SAS Group Director Larry Anthony, who served under Tim Fischer’s leadership in the Federal Parliament, recalls an amusing story on his visit to see Tim Fischer when he was the Ambassador to the Holy See in 2010.
This week I attended Tim Fischer’s State funeral in Albury. It was a fitting celebration of a remarkable life of a unique Australian who contributed so much to this Nation. He was a farmer, a father, a Parliamentarian, an author, a train tragic and a diplomat, to name a few.
I had the honour of serving with him for a number of terms in the Federal Parliament and was a participant in many of political battles that we fought, namely gun control. As we farewelled him for the last time yesterday in Albury, I was reminded of a story of my time seeing Tim when he was the Ambassador to the Holy See.
I thought I would share this amusing event from a letter that I had written home soon after this visit. I had been in London and decided to visit Tim for a weekend in Rome and what an extraordinary weekend it was witnessing the ordination of 24 Cardinals. He’d given me specific instructions to meet him at the Termini Station (railway station) Rome. Here is my account:
‘I was met by Tim Fischer waiving his familiar Akubra hat at the Termini Station in Rome. His hat was a little more stylish than his hat of trade in Australia. It was black with a sharp trim brim.
He was in good humour, jocular, positive and a man on a mission. We traversed the cobbled streets past a basilica or two as the rapid gun fire of Tim’s tongue took me on a tour of late-night Rome.
It was getting close to midnight as Fischer manoeuvred his rather large diplomatic plated Peugeot out on to the streets and he whisked me back to the safe compound of his apartment next to the Libyan embassy. Tim lives in a large apartment surrounded by huge fir trees, almost like being suspended in an Oasis behind the hustle and bustle of the city. I suppose this is the closest he can get to recreating Boree creek.
The next day we awoke to a big day at the Vatican. Tim said in his nonchalant style he had a few duties at the Vatican that he had to attend and why don’t I come along for a while and we would catch up at one of his favourite cafes down by the Tiberius River just around the corner from the Embassy.
Few duties indeed! He emerged from his apartment in coat and tails with the clatter of medals adorning his chest. Medals from his own career in Australia, through to Argentina, Chile and his much-earned military medals from another era, Vietnam. He certainly was not weighed down by these precious metals but invigorated by the Holy gathering that was about to unfold.
“You better get a tie and jacket just in case I can show you around the Holy See,” said the Hat.
“Roger that Tim” as we took off in his car navigating the maze of roads designed by the Romans many thousands of years ago.
Formula 1 driver Mark Webber would have been proud as Tim navigated his chauffer driven car (no chauffer in sight) like a laser guided missile through the narrow streets, destination the Vatican. It must have been his former military training as he had engraved on his subconscious every entry point to the Holy See and the labyrinth of roads that lie behind the ancient walls of this small independent State.
Crowds were starting to amass in St Peters square for a very special occasion that happens once every four years in the Catholic calendar. The elevation of 24 Archbishops from around the globe to Cardinals! One could say this is the most exclusive club on the planet. Our own Cardinal Pell was in attendance along with about 200 other Cardinals who are summoned to Rome to witness this important event.
As we drove through the check points, Tim waved his hat and diplomatic passport which seemed to give us total immunity from the Swiss guards that have sworn their allegiance to protecting the Pope and his property. It was quite surreal that many of the guards and indeed the assembled guests new the Australian ambassador as if he was part of the furniture.
Tim took me on the back roads that wind behind St Peters Basilica until we found a park above the Popes Railway Station. A mandatory history lesson and inspection of the rail line and Station followed with a photo as the Hat lead me into the edge of the tunnel. I soon learnt that this was built by Mussolini as compensation for confiscating numerous papal properties during WII.
Near the Station was the side entrance that leads us straight to the epicentre, the huge dome of the Basilica and the Popes throne.
Into the side door we went as the sea of priests, monsignors, bishops and cardinals flowed along with country Ambassadors. It was a potpourri of colour, cloth and clergy. After a few minutes it become obvious that I was certainly out of place and unless I transform myself into a priest or a very important person I was about to be evicted. A quick retreat back out into the open and down the side of St Peters square was in order.
In the distance I could see the Pope and thankfully not the Akubra Hat which no doubt had found a safe place under Tim’s chair. The music, the liturgy, the trumpets and hymns were nothing short of spectacular even in another language. After standing for two hours it was time for me to go so I departed my near conversion to Catholicism and headed to the street.
Still raining cats and dogs, perhaps the earth was literally being cleansed.
A few hours later Tim emerged at the rendezvous point. He had changed out of coat and tails (in the “Popes rail tunnel) and back into a more modest suite for the next part of our journey. Lunch and then a lightening tour of the squares, museums, Piazza’s until we picked up an American Priest and then back to the Vatican. This time we went straight into the Vatican and down into the Cripps of Pope John Paul the II and the catacombs of many before.
Soon after we ended up in two other buildings, in a line to meet and greet many of the Cardinals who had just been ordained. It was like speed dating. Paying homage to the Africans, Italians, Germans and Americans who just got the big gong, the gold medal of the Holy Olympic order.
And then we ended up in the actual Popes residence rooms of beauty with Michael Angelo’s finger prints all over the Palace. Ornate drawings straight on the walls and ceilings paintings of good versus evil, love versus lust and the battles of the soul and the sword. And amongst this maze of museum rooms we emerged right under the bedroom of the Pope.
It was a carnival of Cardinals of priest and parishioners, ambassadors and amigos like me going shaking one holy hand to another. Even Tim was bowled over by the event. The American Monsignor who was with us thought he had arrived in Heaven. The only thing missing was the Pope himself, but I am sure I would have met one of the future Pope’s that afternoon.
That evening we wondered down the street from his apartment for a meal and Tim educated me in all the intricacies and intrigue in the political orbit of Rome and religion.
The next day we were up at dawn and heading to Tuscany, the plan was to intercept and board a steam train, but that’s for another day.’
So if you’ve managed to get to the end of this story, you’ve done very well. This is one of many stories that Tim Fischer had with me and so many people that he mentored and assisted through his 73 years of life.
And what better way to acknowledge this than the distinguished roll up at this State Funeral yesterday in Albury. From the Prime Minister to former Prime Ministers, Governor Generals to former Governor Generals, Ministers and MPs past and present and hundreds of community representatives from across the continent.
As a friend of Tim’s, I take my hat off and salute him for the last time and we wish his family all the comfort in a time of sadness, but also a time of celebration for a life well lived of a remarkable Australian.