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They came to bury West
- and to praise him

By Murray Waldren

Dateline: Oct 15, 1999

THE AIR WAS HEAVY with humidity, respect and jasmine yesterday morning as they queued to sign the rembrance book at the portal. But under the sweeping pitched ceiling of Avalon's Church of Maria Regina, minutes by seagull flight from Morris West's home overlooking Sydney's Pittwater, the mood was more of reconciliation and regeneration than sombreness.

A 250-strong congregation of family, friends, colleagues, admirers and locals had come to praise the bestselling novelist, and to bury him.

They did so with a moving and intimate farewell to a man many saw - for a time at least - as de facto leader of the opposition to the Vatican's ruling politburo.

But the controversies and lacerating battles, the politics of church and literature, were forgotten in a service that focused on family and faith. There were readings by West's children, from the gospel and from their father's work. There were hymns and homilies, prayers and psalms. And there was affirmation, anecdote and applause.

One daughter sang a banjo-accompanied ballad, his grandchildren joined in the ceremonials of a Requiem Mass conducted by white-vestmented priests. The provincial of the Order of St Augustine, Dr Patrick Fahey, was the main celebrant, with Avalon's parish priest, Father Harry Kennedy, and literary bureaucrat Father Ed Campion among 10 co-celebrants.

Such a clerical turnout was seen as a significant gesture of solidarity and esteem for a man long decried as a religious gadfly by the Catholic hierarchy.

Perhaps West's confidant of 45 years, author Jon Cleary, best encapsulated the ambience in his eulogy, which fixed on "the friend and gentle man" rather than the author and religious radical.

"Morris," he said, "had charity of spirit, the gifts of sympathy and understanding."

Good-natured and spontaneous laughter followed his reminiscence of playing cricket with West in Rome, for the Australian embassy against the British embassy. "I waited while his butler - and I emphasise his butler - buckled on Morris's pads. I suggested I might carry his bat as well as my own but he just smiled, gave me benediction and said, 'We're playing the Brits, my son - let's show them some style'."

That same style was in evidence to very end.

This article was first published in The Australian, October 15, 1999.

Copyright Murray Waldren 1999

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