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Service and humanity defined Freburger

He went through life with a quizzical grin on his face, as if amazed and amused that the world functioned at all. Years ago, when he worked upstairs, he would appear at our NCR door about once a day with news of the latest disaster or sensation, secular or sacred, his face beaming behind those big spectacles. Wry prophet, he brought not only the news but usually some askew angle on it.

Then, on July 28, Bill Freburger was the news that came to our door. He had died in the afternoon of an apparent heart attack. He was 56.

A native of Baltimore, Freburger studied for the priesthood at Rome's Gregorian University and was ordained in 1965. The Vatican Council, bursting with promise, was just coming to a close. Its first, most obvious fruits were a liturgical revival. In the Baltimore archdiocese and across the nation, Freburger was at the forefront of that liturgical renewal, lecturing, writing, creating programs, workshops and general excitement.

In 1976 he was dispensed from the priesthood. In 1978 he came to Celebration, the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company's "ecumenical worship resource" founded in 1972. Bill and his wife, Mary, moved to Silver Spring, Md., in the early 1980s. They adopted two children, William Daniel and Sarah.

A modest, unassuming man, Freburger came gently to his new job. "I see all of you as each other's best resources," he told readers. "Celebration members form a network, and we supply a forum of exchange." His priority was to be of service.

Never given to passing fads, Freburger navigated Celebration by some older, more constant star. As the post-Vatican II tempests tossed around him, he blithely dodged all extremes, mingling erudition with humanity and a healthy dusting of humor to keep the devil away from the church door.

In one of his last editorials (June) he railed against "Potemkin liturgies," false facades hiding emptiness. But still he was an old softy, indulgent even of the Potemkin liturgy, relic perhaps of "a subconscious thirst for ultimate meaning in a modern society that has ruled the transcendent inapplicable, if not unobtainable." He never gave up on humanity any more than on God.

October would have marked the beginning of Bill's 20th year as Celebration editor. He was planning to celebrate with an exciting face-lift for the magazine. In addition to design changes, he was in transition to what he called a more "user-friendly" product, with "new departments, expanded coverage of the American and foreign liturgical scenes and practical tools for ministry."

The makeover will become part of his legacy. Publisher Tom Fox has taken over as interim editor until a permanent successor is found. Fox plans to carry the design changes to a worthy conclusion. This, among other things, will be a tribute to Bill's ongoing quest, not to be flashy or indulge in personal statement but to be of service to the worshiping churches, all of them.

Bill Freburger loved the outlandish and unlikely. This showed in his love of cartoons, so many of which crept into Celebration. The cartoon I see now has Bill squeezing his scrawny frame through a big gate up there you-know-where, and that quizzical look on him, and the old grin, and then looking back over his shoulder -- at us -- and you know he's saying, "They're still working on Vatican II."

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 1997