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Seeking unity in diversity

Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy has played a significant role on the world stage breathing life into the Second Vatican Council’s documents on ecumenism and inter-faith relations. Last week he launched a book which aims to revisit and re-discover these ground-breaking texts. Stephanie Thomas spoke to Cardinal Cassidy about the people and events that shaped and prepared him for his work in ecumenism and inter-faith relations.

For the period 1990 until 2001 Sydney born Cardinal Edward Cassidy was the Vatican’s chief representative for ecumenical and inter-faith relations. He had worked in the Vatican’s diplomatic service from 1955 until 1988 followed by a two-year stint in the Vatican bureaucracy as Substitute Secretary of State, a position some describe as the third most powerful person in the Church. Given these noteworthy appointments it’s not surprising that Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Cassidy president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. But the Cardinal was shocked by this news, explaining to the Pope that he was no expert in the field of ecumenism and therefore not an appropriate appointment.

Now at 81 and reflecting on the rich life that has been, Cardinal Cassidy acknowledges that his thirty plus years serving as a Vatican diplomat in India, Ireland, El Salvador, Argentina, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Burma, South Africa and the Netherlands were important experiences for his later work on the world stage in ecumenical and inter-faith relations.

“I think the basic formation that I received from being in those different countries was a very deep understanding that we are all brothers and sisters of the one family, that racism just became something with no meaning for me… it becomes very hard afterwards to think of people as belonging to ‘the other’ as if they are nothing to do with me because we are all members of the one family.”

He recalls an incident to illustrate this point: “I invited some young people to come to work in my mission in Pretoria… [and] there were two in particular that I thought would be very good and I was speaking to my secretary when I came back about them and he said, ‘Are they white or coloured?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘What, you don’t know? Couldn’t you tell if they were white or coloured?’ I hadn’t thought about it… That was not one of my considerations at all whether the person was a coloured person or not… I was just interested in whether they would come, why they would come.”

When asked to name the people who have been influential in his life, both within and beyond the Church, it’s not surprising that Cardinal Cassidy acknowledges Cardinal Giuseppe Sensi, who he worked with closely during his post in Ireland, and Pope John Paul II. Another was Nelson Mandela. He admits that he didn’t have a great deal to do with Mandela, but having lived in South Africa from 1979 to 1984 as part of a Vatican delegation “at one of the worst times of the apartheid”, he was clearly influenced by the man.

“Out comes Mandela from all those years of Robben Island with every reason to be weighed down with vengeance and hatred, and not at all, [he was] ready to forgive, ready to work with the others for the nation, hardly ever a harsh word … and here he can come out and be such a wonderful example of reconciliation and of forgiveness.

“I think that was for me something that I then took into my work for Christian unity and inter-faith relations”, Cassidy says, “because basically that is a work of reconciliation and a willingness not to dwell on the wounds of the past, but to try and work together for healing the wounds and healing the broken world.”

So how did Cardinal Cassidy’s experiences as a diplomat shape his view of the Church? He uses a scriptural analogy to explain. “I’ve often described it… as being like a grapevine. A grapevine, if you take it from France and you plant it in California or plant it in Argentina in Mendosa or in Stellenbosch in South Africa or in the Hunter Valley [in Australia] or elsewhere in the world, it’s the same vine, but it produces a different fruit, a different wine…You cannot produce a French wine in South Africa, nor can you produce a South African wine in France… and I felt that is what happens with the Church.

“You take it, the missionaries take it out, they go with their own ideas, with their own background and culture, but then they meet with another culture and those two fuse eventually over the years so that that Church then in that part is not exactly the same as the Church in the country of origin. It’s still the same Church … the vine is the same vine, but the wine that it produces, the life, in other words that it leads, and the fruit that it produces is determined to a great extent by the culture and the experience, the historical background and so many other factors of the people.”

Cardinal Cassidy believes that this was a very important concept to remember when he worked in Rome, “not to see the Church as a uniform Church, but a Church which is one in diversity.”

When Cardinal Cassidy remembers his ordination to the priesthood in 1949 he is quick to say that the Church in Australia and in the world was very different. “We were still really influenced a great deal by the post Reformation period in the Church’s history, much on the defensive… to make sure that we preserved everything and kept it against whoever might want to attack.”

Speaking at the launch of Cardinal Cassidy’s book last week, the highly respected Jewish leader, Rabbi Raymond Apple said that it was the Second Vatican Council that “moved the Catholic Church away from defiant rejection of modernity to cordial conversation with the world. From then onwards, the Church would never be the same again, nor would the world.”

Cardinal Cassidy concurs with Rabbi Apple’s sentiments. He believes that the funeral of Pope John Paul II “was a sign of just how far, thanks to the Council, our Church has come in having really closer relations with other Churches and with other faiths.” He explains, “The head of the Greek Church was there, something a few years back would have been considered quite impossible, and we had Jews and we had other Muslims”, he explains.

Cardinal Cassidy concedes that much more needs to happen in the area of ecumenism but that doesn’t mean the Churches are to strive for sameness. “Unity in diversity… that’s what we would want with others”, he says. “We have to try to reach a stage where we can be in a real communion with each other, and that we can’t do unless we can have a much better understanding of the fundamentals of Eucharist because it is there on the Eucharist and ministry that we… have our greatest problem.”

Looking back on his time working toward Christian unity, Cardinal Cassidy mentions achievements and disappointments. He describes the Christian unity journey by saying, “It’s like climbing a mountain… At the beginning you don’t have too much trouble. Even an amateur climber can go so far… But then, you want to go up Everest or any of the other ones, every step is important and it’s going to take you time, and it’s going to take you patience. You may not even arrive, but the further you get up the more beautiful it is… You get up to a certain degree, you’ve now seen a whole new vision, a whole new world that you didn’t know was there.

“We’ve got over that early part which was getting away from the suspicion and the various false ideas we had of each other and the things that we said about others… We are much better off than when we started. But I think we can go further. But that’s difficult because each step now is really something that makes a great deal of difference.”

Cardinal Edward Cassidy’s book, “Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue: Unitatis Redintegratio, Nostra Aetate”, was launched last Thursday October 20 in the Great Synagogue of Sydney. It is the first of a series of eight volumes on the Second Vatican Council documents being published by Paulist Press to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the close of Vatican II.

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