The Art of Disruptive Dialogue

A Tribute to Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy (1924–2021)

April 15, 2021 by

If we wish to live the Gospel we must love one another as the Lord loved us. We have to seek to be reconciled with one another, which means first of all, to know the other, as the other really is, and to admit that there is a great deal that we need to ask pardon for. . . .
We are brothers in Jesus Christ and it is he who brings us together, not we who come together just because we want to. There is a call to come closer together and to try to live out the Christian values in a world in great need of this witness.
Edward Cardinal Cassidy, September 19, 1996

When he spoke these words, Cardinal Cassidy was the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity – a post he held in Rome from 1989 to 2001. Though at the time he was in the midst of a major ecumenical initiative with the Lutheran Church that culminated in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, he still found time to attend a private meeting at the residence of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York with Bruderhof representatives, Johann Christoph and Verena Arnold, and my father, Art Wiser.

CEmbedThe author with Cardinal Cassidy.

Cardinal O’Connor was at the Woodcrest Bruderhof within a month – the first Catholic cardinal to ever set foot on a Bruderhof – for the purpose, as he put it, of “exploring together how we can come closer in faith and in love to spread the kingdom of God on earth.” Responding to a rousing rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah that none of us present will ever forget, he said, “That’s as good as anything I’ve ever heard in St. Patrick’s Cathedral!”

A cardinal at a Bruderhof making comparisons to a Catholic cathedral? Never! That’s the way my brain would have worked growing up at Woodcrest in the 1960s. Whether true or not, I learned early on that Eberhard Arnold had vowed he would never enter a Catholic church. Idolatry. Praying to the saints. Obsession with Mary. Transubstantiation. Nothing doing. It was never his intent to start a stand-alone church, and in the 1930s Arnold solidified the connection between the small German Bruderhof community he co-founded and the five-hundred-year-old Hutterite Church – a profoundly prescient move that grafted this tiny shoot onto the Anabaptist vine and arguably saved the Bruderhof from Nazi annihilation.

More than half a century later, with the Hutterite relationship fraying beyond repair, Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold made what I view to be one of his boldest moves. Reminiscent of his grandfather’s desire to forge strong connections with other believers, he reached out to the Catholic Church, searching for common ground. He found more than that. He found another man of equal boldness and vision in the person of Cardinal Edward Cassidy.

By the time my wife, Grace, and I visited Cassidy at his residence in Newcastle, Australia he was eighty-nine, had recently had hip surgery, and found himself greatly in need of a walking stick he fondly called “George.” George had a way of disappearing just when he was most needed and at one stage we mounted a robust search for the truant because the cardinal wanted to show us around the house; George was eventually found in the pantry and our tour continued.

Cardinal Cassidy may have been feeling his age in 2013, but he was certainly quite capable of vividly recalling the details of the 1996 meeting in New York, the first of several encounters he had with Bruderhof brothers and sisters. And he relished the idea, which he knew to be true, that embarking on the Bruderhof–Catholic dialogue required a massive paradigm shift for us as well as the Catholic Church. In fact, he seemed to take secret delight in the idea of obstacles that required excessive amounts of mental and spiritual effort to overcome.

And that was his genius, a gift that he wielded with quiet determination. For it was Cardinal Cassidy who, in that initial meeting, suggested a path forward for fruitful Bruderhof-Catholic dialogue and eventually mutual labor in the service of Christ – not in separate parts of the vineyard, but together, shoulder to shoulder. In his words,

It can be that we can come together as Bruderhof and Catholic Church, to say something together. . . . You would have to work on that a little, but I wouldn’t see it as a great, huge problem. It’s just a question of doing it.

I had to chuckle over those last lines because “working on it a little” turned out to be a seven-year marathon. Dad not only led the charge, he hung on with the tenacity of a British bulldog when things seemed to stall interminably over the course of those long years. Good on him, it was on to the finish line no matter what!

A Call to Purity: A Joint Statement of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and the Bruderhof Communities was signed on August 19, 2003 in New York by Pastor Arnold for the Bruderhof and Sister Mary Elizabeth of the Family Life and Respect Life Offices of the Archdiocese. Eleven years later the same document was officially signed by Timothy Cardinal Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, the result of another fruitful relationship.

Dad was there and is quoted as saying, “We’ve been praying for this for seven years!” He was never one to talk about his own contribution, but I think he’d forgive me for adding the word working to praying. Many were involved on both sides, notably Dad’s good friends Father Benedict Groeschel and Richard John Neuhaus. There are too many to name, and our thanks goes out to you all, the living and the deceased.

From the first encounter, Cardinal Cassidy saw the genesis and eventual signing of A Call to Purity as the best path toward a Bruderhof audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome. Pastor Arnold first met the pope at a small gathering of church leaders in O’Connor’s residence in 1995. Sensing immediately that here was a truly humble man of God, Arnold spoke often of his desire for a longer encounter with the pope and voiced this wish during the meeting with Cassidy the next year. The audience took place in 2004, in no small part due to Cassidy’s advocacy and intervention up to the last moment, as he told me years later.

What manner of man was Cardinal Edward Cassidy that he would become so pivotal an instrument in this “disruptive dialogue” that continues to bear good fruit to this very day? Perhaps a few snippets in his own words will help paint a picture.

At the 1996 meeting in New York he said, “When I was undersecretary in the Pope’s secretariat, people would say, ‘You are the third most powerful person in Rome.’ I’d say, ‘Well, I’d like to know where all the power is, because all I find is work. I don’t know about any power. Well, it’ll probably get me a meal, but that’s not power.’ I felt that all I was doing was working.”

Following Dad’s death, he wrote, “I read [about your father’s life] with much pleasure and a little feeling of joy for having been given the opportunity of bringing my Church and the Bruderhof into a new relationship, based on love and spiritual respect.”

To a June 2014 email he added, “Many thanks for your greetings as we approach the great celebration of Pentecost. I join with you all in giving thanks to the Lord and to the Holy Spirit for the exciting events of the past years in relations between the Bruderhof and the Catholic Church. I feel sure that in the years ahead this friendship, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will continue to grow and produce good fruit, for the well-being of our communities and the nations in which we live. Come, Holy Spirit and enlighten our minds!”

And in 2015, Cardinal Cassidy closed the last email I received from him with these fitting words, as if to sum up his contribution and say farewell, “I read [your message] with great joy and gave thanks to the Lord for the progress and greater understanding between the Bruderhof and the Catholic Church. I am keeping reasonably well, but the years cannot be denied!”

Indeed, they cannot. And now it is left to those of us who knew and loved this brother in Christ to reflect on all the ways he touched and changed our lives.

One of my close Catholic friends is Bishop Michael Kennedy of the Diocese of Armidale, ordained in 1999 by Bishop Cassidy. Some years ago, Grace and I invited the bishop to our house in Armidale a few weeks before Christmas. After sharing table fellowship and singing carols I asked him for his favorite. It was “O Come, All ye Faithful.” Somewhat taken aback, considering the use of this number in shopping centers and the like, I asked him why.

Bishop Michael’s response beautifully illustrates what I have learned from my Catholic brothers and sisters. He said, “It is the chorus, ‘O Come Let us Adore Him’ which is repeated three times.” I have never sung this carol since without remembering the Christmas gift Bishop Michael gave me that evening.

I would never have met Bishop Michael if it had not been for Cardinal Cassidy and Pastor Arnold and the boldness of their vision to come closer together to better live the Gospel. (And allow me to throw Dad’s British-bulldog tenacity into the mix as well.) And without them I would never have, on several occasions, traded lunch at one of New York’s famous pubs to share the noon service in St. Patrick’s with a Catholic deacon friend of mine – just to be surrounded by a spirit of deep and silent adoration in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.

Though he is now departed, Cardinal Cassidy lives on, not only in eternal rest, but also in the lives he changed, all thanks be to God.


About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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