I am sorry for having been so reluctant to write, but I want to thank everyone for their condolences and prayers. This post is bound to be more of a journal that an article, so please forgive me my lack of ordered thought. For those of you that don’t know, my priest was brutally murdered on January first this year. He was a wonderful pastor, an educated scholar, and true servant of the gospel, but for me, most importantly, he was my dear friend.
It was Father Eric Freed that sent in my recommendation to enter formation, it was he who talked to the local catholic school to help me land my job as a theology teacher, it was he who would cruelly thrust me into ministry after ministry unprepared, and it was he who would save me at the last minute when I would stumble in these ministries. Father Eric was the catalyst, the force behind nearly everything I do now. I cannot tell you how much I miss our weekly breakfast where we would catch up on everything going on in the parish, me rambling on about everything that needed improving, him laughing as he wrote all his notes in Japanese on napkins.
I won’t pretend we agreed on everything, the truth would be quite the reverse, we disagreed on everything, but our disagreement never got in the way of our friendship, and never got in the way of our work. In fact it only seemed to heighten it. Mutual respect is something uncommon in today’s world that seems more interested in debate and argument than the true meeting of minds. Father Eric was never that way.
I had prepared the altar for the Feast of Mary, Mother of God after a long night of staying up with my daughters to ring in the new year. Everyone was tired. Having January first be a holy day of obligation can feel like a bother sometimes, but we all know it’s the best way to start off the year. I know you are a faithful Catholic when I see your red eyes in church on New Years Day! Our deacon and I were chatting in the sacristy about nothing in particular, when we realized Father was later than usual. After calling him with no response, he went over to check on him. When he returned, pale as a ghost and announced to the congregation that Father was sick, and there would be no Mass, I feared the worst immediately. As he ran out of the church, still in his freshly pressed white vestments, I hopped up to the ambo to lead the parish in prayer for Father. As I stood there praying the rosary with our congregation, my mind raced with terror. Our deacon works in a hospital and is a black belt, so it takes more than sickness to drain the blood from his face. I knew this had to be quite bad indeed.
After dismissing the congregation, I stepped outside the church for a moment to see my spiritual home being dressed in bright yellow police tape, and them carting out a body. I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel anything at all. All I felt was a pressing need to do something. I sat with our deacon, my friend, as he calmly told the police over and over again exactly what he saw, having to relive that moment again and again while the image of finding his body was so fresh. I felt so numb, and yet was comforted by the strength of he and his wife.
I went home to change for the press conference, only to find my phone full of messages asking if Father was okay, but the police had asked me to be silent. I came back to the Church to a storm of cameras, city officials and worried parishioners. The tears were already flowing everywhere when the mayor gave us the news. I wanted so badly for the cameras to all just go away and let our people cry without our emotions all being documented for the evening’s bout of entertainment. I haven’t watched the news since. I don’t think I ever will.
Anyone who has read my blog knows how deeply I respect and admire my bishop, it is built into the tone of nearly everything I say about the episcopacy. All that changed that week. Before, I respected him because in my mind, I saw him as my apostle in some idealistic fashion. However, it took very little time for me to simply love him more than any respect can do him justice. When he got the news, he immediately jumped in the car and drove the five hours from the chancery to our parish, and without missing a beat, took over everything for the parish personally. He handled the funeral arrangements, he handled mourning services, he took over all our masses for weeks, he stayed with us and mourned with us. He brought in Father Eric’s family, and more than that, he did all this in a way that everyone in the parish could participate and help. To think that as he came, I, in my selfishness, was more concerned with whether or not I would be involved in all that would soon transpire. His kindness and generosity knew no bounds, and put my selfishness to shame.
We could not have done it without him. The services went on and on, they never seemed to end. Masses for Father, an all night vigil, the funeral, the graveside service; it seemed as if we fit three months of liturgies into a couple days, and our bishop never broke a sweat, and never stopped being able to smile.
The funeral was hard. I was given the second reading, the same reading we read last week from Romans, about how all creation groans for our redemption. I don’t think the bishop knew this when he chose it, but this was one of Father’s favorite scriptures. The Holy Spirit just helps with stuff like that. It was odd being so busy while trying to deal with my own emotions and prepare to read for such a massive crowd. One minute I was was making sure we had all the stuff for the funeral mass, the next I was condoling with someone new, the next I was relaying some message for the bishop, it was quite surreal. I did not go to the graveside service, I knew I couldn’t handle it.
The outpouring of love for Father Eric was so intense that it crossed all boundaries. People came from the college he taught at, from the Newman center he worked with, for the Japanese community he served, from other faith communities, and so much more. He was loved so very much, and his loss hurt so many so very deeply.
I cannot speak as to how Father touched any of these people’s lives, but I can say who he was to me. He was one of the most masculine men I have known. He loved his sports, and his quiet evening with a beer and a cigar. He would actually vacation to Chicago. His knowledge of scripture was so immense that we could talk for hours on a single word, translating it from language to language to further understand its meaning. He believed that joy was the true christian vocation, that it was the heart of what it meant to love Christ, and he really tried to live that joy out everyday. He was ever the Salesian, and could not forget where he came from for a moment. (Never get him started talking about John Bosco!) He looked like a white man, but he was really Japanese to the core. He would talk with homeless men and women for hours. He was not the greatest of Saints, but on most days, he really tried to be.
Mostly, he was my friend.
I want to say something trite, like live your friendships while you have them, or never take those around you for granted. Instead, I would say that bad things just happen, and sometimes, terrible things happen. But God does not leave us orphans, he is with us every step of the way. This event was one of the most terrible events I can imagine ever happening, the random murder of a good and faithful person for no reason at all, and yet, the blessings that God has poured out through this tragedy has been immense. I have written enough, and have no desire to talk about the individuals whose faith has been strengthened or renewed, the conversions or any of these particulars. Suffice to say, the blessings have continued in great abundance. Father’s message speaks louder in death than it ever did in life, however paradoxical that may seem. I have also found it ever so fitting that he died on the feast of our most beloved mother, the woman he always remembered was that greatest disciple of them all.
I want to thank all those who did so much for us, for the Knights of Columbus who stayed with the body all night long so that people could come and mourn in peace at their own time, the Women’s Club who handled all the arrangements for reception after reception, our sister parish for giving us full use of their church with no question asked, for my friend from my old youth group who organized the making of thousands of origami cranes, for the hundreds of people who left candlelit memorials at Father Eric’s door and lining the entire block, for the funeral home that comped all the funeral expenses, for all of our priests who drove from across the diocese to mourn with us. The thanks just go on and on, I could never get them all.
In closing, I would remember a tradition that Father would do every year from his days as a Salesian priest. Every year, he would print out a short thought on a card for everyone to reflect on for the whole year, and he would bring it up over and over again in his homilies. It is called a strenna. When he had the strenna printed out for the year, I felt it was nice enough, but I was unhappy with the artwork. It was meant to show God’s grace in the form of rain coming upon the earth, but I thought it looked sad, almost like tears. He liked it though, so we printed them. Those tears, the grace, the message, they have all burned into my mind now almost as if they were his identity in my thoughts now. There’s that ole Holy Spirit doing his thing again.
“To be happy, be thankful.
To be thankful, have faith.
Faith is understanding that all is God’s.”
-Fr. Eric Freed
Eric, it has been six months, and I still can’t forget for even one day. I miss you very much, as do all those whom you served. May our Lord whom you served so faithfully give you the opportunity to serve him even more abundantly in heaven my friend. And while you are there, please continue to pray for me.