Sunday, 20 September 2015

Homily for a Memorial Requiem Mass for Principal Joseph Cassidy, St Chad's College, Durham, 20 September 2015

The words of this evening's liturgy and its prayers are substantially unaltered from the text that St Chad himself knew in Latin, doubtless by heart, when he said Mass for the departed as abbot of Lastingham, then as bishop at York for the Northumbrians and later at Lichfield for the Mercians. The hallowed use of centuries, therefore, stands behind us as we voice them once more for the repose of Joe's soul; for the mercy of our God Who created him out of love and longed for His creature's perfection and completion in the Kingdom of heaven; and as we offer the very action of God Himself in sacrifice so that the world might be saved - saved from sin and set free from all that holds us back from the Kingdom (cf. Romans 8.21) and keeps us short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23); and saved for the new creation we are intended to be when in the last day we will find how we never die because in Christ Who was crucified there is none other than resurrection and life without limit (cf John 11.17-27).

Not only St Chad but Joe Cassidy treasured these words, and the offering of this sacrifice, from deep within his being from the moment of his ordination as a priest in God's one, holy, Catholic Church. We know his journey from Catholic to Anglican; from Jesuit to husband and father. We know too that his spiritual formation remained integral to his personality and ministry; and his priestly vocation was of the essence of him. Where I stand now in this sanctuary, he stood once too. And I remember vividly and with some awe, the holy men who stood here before him: John Fenton, a great seer of the Lord in the Scriptures and wise in prayer; and Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury and an apostle of God's glory. Tonight it is the turn of Catholic "Chadsians" - thanks to the gracious invitation of Dr Ashley Wilson the Chaplain of our College - to add the most sacred act of our Religion to all the other prayers that have gone before. We do so in the same spirit of unity in grief, affection, missing what has been lost, desiring to do something generous that will aid Joe and this College to which he dedicated his life, and so in a spirit of close meeting and solidarity.

Our Mass, you may have noticed, has a slightly different register from the beautiful, moving, poignant and glorious Memorial Service at which we all assisted this afternoon in Durham Cathedral in the Anglican tradition. For instance, in our prayers we have named Joe with his full name. This is not to be stiff and formal but to recall his Baptism, when "Joseph" was given to him as the name by which the Father calls him in his heart of hearts to become His own adopted son (cf. Romans 8.15). Again, we wear black vestments, not to be miserable, but to be true to our mourning and also to our confidence that the night into which Joe went off, as he began his sleep in the peace of Christ, was not the night of guilt and lost goodness into which Judas fled, but more like the Dark Night of the Soul in which God, Whom we cannot see, warmly and sweetly works his wonder of silently, intangible recreating us, purifying us, making us holy, finishing His forgiveness of us, and utterly raising us from out of the dead. It is not for nothing that at Notre Dame in Paris the vestments worn on Easter Day, the Feast of Feasts, were black - sumptuous, woven with silver and gold, their most striking and beautiful, showing light against the dark, their most brilliant and their best.

With these ancient words and conventions, it is the most loving thing to do, to pray for the forgiveness of Joe's sins, not because we fear for him or accuse him but because we are assured of the Lord, seeing our condition, has nothing but unconditional mercy. It is the most loving thing we can do to plead for the repose of his soul, because we are believers in God's inexhaustible promise of Paradise. It is the most loving thing we can do to ask for his admission to the glory and joy of heaven, because we and Joe had long been united in confidence that we shared it, by this very foretaste of it in this world.

Much has been said of Joe's capacity for love and inspiration, as well as his passion for justice and righting what was wrong. I speak for not a few alumni, who had mourned our belonging to St Chad's through too many difficult episodes in its history or ours, leading to what looked like at one point like its almost inevitable demise. We had become strangers in our own land. Joe reached out to us and restored what was lost. He enabled us to take pride once more in our place in St Chad's life and history. He did not approach us merely because as alumni we could be useful; he just wanted us to be part of everything. "Not the things that are yours, by you yourselves" (II Corinthians 12.14, the College's motto) - Non vestra sed vos indeed.

And now it is our turn to reach out with the same love and zeal for him to be brought in, from the night of repose to the glory of living eternally in the midst of God's light and truth. A contemporary of mine at St Chad's reminded me this afternoon that in one of John Fenton's great sermons he had said, "People tend to think of heaven as all clouds. Another image of heaven in the Bible is a feast. I know which I would prefer it to be." When Joe came to St Chad's it was under very heavy clouds. By the grace of God, he made it into a banquet of life, belonging, love, learning and joy. Tonight we pray that out of the clouds of passing out of this world into the Kingdom of heaven, like his Ascended Lord before him, aided by our prayers and the power of this sacrifice, Joe will enter upon the eternal feasting of life and love and joy.

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