Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died last week aged 90, was a man with a sense of irony.
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A few years ago he emailed his close friend Reverend Jerome Francis, now the Reverend at St Augustine’s in Shepparton, saying “God is very humorous”.
“I asked him why he said that; he said he was sending me an email from the apartheid Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha’s former home,” Rev Francis said.
It turns out that Botha’s home had been turned into a guest house, and Archbishop Tutu was staying there ahead of a speech.
“He said to me that God is really humorous to put him up there for the night, he found it very funny,” Rev Francis said.
Rev Francis was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s parish priest for six years, and they were close friends.
“It was during my time at the parish that I had come to know this man of small stature, but a moral and spiritual giant,” Rev Francis said.
“In his presence you could know holiness, you could experience love, empathy, truth and forgiveness.
“Arch never stopped working for peace, justice and human rights. He generously supported lost causes around the world. He often challenged democracy when it was failing the people. A prisoner of hope he was!”
Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and veteran of South Africa's struggle against white minority rule, died aged 90 on December 26, 2021.
“When I think of (Desmond Tutu) and people like Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, one can not miss the important model, sort of priorities or the morality that they lived,’’ Rev Francis said.
“Things like holiness, and love and empathy and forgiveness.
“Desmond cared for people of all sectors of the world. He didn't only care for Christians, he cared for humanity — didn't matter to a Muslim or Greek Orthodox or Jew, Desmond he just loved you and he cared. I think, for me, that's an integral part of my ministry.”
They first met in 1993 at the University of the Western Cape, where Rev Francis assisted on the first-ever Anglican Consultative Council in the region.
“It was here that I befriended Arch and had come to know a little of him,” Rev Francis said.
Rev Francis continues to apply Archbishop Tutu’s teachings in Shepparton, handing out vouchers to those without food and communing with homeless people living on the riverbank to fulfil the mission to be a church that cares for people.
In 1995 the two men met again at an Anglican Provincial meeting called Provincial Synod, held in Bloemfontein, and one of Rev Francis’s duties was to care for the chair of the meeting, Archbishop Tutu.
“’Arch’, as he was know to us, showed great gratitude and was thankful for my love and care for him. Hence the photograph of him lying against my chest,” Rev Francis said.
“The truth is he showed generosity and love towards all who participated in this meeting. Everyone was deemed to be special. ”
In 2001 Rev Francis was part of the organising committee arranging a small party at Bishops Court (the official residence of the Archbishop of Cape Town) for the 68th birthday of Mama Leah (Archbishop Tutu’s wife) and the 70th birthday of Archbishop Tutu.
“This was a glorious event with Nelson Mandela present; Mr Mandela made a speech, welcoming Archbishop Tutu to ‘the club of old men’,” Rev Francis said.
“He told Arch that he was an old man now and that he needed to act appropriately. Arch Tutu burst out laughing."
As chief of staff to Archbishop Thabo and rector of the Parish of St Saviours Claremont, Rev Francis ministered to Archbishop Tutu when he was hospitalised during the early stages of his ill health.
In December 2019, Rev Francis and his family came to Australia from South Africa, and as they were leaving, Archbishop Tutu and Mama Leah saw their close friends off.
``During our conversation, Arch said ‘I am going to pray that the Springboks beat the Wallabies so that you can long for home’,’’ Rev Francis said.
Now it is Rev Francis’s turn to miss his dear friend and mentor.
“Arch has returned home to be with God; may we continue to live out his legacy,” Rev Francis said.
“Standing for truth, speaking truth to power, pursuing justice, striving for an equal society — and may we be prisoners of hope.”