The man who would become Cardinal Cassidy came into the Church at a tender age, attended night school to complete his secondary education, and went on to a surprising ecclesiastical career.
By Philippa Hitchen
Australian Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, who died on April 10th at the age of 96, was a skilled diplomat and visionary ecumenist, but also a man of great simplicity and authenticity, who inspired trust and promoted reconciliation among the divided Christian churches.
Born in 1924 in Sydney, Edward Cassidy seemed a most unlikely candidate for the priesthood, let alone a member of the elite College of Cardinals. “I was the child of parents, neither of whom were Catholic,” and who divorced when he was a year old, he recalls in his 2009 autobiography My Years In Vatican Service. He was placed in the care of his paternal grandparents and it was his grandmother who arranged for him to be received into the Catholic Church, after earlier baptism into the Church of England.
At 15, when his grandfather died, he left school and got a job as a clerk in the New South Wales Department of Transport. Yet despite his “unsuitable” background, the dream of training for the priesthood was never far from his mind. He attended night school to complete his high school education and was accepted into the seminary, receiving his priestly ordination in Sydney in 1949.
After two years in parish ministry, he was sent to Rome to study canon law and then became the first Australian to be accepted at the prestigious Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy which trains priests to serve in the Holy See’s diplomatic corps. Nobody was more surprised than Cassidy himself, who had never imagined a career outside of his native Australia. In his autobiography he reflects on his feelings of trepidation, mixed with a deep sense of service to the Church:
I found courage (or perhaps consolation) from the thought that should I not come up to scratch, I could claim that I had not sought to enter this special college and I knew that Bishop Henske would always be ready to welcome me back to the Wagga diocese. In any case, I had given my life to the priesthood within the Catholic Church, and I felt deeply then, as I have throughout my life, that I should accept to do whatever the Church asked of me.
He spent 33 years working in diplomatic missions in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, before being tapped to serve for two years as the Vatican’s first non-Italian Substitute Secretary of State, a position akin to a papal chief of staff.
In 1989, there was another surprise in store.
Pope John Paul II appointed him to head the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), taking over from long-serving Dutch Cardinal Johannes Willebrands. Once again, Cassidy felt ill-equipped to take on such a responsibility. Yet during his time in office, he promoted the resumption of dialogue with the Orthodox Church, as well as drawing up agreements with the Oriental Churches of Assyria and Armenia. Together with former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, he established the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission to promote the reception of agreements, as well as shared worship and practical cooperation.
In 1999, he led the Catholic Church in the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
That document overcame divisions on the key question of salvation or justification, which had been at the heart of Catholic-Protestant conflicts since the Reformation. Following the signing ceremony in a Lutheran church in Augsburg, Germany, Cassidy spoke of the opportunities for Catholics and Lutherans “of moving ahead into a new millennium close together.” He praised the dedication of Lutheran and Catholic leaders who worked hard to overcome “the situations of hostility and mistrust” of previous centuries and predicted that milestone moment “should lead to very good results in the long term.”
Over the past two decades, Methodists, Anglicans and the Reformed Churches have signed on to the JDDJ, making it an important ecumenical platform for common witness and practical cooperation across confessional lines. LWF’s Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, Prof. Dr Dirk Lange paid tribute to the Australian cardinal’s legacy, saying: “Cassidy was a visionary ecumenist. In noting the significance of the JDDJ, he pointed to its potential, not only for Lutheran-Catholic relations, but also for a growing ecumenical consensus and unity.”
As President of the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, Cassidy also helped to build ties with the Jewish world, leading to the publication of a historic 1989 Vatican document entitled We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.
The document calls for repentance by Catholics for the part that anti-Jewish prejudice played before and during the Holocaust. On hearing of the cardinal’s death, the World Jewish Congress gave thanks for his life and legacy, noting that when he took over as head of the Commission, relations were seriously strained over a Carmelite convent of nuns living close to the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz, Poland. Executive Vice President Maram Stern recalled that Cassidy “played a leading role in resuming dialogue between Catholics and Jews,” and also became “the first church official to call publicly for Catholics to do teshuvah, the Hebrew term for repentance.”
Paying tribute to the late cardinal in a telegram to the Apostolic Nuncio in Australia, Pope Francis spoke of his “zeal for the spreading of the Gospel and his commitment to promoting Christian Unity.” The PCPCU issued a statement recalling with gratitude “his many contributions, and in particular for his gift of healing wounded relationships, promoting reconciliation, and building trust as key attributes of ecumenical relations.”
Council Secretary Bishop Brian Farrell remembers his typically Australian “directness and concern for fair play which made a big impression” in the Roman Curia. “What stands out in my memory,” Farrell told the Catholic Herald, is “his quick intelligence, his kindness, his ability to listen, and his great love of the Church and its institutions. I have always been amazed at how many ecumenical partners, East and West, remember him with great gratitude and affection.”
“His evident trustworthiness and gentle manner, even in difficult situations,” Bishop Farrell said, “earned him many friends in the ecumenical world and in the Jewish community.”
The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference also mourned the loss of one of their most senior clerics. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, head of the Bishops’ Conference, said the cardinal will be remembered not only for his “diplomatic skill and political astuteness, but also human authenticity and common sense.”
Other Australian prelates added their own tributes, including Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney who highlighted the “remarkable legacy” he left on the Church, “especially in the field of ecumenism.” Archbishop Fisher added: “Few other Australians have had such a profound impact on the Catholic Church on the international stage and I’m sure he will continue to inspire Church leaders for many years to come.”
Philippa Hitchen is a journalist with more than 30 years’ experience at Vatican Radio, specializing in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. She has also written and reported for many secular and religious news media, including the BBC, The Tablet, The Church Times and The Messenger of St. Anthony.
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