His Eminence, Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy kindly granted Catholic Outlook an exclusive interview about his extraordinary life, faith and work for the Holy See, speaking to journalist, Jordan Grantham.
The 93 year old was the most highly-ranked English speaking Cardinal of the 20th century, meeting Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Kings, Queens and all Holy Fathers since Pope Pius XII.
The Parramatta High School old boy had an unlikely journey to the Vatican, let alone the Catholic faith and priesthood.
“That was 20 years ago,” the retired Cardinal Cassidy said with self-deprecation about his time in the Vatican.
He served mostly as a Vatican Diplomat, then as Substitute of the Secretariat of State in the Vatican in 1988 and finally as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
His official appointments included:
Substitute of the Secretariat of State (1988 – 1989)
Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Netherlands (1984 – 1988)
Apostolic Delegate to South Africa (1979 – 1984)
Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Lesotho (1979)
Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Bangladesh (1973 – 1979)
Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to China (1970 – 1973)
Cardinal Cassidy had a difficult childhood, born to non-Catholic parents who divorced when he was one-year-old, leaving him to be raised by his maternal grandparents.
His grandmother, Mary Cassidy, was Catholic and she had him secretly received into the Catholic Church while on holiday with relatives in the country.
Young Edward attended public schools throughout Sydney, winning entrance to the selective Parramatta High School, which he studied at until his grandfather died. Financial difficulties required him to work to support his grandmother and himself.
Cardinal Cassidy was initially discouraged for the priesthood because of his family background and lack of Catholic schooling.
He eventually worked up the courage to approach the Archbishop of Sydney directly, who encouraged him to finish his high school education, which he did at night and then gained admittance to St Patrick’s Seminary, Manly.
“And then my grandmother died…I then used to stay [during seminary holidays] with my father there in Surry Hills,” where his father was a boarder, Cardinal Cassidy said.
His mother and father both converted to the Catholic faith before his ordination to the priesthood.
His mother surprised him by attending the ordination and his father converted one year prior.
“I was not aware that my mother was at that Mass, but afterward she came to congratulate me. Very reluctantly, she accepted to stay on for the reception,” he said.
He only really developed a relationship with his mother after ordination, Cardinal Cassidy wrote in My Years in Vatican Service (Paulist Press, 2009).
Cardinal Cassidy’s most senior role in Australia was Assistant Parish Priest of Yenda, Diocese of Wagga Wagga. When the Diocese of Wagga Wagga requested clergy support from the Archdiocese of Sydney, he took the opportunity for a fresh start, without the stigma, at that time, about his family history.
His talent was spotted when Wagga Wagga sent him to study Canon Law at the Lateran University in Rome.
Popes had a habit of taking Cardinal Cassidy by surprise.
The first was when he found out Canon Law was not the end of his time in Rome.
“I had no intention of staying beyond my doctorate. It was only when the Rector at the time of Sant’Apollinare said to me ‘The substituto wanted to see you’ and I said to him ‘Whatever for?’”
“It was Montini of course, who was later to become Pope [Paul VI] and he said to me ‘we would like for you to finish your studies and to go then to the Pontifical Academy,” Cardinal Cassidy said.
“And I said of course, ‘No way, my Bishop sent me over and I would owe it to him to go back’ and he said ‘But we’ve asked your Bishop’ [Cardinal Cassidy laughs] ‘and he thinks that it’s a very good idea’.”
50 years of service to the Church followed, all of it outside Australia.
“I didn’t miss much because I was having wonderful new experiences. I didn’t get home much because we went by boat back then. I found that I could fit in very well wherever I was,” he said.
Cardinal Cassidy’s experiences included meeting Mother Teresa, now St Teresa of Calcutta and Archbishop Oscar Romero, now Blessed Oscar Romero.
“She was very wonderful to meet, with all the work she did.”
“There was a little concern of course. You want to make sure people aren’t going to be taken in and abandoned. There was a little bit of that feeling,” Cardinal Cassidy said, referring to the huge growth of St Teresa of Calcutta’s Sisters of Charity.
“She laughed at me.”
Blessed Oscar Romero was a closer friend of Cardinal Cassidy, while he worked in the Nunciature in El Salvador.
“He had been in contact with the Nunciature and was a great help to me because of my Spanish.”
“A lovely fellow to work with, we became very good friends.”
This was followed by consecration to the episcopacy and work as Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the Republic of China, Bangladesh, Apostolic Delegate to Southern Africa and Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Lesotho and finally to the Netherlands.
As Substitute of the Secretariat of State, he received another surprise from a Pope, this time Pope John Paul II.
“We were discussing who was going to take over the ecumenical movement. He said ‘I’ve made a decision. I’ve found the right man.’ I said, ‘Well… after all the discussions… who is the right man?”
“He said ‘You are.’”
Cardinal Cassidy had a talent for building bridges between the Church and other faiths, even across the most wounded of relationships.
He became renowned for his contribution to ecumenism with the Eastern Orthodox, interfaith dialogue with Judaism and for the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Church, signed in 1999.
Upon retirement from 50 years of Vatican service he said Mass at the Hunter Valley Gardens winery chapel for the annual blessing of the harvest and at several local nursing homes.
What is it like having friends in high, heavenly places?
“I hope they’re looking after me and I hope to join them!” Cardinal Cassidy said with a smile.
“I don’t have the idea that I’m good enough for that, but I do my best.”