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Contemplating Fred Hollows

Frank Brennan |  10 February 2013

Gabi Hollows at Fred Hollows' gravesideThe following is from Fr Frank Brennan SJ's address at the Commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the death of Professor Fred Hollows AC (1929–1993), the New Zealand and Australian ophthalmologist known for his work in restoring eyesight for people in Australia and many other countries, at  Bourke Cemetery, 10 February 2013.

Last time we did this trip seven years ago for the unfurling of Andreas Buisman's granite sculpture rock, Tjilpia remarked that at least we were not as sad as we had been 13 years before. On that occasion, the traditional owners removed the blanket to reveal the polished granite rock evoking memories of Fred polishing lenses which brought sight to the blind in the poorest of countries as well as here in the Australian outback.

I have been asked to provide a spiritual reflection for Fred who was not always given to spiritual conversation. Many of us recall the state funeral at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney. The who's who of the country was there. The state provided two aircraft to fly family and loved ones here for the burial in a place so dear to Fred's heart.

Twenty years on, most of the sadness has evaporated. Contemplating Fred who is still with us, I find the prophecy of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah helpful. He came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to the oppressed and sight to the blind.

Fred did all these things and sometimes rather brusquely. Looking back with hindsight, much of the brusqueness has disappeared or faded from memory. His actions and proclamations seem all the more graced. His wife Gabi (pictured) wrote in Friday's Sydney Morning Herald, 'To me, Fred's greatest achievement was his ability to inspire others to live out his dream for a world without avoidable blindness.'

Last night we gathered at the pub over a barbecue and shared many reminiscences. I was chatting with Fred's son Cam who is such a chip off the old block. How proud Fred would be that Cam has taken up residence as a doctor at Orange Hospital, committed to public service in the bush, committed to health care for all, especially those who can least afford it. Gabi wrote, 'Above all else, this weekend I will remember Fred as the father of my children — and as a man who lived his life wanting us all to be the best we can possibly be.'

We see that dream enfleshed around us in Cam [and Fred's daughters] Anna and Ruth. We remember also Rosa in Perth phoning in as we gather around the rock, dedicating her life to building chips off blocks, and Emma in the USA passionate about environmental protection of the planet. We also remember Ben in Darwin, and Tanya in the rarified atmosphere of Geneva diplomacy, keeping them grounded and committed to social justice.

My sister Anne reminded me that her family enjoyed the open house at Farnham House on Christmas Eve 1992, just weeks before Fred died. The doors were always open. And after his death, Gabi reminds us, 'The doors of our home were left permanently open as friends, family, colleagues, sports people, politicians and journalists all came to say goodbye.'

1993 seems another world now. Paul Keating was Prime Minister, engaged in consultation with Aboriginal Australia about native title in the wake of the Mabo decision. He insisted that good policy would make good politics. Fred was a demanding public intellectual who demanded better from our politicians while commanding respect from the average punters.

One month out from an election, our elected leaders were in unison affirming the virtue and vehemence of Fred. Twenty years on, and once again in an election year, we do miss that sort of leadership and public commitment to ideas and ideals.

Three months after Fred's death, I spoke at a graduation ceremony at his University of New South Wales. I recalled one of his conversations with Frank Hardy when he said, 'If we lose the ideological line against the disparity between the First and Third World, for creating structures of people to help themselves and change the politics of medicine in the Third world — we will end up just another lot of charitable missionaries.'

Being one of those missionaries, and hopefully a charitable one, I was both challenged and reassured by this claim. He would be delighted by the presence of Fassehaia and his wife from Eritrea here today.

To his last breath, Fred was not one to allow truth to be captive to any prevailing ideology, religious mindset, social system or convention. He abhorred the piety, class distinction and traditionalism which restricted the human spirit's quest for noble expression.

His final advice to fellow ophthalmologist Hugh Taylor was: 'Study the dynamics of the groups of people already mobilised; base yourselves on the reality of the situation, both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of it; set aims that can be achieved, empower the Aborigines and people in the Third World to take control of their lives.'

As I told the university graduates, with Fred, no medical problem was so universal that it could not be conquered in time, and no death so final that it could not, now and eternally, inspire life even for the one committed immediately to the grave.

For the blessing, and before we ritually pour the whiskey on the polished sculpture, I invite Gabi, family and loved ones to gather around the rock, touching it, while the rest of us extend our right hands towards them.

We are all agreed that Andreas polished this rock. Some of us name God as its creator. Others of us embrace a creation without a creator. Some of us think Fred has crossed into the abyss of infinite nothingness. Others of us believe and hope that he is in the abyss of ultimate mystery enveloped by all that is knowable and loveable.

But all of us are sure that Fred continues calling to us across that abyss urging us, kicking us, and inspiring us to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to captives, freedom to the oppressed and sight to the blind.

I asked Jack Waterford how I should draw on the Judeo-Christian scriptures at this stage of the proceedings. He recommended the scene when Jesus responds to the mourning sisters Martha and Mary, calling Lazarus: 'Come out. Unbind him. Let him go free.' Thanks Fred for your inspiration. Thanks Gabi and kids for the invitation. Let's drink to Fred. For Fred's sake, keep working for justice, sight and good vision. Safe home. And God bless. 

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law, director of strategic research projects (social justice and ethics), Australian Catholic University, adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. 




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Submitted comments

Thanks FBSJ, it is great to read again about Fred Hollows, a giant among us. The Bourke cemetery is precious. From a repositioned tiny mosque for our earliest camel drivers, to such a long long row of headstones of nuns, to the awesome beauty of Fred Hollows' grave seen in the picture here, to the suggested stories in briefly worded tombstones, with the whispering trees in the belting heat. It seemed to this traveler one of the unexpected treasures of our country. I remember feeling that it was perfect for that great man to be buried there, a tough and beautiful place, unassuming, almost out of reach, far from the shallows, with the simple grave, and the sacred art carved by those who loved him.

Julian McMahon 12 February 2013

The Priest behind Fred [from 'Medical Alumni Sydney Uni]: "Medicine and religion. I have recently come across another notable alumnus who was both an ophthalmic surgeon and missionary priest. Father Francis(Frank) Stanislaus Flynn AC, MSC (MB, BS 1930; MD 1981) was the second youngest of the extraordinary six brothers who, after education at Marist Brothers' High School,Darlinghurst, all graduated in medicine from the University of Sydney (see Australian Dictionary of Biography - online edition). Two of the Flynn sisters became Brigidine nuns. Their father, John Flynn, was a medical practitioner from Ireland, married to Australian-born Maud May Witton. Father Frank was widely known as 'Flynn of the North', especially for his medical work among Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Professor Fred Hollows described Father Frank as: 'the man behind his fight for sight'. Frjg adds: "fr flynn told us Canberra students in 1966,he invented for truckies along dusty NT highway. a strip of sun shade along window tops to assist against sung glare[often seen in sydney cabs of yore; and for hImself, plastic guards on his spectacles to keep off NT dust and also small vials of lacrimal tear liquid that 'eye dropped' automatically into NT dry eyes,when the head moved In his 90s he fashioned a slit cardboard over his face 'a la Ned Kelly' to sharpen his vision when reading in old age

Father John George 12 February 2013

Well Frank ,It is possible to fulfil nephew Jack's suggestion of reincarnating Fred's ideology by bringing into sight of the general public the disgusting "land Tenure Review " of Q'ld LNP Govt . In a nutshell it is intent on trashing "Native Title ' by granting Freehold title to that States Pastoral leases by suggesting a few crumbs from the rich man's table in compensation for loss of the almost worthless NT ( As Judge Brennan declared " The grazier's rights prevail ") .Of course it will greatly consolidate the considerable wealth of one of the National Party's favourite sons ( His family hold by far the greatest aggregation of such leases) But for that rather large polished rock I am sure Fred would be turning in his grave.

john Kersh 12 February 2013

"Sometimes brusquely"... I heard Fred interviewed on ABC radio some years ago. The interviewer quoted someone's statement with which Fred strongly disagreed. "Pig's arse" he shouted. On Auntie's airwaves too.

Michael Grounds 12 February 2013

Good morning Father Frank, Surely the famous Father Frank Flynn AC, eye-surgeon, MSC missionary, who first described trachoma in his beloved Aboriginal people some 18 yrs before Fred entered the fray,has to be a part of this conversation. Frank, a gentle, dedicated Catholic priest, though living in Sydney at the time of his death did not qualify for the St Mary's Cathedral send off but returned in death to a modest requiem amongst the Aboriginal people of the territory whom he served and lived with for the greater part of his working life, caring not only for their sight but also a wide spectrum of maladies of body and soul. Curious how a lens bends light and how different the view when the lens is rose coloured. That is not to say that Fred (who was one of my colleagues to whom he referred most of the sight preserving surgery associated with disease in the arteries to the eye in his patients)is not deserving of the accolades he earned nor any underestimate of the enormous contributions he made. I simply feel that Father Frank Flynn also has a place in this story and that his place, in the light of the lack of any support of the sort that Fred had, is just as great if not,indeed, greater.

john frawley 12 February 2013

Fr Frank Flynn MSC was a concelebrant at the funeral mass in St Mary's Cathedral 20 years ago.

Frank Brennan SJ 12 February 2013

More on Freds mentor: http://www.artsandmuseums.nt.gov.au/northern-territory-library/collections/personal_papers_collection/guide_to_papers_of_frank_flynn/frank_flynn_biography#.URl92_JSnZI

Father John George 12 February 2013

His humble resting place among his MSC brothers http://towersretreat.abundance.org.au/smt_msc_cemetery/smt_cemetery_%28plot%209%29.jpg

Father John George 12 February 2013

Thank you for this remembering of so good (would he accept 'saintly?) an Australian, Professor Fred Hallowes. Are Father Frank Flynn and he at peace now? Is it possible they can be... Australia has the highest rate of trachoma in the world, statistically higher than the poorest third world countries. If any readers want to help destroy this disease and prevent future blindness, contact the Indigenous Eye Health Program, within the University of Melbourne. Professor Hugh Taylor and his crew need funding to cure those in dire need of treatment.

Caroline Storm 12 February 2013

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