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

Sunday, 29 March 2015

'Papa Joe': A personal tribute to Canon Dr Joe Cassidy RIP

Canon Dr Joe Cassidy, the Principal of St Chad’s College, died suddenly on 28 March 2015. He had had a serious heart attack a week ago but he and we all thought he was recovering very well. He was sending upbeat messages across the world from his Blackberry. He was expected back at work after a few weeks' convalescence. Now, without warning, he has been taken from us. His death is a cruel loss. Our fond thoughts and prayers are with Gillian his wife, their children Emmeline, Marianne and Benedict, his wider family, his beloved St Chad's College, and his many colleagues and friends in Durham and beyond.  

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: the elegant front door of the College is directly opposite the Cathedral’s majestic east end. The College invited me to be first its Visitor, and then Rector. Joe 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, and this is not least due to Joe’s generosity, kindness, personal warmth 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 Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan. Joe was a Canadian himself (and had the accent to prove it). In due course he himself joined the Society of Jesus where among a wide range of involvements he was a much valued retreat conductor and spiritual director. Accompanying others of every age on their spiritual journeys was close to his heart all his working life.

His gifts took a new ecumenical dimension when he became an Anglican in 1993.  He would contribute significantly to the councils of the Church of England, including General Synod, though I wonder if his intellectual acuity as a theologian was sufficiently acknowledged. In 1997 he came to Durham as Principal of St Chad’s, an independent Anglican foundation within Durham University. 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’, someone said of him), his practicality, his capacity to solve problems, his sheer appetite for hard work were all important aspects of his leadership of St Chad’s.
But most important, I think, were his personal and spiritual qualities. If you ask Chad’s students and alumni what they will remember ‘Papa Joe’ for, you will hear a lot about his humane wisdom, his personal warmth, his quick-witted love of repartee and his intellectual liveliness. (He thought and spoke fast: you had to keep up.) And 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 so that everyone can flourish. This was the kind of college he set out to shape at St Chad’s. I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that in this project, he was brilliantly successful.

At the College Domus Dinner the other night, this was what I was being told on all sides from Chadsians past and present, whether they were staff or students. It’s sometimes a cliché to say that someone is ‘much-loved’ but this was genuinely true of Joe. I’m so glad that before he died he was able to hear tributes to his leadership expressed publicly on that lovely occasion (including a faltering offering from me as Rector) and that he could know how much he was valued and loved. In his modesty, he did not want to make too much of it. Self-deprecation was an endearing trait. Though I’d prefer to call it genuine humility, a beautiful quality in anybody but especially in those who are called to lead where many follow.
Joe’s death is a sad loss to the Cathedral too. He belonged to the ‘Foundation’ as a member of its College of Canons and Council. He loved the Cathedral and valued his own as well as the College’s connection with it. He said so in the Cathedral just a few short weeks ago at the annual College Day service. At the end, he suddenly produced from nowhere a green College hood and invested me with it, saying that the College had resolved to make me a life-fellow to recognise the importance it attached to its relationship with the Cathedral. ‘Now this relationship is for life’ he said. Alas that his own was so cruelly cut short the following month. It’s a loss I feel very personally.

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. This is the only tribute that would matter to Joe.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

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