Published in Quadrant Magazine, Vol. 66, No. 4, April 2022, pp. 70-73.
On 19 April in the crypt of Sydney’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, churchman, ecumenical pioneer, former Papal Nuncio, Sostituto (Deputy) for General Affairs to the Secretary of State of the Holy See, tireless advocate of respect for the people of the first Covenant, was interred, after a two and a half hour Requiem Mass presided by the Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana, the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, fellow bishops, clergy, and a packed congregation.
The presence of members of Jewish, Orthodox Christian, and various Protestant denominations at the funeral indicated that this was no ordinary man. “Even if you cry your eyes out, don’t worry; he was worth every tear,” the Bishop of Wollongong, The Most Rev. Brian Mascord, said in his homily.
Cassidy was an unlikely priest and an unlikelier ecumenical leader. He transformed Catholic relations not only with the “separated brethren” – other Christians – he also forged a new relationship of understanding between Catholics and Jews. No Australian Catholic since Saint Mary MacKillop of the Cross had greater influence on the Church. No Australian, notwithstanding Cardinal Pell’s recent eminence, rose so high in the Holy See, with such lasting, global impact.
His memoirs, My Years in Vatican Service (2009), and book Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue (2005) convey that perhaps only an Australian of his type could be so winningly effective.
Cassidy was born to non-Catholic parents who acrimoniously separated when he was a toddler (in 1926 his mother took his just-born baby brother, Douglas, to live with her and her de facto partner, whom she married 16 years later) and Cassidy was brought up by his paternal grandparents. His grandmother, a Catholic, while on holiday at Gulgong in country NSW, decided to arrange what she had not done for her sons: baptism into the Catholic faith (although Cassidy was already christened in the Church of England). His father was an itinerant worker who stayed in touch, his granddad a retired mineworker on a pension — a poor but loving family.
Apart from a few years attending a convent school at Bondi, schooling was by the state near where he lived at Punchbowl and Condell Park — Bankstown Central (for primary) and then at Parramatta High School. There were no Catholic catechetical classes at the latter, so Cassidy went to the Methodist minister’s group. Yet he was determined in his Catholicism from a young age, trekking across paddocks to attend St Felix de Valois Church on Chapel Road, Bankstown. One parish priest, the Catholic historian and later Archbishop, Eris O’Brien, encouraged him to contemplate holy orders. After his grandfather died in 1939, and to support his grandmother, young Ed left school at 15 without completing his education, a common experience for impoverished working-class lads.
A new parish priest at St Felix thought his “unsuitable” background (divorce was then rare to Catholics), lack of upbringing in the faith by Catholic parents or attendance at parish schools, and limited education, meant that he should seek something secular. To obtain his Leaving Certificate, Cassidy undertook further, night-time studies, while employed as a clerk in the Department of Road Transport. A direct appeal to (then) Archbishop Norman Gilroy led to his being accepted for training for the priesthood. During holidays from the Springwood and St Patrick’s seminaries, he worked at David Jones department store in the city. Cassidy was ordained in July 1949, along with the future Archbishop of Sydney and Cardinal, Edward Clancy (1923-2014), by his side. After the service, Cassidy’s father told him that he had been received into the Catholic faith which was why he received Holy Communion. His mother was also in the congregation; Cassidy persuaded her to join the reception, on the same day they spoke for the first time.
At Yenda in Wagga Wagga Diocese, he learnt some Italian (useful for ministering to Italian migrants in the NSW Riverina.) In 1952, Bishop Francis Henschke (1892-1968) suggested he undertake canon law studies in Rome.
Cassidy’s new teachers were unable to pronounce the name of his diocese. Cassidy latinised the Wiradjuri people’s expression (“wagga wagga”) as Corvo Polilanus (place of the crows). Graduating in 1955 with a doctorate (on the history and juridical nature of the apostolic delegations), he entered the papal diplomatic service, serving in Asia, Latin America, and Europe.
Appointments followed to India (1955-62), and years later, as he congratulated Mother Teresa (1910-97), her success something he could not at first imagine, she responded: “I used to come away from the internuciature thinking the papal representative and his secretary should really have more faith!”; then Ireland (1962-67), just as the Second Vatican Council commenced. He drolly comments in his memoirs: “Already in 1967 the BBC television was becoming readily available in large areas of Ireland, bringing new, secular thoughts and propaganda right into Irish homes…”; El Salvador and Argentina (1967-70), where he knew Óscar Romero, “a close friend”. “Unfortunately,” he says of this martyr, murdered in 1980, “some members of the church in Latin America, including cardinals, have judged Romero harshly, branding him an exponent of the theology of liberation…” He disagreed with this assessment and commented: “[Archbishop Romero, since 2018, Saint Óscar Romero] did not find it easy to be at home with the wealthy elite. But the Church had placed him there, and he did as his conscience demanded and became the voice of a suffering people.” Then came two years as pro-nuncio in Taiwan (1970-72); hurriedly consecrated in Rome as an Archbishop beforehand. Through sources in Hong Kong and directly, he pursued contacts between the official and underground Church in China, as the Holy See, like most of the rest of the world, quietly downgraded representation to Taipei. Pope Paul VI visited Hong Kong on 4 December 1970 and preached: “There comes to this far eastern land, for the first time in history, the humble apostle of Christ that We are. And what does he say? Why does he come? To sum it up in one word: Love. Christ is a teacher, a shepherd, and a loving redeemer for Christ too. The Church cannot leave unsaid this good word: love, which will be forever.” Still nominally responsible for Taiwan, he then he moved to Bangladesh, 1973-79, with Burma added to his portfolio. In the Jubilee Year 2000, Cassidy celebrated Mass in Bengali at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the first time the language was spoken at that altar.
Then came a series of appointments in Southern Africa 1979-84. He noted: “It was difficult, however, to preach peace and patience when one could not foresee an end to the injustice they experienced daily.”
His most difficult role was in The Netherlands 1984-88, where the liberals were becoming more liberal, the conservatives more doctrinaire, as the Catholic Church rapidly declined. Cassidy played a harmonising, conciliatory role, including with the Pope’s official visit in May 1985.
Cassidy explains his respect for John Paul II, who sought to teach “with authority, but also by persuasion.” He acutely sums up the challenge: “… the Servant of God insisted constantly… on the deep-seated harmony between faith and reason, and between the moral law and the well-being of the human person and of society.”
Then came Cassidy’s appointment as No. 3 in the Holy See, as the Pope’s chief of staff, as the Substitute for General Affairs to the Secretary of State of the Holy See (1988-89). Some Vatican gossipers thought “it was a bit too much” that such an important figure played tennis with members of his staff, including his Swiss Guards.
After urging the Holy Father to reconsider the offer (he thought himself unworthy), from 1989 to 2001, came Cassidy’s most significant roles: President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and, separately, of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. He set out to continue the work of Vatican II with renewed vigour. Nearly 67, in 1991 Cassidy was elevated to Cardinal.
Cassidy sometimes referred to the ecumenical movement as akin to climbing a very high mountain, where the hardest steps are those towards the top. Looking back, he says: “In the first forty years of our ecumenical climb we had covered a lot of ground and were able to enjoy a new vision of unity, but to reach the summit of full communion will need the dedication and skill of the theologian and historian working together in a dialogue inspired and aided by the Holy Spirit. What has been achieved is already well worthwhile and truly beautiful, and surely is enough to encourage us to continue our efforts.”
There were notable achievements, particularly the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) between Catholics and Lutherans. This aimed to resolve the dispute between the reformation communities, in Cassidy’s words, on “the way we are justified or, stating it more simply, saved.” (Justification refers to how a person might justify their life at the gates of heaven.) Cassidy goes on: “the problem was in understanding the relationship among faith, works and justification.” A solution is proposed in these words: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” Here is not the place to exhaustively discuss the nuances, though it is interesting that the World Methodist Council subsequently adopted the Declaration in 2006. So too, in 2017, did the World Communion of Reformed Churches, representing around 80 million members of Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting, and Waldensian churches.
Cassidy is absorbing in his discussions about ecumenical movements, the relations between Catholics and various Eastern rite, Anglican, Orthodox, and other faiths. Though in many ways doctrinally close, the Orthodox and Catholic faiths have not made sufficient progress towards reunification: “History… has left a bitter heritage that makes these relations particularly difficult and delicate.” After all, “…the second millennium saw divisions, condemnations and the Crusades.”
Cassidy had a generous and ambitious perspective on ecumenism: He wanted phased reconciliation rather than mere conciliar “fellowship”. Cassidy was critical of what he called “pre-conciliator thinking”; he saw other Christians as brothers and sisters of the Catholic Church. As the Second Vatican Council declared: “All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honoured by the title of Christian and are properly regarded as brothers in the Lord by the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church…” Yet, sometimes, Cassidy was accused of wearing the garment of traditional Catholic dogma “lightly”. His references to and attempts to articulate and accommodate legitimate diversity in the context of unity set off alarm bells. But that is unfair to Cassidy’s understanding of the challenges and appreciation for the need for step-by-step progress, mindful of orthodoxy.
Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint (“That they may be one”, 1995) on the commitment to ecumenism highlighted areas in need for fuller study before actual unity could be possible. Five major areas were: (1) the relationship between sacred scripture and sacred tradition. (This touches on the debate about the authority of the Bible alone, together with interpretations and development of theology, including through the Catechism and Magisterium of the Church); (2) The meaning of the Eucharist, as the sacrificial memorial and real presence of Christ and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit. (This alludes to the transubstantiation debate, as well as the place/significance of the Eucharist in Christianity.); (3) Ordination, as a sacrament, and the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate. (Which is to beg discussion on Christian forms or organisation such as for example in the Presbyterian and evangelical traditions); (4) The Magisterium of the Church on the teaching and safeguarding of the Faith. (This calls attention to Papal authority, the idea of pentarchy, the doctrines, desiderata, and disagreements relating to the Christian teaching through millennia, etc.); and (5) The Virgin Mary and Her significance. (Which opens discussion, for example, on Catholic teaching that Mary was born without sin and is the Spiritual Mother who intercedes for all humanity, etc. Such teachings are anathema to many in the Protestant traditions).
Not everyone in the Curia wanted Cassidy to succeed. In some circles, there was keenness to run the doctrinal Geiger counter over things for indications of doctrinal impurity. In 2000, the document Dominus Jesus, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, bluntly stated: “…the ecclesial communities which have not conserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense.” Cassidy, almost in despair, wrote: “This is of course Catholic doctrine, but hardly anything could be more delicate than to tell another Christian community that they are not a church.”
As for better relations between Catholics and Jews, the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 document Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) provided guidance. Significantly and astonishingly, Cassidy was trusted to sort out the doctrinal and practical issues of Jewish-Catholic relations. In 1998, the statement We Remember is addressed to all Catholics to meditate on the significance of the Shoah: “To remember this terrible experience is to become fully conscious of the salutary warning it entails: the spoiled seeds of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism must never again be allowed to take root in any human heart.” Cassidy argued that We Remember meant that “…we who are members of the Church… are called to repentance (Teshuvah)…” This Hebrew word signifies regret of misdeed, decision to change, and verbal expression of one’s sins during the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Cassidy noted an uneasiness “in many circles to the idea of a mea culpa.” There was a lot to consider, including the Church’s and its members’ past wrongs (for example, the ghetto came into being in 1555 with a Papal Bull), and the theology of supersessionism, that God’s Covenant with the Jews was cancelled by Christ’s with mankind. The portrayal of the Jews in past Church teaching as doomed to homeless wandering, as a result of the Crucifixion, required radical reassessment and repudiation.
Cassidy’s Australian background added depth to his thinking. He privately said that in Sydney and Melbourne, for example, Catholic-Jewish relations, particularly within the laity were healthy with many strong, friendly, informal, and personal links, in contrast with many European countries.
Cassidy was sympathetic to Covenant “dualism”, as was Pope John Paul II in several speeches, though the doctrine was never formally expounded as such. The dualism is that both Covenants operate in perpetuity.
This sparked various counter reactions. After Cassidy’s retirement, Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918-2008; Catholic convert son of John Foster Dulles, the former US Secretary of State) argued that only through Christ can we be saved, in opposition to what he considered dualism’s wobbly thinking. In an article in the journal First Things (November 2005) on ‘God’s Covenant with Israel’, without naming Cassidy, Dulles argued his case.
The language of the Catholic Church in official documents and proclamations has, however, in the years since, decisively shifted to the Cassidy position. Saint Pope John Paul II said: “Judaism is not to be considered simply as another religion; the Jews are instead our ‘elder brothers’.” On 17 November 1980, the Holy Father delivered a speech to representatives of the Jewish community in Mainz, Germany, where he asserted that God’s Covenant with the Jewish people was never revoked. Benedict XVI refers to our “fathers in faith”. In 2015, the Holy See released a new document authored by the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, including Cardinal Kurt Koch, which concluded that Jews do not need to be converted to find salvation. “…from a detached coexistence, Catholics and Jews have arrived at a deep friendship.”
Pope Francis in Evangelia Gaudium “The joy of the Gospel” (2013) states that “while it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists a rich complementarity as well which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.” The continued love of God for the chosen people of Israel is not questioned.
Cassidy’s work ultimately led the Church to lean to the position that God’s Covenant with the Jewish people is eternal (not cancelled by Christ’s Covenant with mankind); implicitly, for Catholics to aggressively evangelise the Jews is disrespectful to their Covenant.
Such developments were amazingly significant in theological terms in recasting 2000 years of bad history. Perhaps because Cassidy came from a place (Australia) without history of active, fierce, murderous anti-Semitism, because of his obvious emotional sincerity, and shame for past sins, because his personality and wisdom matched the task, because John Paul II also wanted better relations, the confluence was right for the moment.
After 50 years absence, he returned to Australia in 2002, and lived in Newcastle, serving the Italian community in the Diocese (his fluency considerably improved since those days in the Riverina), and assisting a parish in Hamilton. His nimble priestly ministry continued up to only a few years ago, his mind fully alert to the end, dying on 10 April 2021.
As our Jewish friends say: may his memory be a blessing. His humility, good humour, convictions, and instinctive search for common ground, on firm foundations, are some of the reasons why.
In this obituary, I hesitated about proclaiming Church teaching on the continuing covenant with the people of Israel which, arguably, was Cardinal Cassidy’s most significant contribution to theological debate. I wrote above about the Church “leaning” to a particular position. My uncertainty came from reading Avery Cardinal Dulles’ article ‘The Covenant with Israel’, First Things, November 2005, wherein he fiercely contested whether two covenants exist, adhering to traditional Catholic teaching that the covenant with the people of Israel was supplanted by a new covenant with all the peoples of the world.
The better view today is that former Church teaching is superseded; that the “leaning” is close to contemporary orthodoxy. There are two covenants.
In Pope Francis’ Papal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “On the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world”, issued in November 2013, a section deals with Relations with Judaism, which reads:
247. We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity (cf. Rom 11:16-18). As Christians, we cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God (cf. 1 Thes 1:9). With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word.
248. Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples. The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians.
249. God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism. While it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists a rich complementarity as well which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.
The words “…their covenant with God has never been revoked” are clear. Thus, Cassidy’s view on a kind of covenant “dualism” is agreed (if not by everyone) as part of modern Church teaching.
I am grateful to Honorary Professor Jim Franklin (Mathematics, UNSW) for insights in reflecting further on this point.
On the person who was Cassidy, this article was my meagre attempt to get close. When someone of such significance and of easy reach departs, you wonder “why didn’t I get to know him better?” His nickname, naturally, was “Hopalong” – named after a fictional cowboy character, Hopalong Cassidy, invented early last century by the writer Clarence Mulford and popularised in movies and television series. But the person I (slightly) knew was nothing like the rough diamond character of fiction.
Through my friend John McCarthy QC, I met the then Archbishop Cassidy in 1989 and he enabled a meeting between Mary and I in a private audience of around 20 with Pope John Paul II in the Holy See that same year. To repay that gift of good will, I tried to honour Cardinal Cassidy’s memory by taking him seriously. I am grateful to the editor of Quadrant magazine in getting this tribute published in the exact month a year after he died. (Of course, I tried for earlier, but better writers claimed space ahead of me.) One day, though no day soon for me, it would be interesting to assess how Cassidy with others got the statement on justification agreed with the Lutherans – the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) – then with others, an astonishing achievement with continuing impact.