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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

In Memory of 'Papa Joe' 1954-2015

The full text of my address in memory of Dr Joe Cassidy, Principal of St Chad's College. It was given in a shortened version.

I am honoured to give this sermon in memory of Joe Cassidy. I was among the many, the very many, who loved him. I still can’t take it in that he has gone from us, taken, I want to say, cruelly out of time when he had so much life to live, so much wisdom to impart, so many gifts to offer with which our lives would have been lit up in years to come. His family, Gillian, Emmeline, Marianne and Benedict whom he loved with a fierce and wonderful devotion, are in all our thoughts and prayers.

When I came to Durham twelve years ago, Joe was one of the first to welcome me. The Cathedral is St Chad’s nearest neighbour on The Bailey. He invited me to be its Visitor, and then its first Rector. He believed that a lively partnership between these two great Durham institutions could only be good for both. I have loved my roles in the College, thanks not only to its warm, generous hospitality but also to Joe’s personal kindness and gift for friendship.

Joe had been a distinguished Catholic philosophical theologian and ethicist whose fine mind was already recognised in awards and prizes gained in undergraduate and postgraduate days. His specialism was the thought of the twentieth century Jesuit theologian and fellow Canadian Bernard Lonergan. He joined the Society of Jesus and was deeply shaped by the clarity and focus of the Jesuit way. He became a gifted and much valued retreat conductor and spiritual director. Accompanying others on their spiritual journeys was close to his heart all his life.

It’s not unknown for Jesuit priests to become Anglican, A catholic Benedictine who makes the same journey finds, I think, a natural home in this church so influenced by the Benedictine ideal and, of course, with its own Benedictine communities. There are no Jesuit communities in the Church of England, probably because the Order was explicitly founded as a Counter-Reformation organisation. Many Anglicans today practise the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius guided by directors trained in the Jesuit tradition. Joe and I often talked about these things at College high table. I mention this because Joe brought spiritual insights into Anglicanism that as a temperamental Benedictine myself, I found stimulating and refreshing. In some ways he never stopped being a Jesuit in his energetic outward-facing openness to the world, his attention to the interior life, his mentoring and spiritual guidance, and the spiritual, social and intellectual vision he brought to St Chad’s.

As an Anglican, Joe contributed significantly to the councils of the Church of England, including the General Synod where he and I would sit in the back row and commiserate about the Byzantine processes of ecclesiastical decision-making. He championed theological education and formation in the national church where he looked for seriousness, rigour, Christian wisdom and well-earthed familiarity with ordinary human life. I wonder if his own intellectual acuity as a theologian was sufficiently realised. In 1997 he came to Durham as Principal of St Chad’s. If he thought that being head of house in a Durham college would allow lots of time for leisured literary and scholarly output, reality quickly set in. Running a college  nowadays is an all-consuming enterprise. It is to Joe’s enormous credit that he succeeded in stabilising St Chad's which was then going through demanding times. His prodigious energy always in the fast lane, his practicality, his capacity to solve problems, his sheer appetite for hard work were all important aspects of his leadership.

It was a joy to watch the college flourish. It’s true that the fortunes of any institution are not simply down to the person who leads it. Next weekend I say farewell to Durham Cathedral after twelve years as Dean. I am profoundly aware that whatever our achievements, the right pronoun to use is not ‘I’ but ‘we’. You can’t be a leader in the church or higher education unless you understand that every institution these days is an organisation of consent. Collaboration and teamwork are fundamental; old-fashioned command-control techniques won’t work and aren’t respected any more. Joe would be the first to ascribe St Chad’s successes to the teams he led and was justly proud of. But leaders identify directions, inculcate values, set the tone, are influential in aligning and shaping their communities. Joe never wavered in his energetic pursuit of these goals. For him they were an act not just of duty but of love.

If you ask Chad’s students and alumni what they will remember ‘Papa Joe’ for, they will tell you about his wisdom, his warmth, his quick-witted love of repartee and his intellectual liveliness. He thought and spoke fast: you had to keep up. You will also hear about his belief that a higher education institution like a Durham college should – indeed, must – be a living community of human beings in which people care about one another and about the world they are part of so that everyone can flourish. This was the kind of college he set out to shape at St Chad’s: a humane society in which wisdom, truth and social justice are cherished. In this, he was brilliantly successful.

I last sat with Joe at the Domus Dinner in March. For some strange yet providential reason that only made sense after Joe had died, a number of us there, students, staff, alumni, wanted to pay special tribute to Joe’s leadership. Some of us decided we would get up and say something that evening. I’m so glad that just before he died Joe was able to hear these tributes expressed publicly on that lovely occasion and that he could know how much he was honoured and loved. In his modesty, he did not want to make too much of it. Self-deprecation was more his style, arising out of his genuine humility, always a beautiful quality but especially in those who lead.

Joe belonged to this Cathedral Foundation as a member of its College of Canons and Council. He loved this place and valued his own as well as the College’s connection with it. He could challenge as well as affirm us, but you always listened to what he said, whether it was to do with the Cathedral’s values statement, the Open Treasure project or arising out of his close scrutiny of the annual accounts. When Chad’s were here for the College Day service in March, at the end, he suddenly produced from nowhere a green College hood and invested me with it, saying that the Council had resolved to make me a life-fellow as a sign of the importance it attached to its relationship with the Cathedral. ‘Now this relationship is for life’ he said and gave me a fond embrace. Looking back, how moving that was for me personally, and how poignant.  

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. ‘If you want a monument, look around you.’ So runs Christopher Wren’s famous memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral. What will Joe’s monument be? Talk to Chadsians across the world; or look into the life of this remarkable community for yourself. It’s written on the hearts and lives of the men and women he served so devotedly – and loved. And I believe this is because of what he fundamentally believed about God and about humanity. His beloved Lonergan wrote about what it means to be created in the image of God. Such a person practises ‘total surrender to the demands of the human spirit’ – others’ and his own. ‘Be attentive’ he said, ‘be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible, be in love.’ And always cherish and honour the mystery at the core of human life for, as Pascal said, the great thinker to whom Lonergan owed so much, ‘the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.’ This was Joe.

‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’ St John’s grasp of the central insight about human life, how everything is transformed by our capacity to be loved and to love lies, I think, close to the centre of Joe’s view of things. It inspired him to be as he was. It inspired us who saw it in him. You knew that his God was as St John says he is: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ This was his way, his truth, his life.

Thank you Joe for everything you gave us. May you rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Durham Cathedral, 19 September 2015 (1 John 4.7-16; John 14.1-7)

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