Father Robert Cassidy was my first pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Pawtucket, 45 years ago. While others might use less kind words, I will write that he was very strict.
One time a priest classmate came to the rectory to visit. It was in the summer and he was not wearing a suit jacket or a soft hat. After he left Father Cassidy remarked to me, “Who was that guy? Did he forget how to dress?” Another time when I must have left a light on all night or neglected some similar responsibility, he remarked, “You don’t care one bit about this parish. You’re just a hireling.” After a while our relationship became more amicable. At a CYO banquet in the church hall, Father Cassidy actually paid tribute to me by observing, “The success of this banquet just goes to prove that if you want something done then give it to a busy man.” I, of course, was that busy man.
Father Cassidy was ordained in 1916 and I was ordained in 1966. Come June 4, the anniversary of my ordination, we will between us span 95 years of the priesthood. Coincidentally we were both from the same home parish, St. Charles in Woonsocket. Father Cassidy and his generation of priests are generally remembered as being very firm, very strict, sometimes even severe. Those were the days when people were literally thrown out of church for arriving in Bermuda shorts, when altar boys were sent home if they showed up with sneakers instead of black shoes, when parents would not think of proposing a non-Catholic as a godparent. The irony here, of course, is that nowadays everyone is given a pass for their infractions and the churches are empty. Then you were lucky if you got the time of day from your pastor and the churches were full. There was indeed an enviable quality about the mindset of the pre-Vatican II clergy and especially of the senior members of that priestly fraternity. They were often right, sometimes wrong, but they were never in doubt. They possessed a very clear cut, if somewhat narrow, appreciation of the truth as they had received it and they rarely wavered from that awareness. Right was right and wrong was wrong, and it was their God-given duty to maintain the former and shun the latter. Many in our contemporary church wink at everything from cohabitation to inter-Communion and have lost this sense of definable truth to which clergy and laity alike must bear witness. Fear of alienation has replaced the fear of God. Compromise is everywhere. As Milton might observe were he here today, the post-Vatican II clergy spend too much time justifying the ways of man to God and too little time announcing the ways of God to man. There clearly is within Catholicism a manageable body of revealed truth and ethical conduct upon which both pastors and parishioners can agree. And there should be no apologizing for expecting that Catholicism’s truth will be honestly appreciated and strictly observed. Lack of discipline has led to lack of faith.
Jesus says very clearly in this Sunday’s Gospel passage, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It is rather odd that a loving, sympathetic, understanding person like Jesus Christ would choose the word “commandments” to describe the expectations that he had for his followers. The word is greatly authoritative; indeed it has a martial quality about it. But Jesus wisely knew that his message of salvation, his work of redemption, his gift of eternal life, was so precious that he refused to allow any casual language or diffident phrase to weaken it. Jesus knew that the finest favor he could do for succeeding generations of Christians was to insist on the uncompromising nature of his message. Negotiating would be selling his Gospel short and depriving his followers of the beauty of the truth. Like those old pastors, Jesus was serious about his message.
And, of course, Jesus was not just serious in his use of words. Jesus was more than serious in his saving actions. The suffering, death and burial of Jesus Christ speaks more eloquently than any word or phrase on how seriously Jesus appreciated his mission to announce, spread and nurture the truth. This is why he was born; this is why he came into the world – to bear witness to the truth. It’s tough to stand for the truth in a world that is accustomed to conciliation. But the old timers did it and earnest Christians will continue to do it in every generation.