accepts your help as a right that is due him and for which no gratitude is felt or expressed.

“It is hard to see Christ in a person who presumes on your attention and your time without trying to help himself, or who is so embittered that he seems to resent you because of the help you give him.

“This kind of support is not obtained by wishful thinking. It is developed by thought and prayer, by earnest practice of your faith.

“You are dealing with people, people who think, feel and remember.”

The cardinal wrote this tribute about Mons Hartigan – the poet “John O’Brien” (it was prophetic because the cardinal could have been talking about himself):

“Those who heard him are not likely to forget the impression he made nor can they fail to remember the originality, the wit and the eloquence which were blended so impressively in the things that he had to say.

“In his preaching he was not an orator in the embellished sense of that word: partly because he was diffident of ostentation and partly because his practical turn of mind kept him close to reality when otherwise his imagination might have tempted him to take flight.

“Yet to hear him preach was to get an impression of solid piety, sound common sense and a sincere preoccupation with the love of God. The pity is that he will be heard no more and the spring is dry from whence the sparkling waters came.”

What more can I say? Be sad that the cardinal’s gone, but be glad that he is now home with God whom he served with such dedication.

May Cardinal Freeman, together with his brother Bob, his sisters Joan and Mary, rest in peace in the many rooms in the Father’s house and enjoy the reward of their goodness. Amen.

This is an edited version of the homily given by Bishop Peter Ingham at the silver anniversary memorial Mass for Cardinal James Freeman in St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt on 27 April.

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