Jesus of Nazareth was a man who loved the mountains. So when his disciples returned from strenuous missionary journeys announcing the kingdom of God throughout many hillside towns of Galilee, he invited them to “come apart and rest awhile.” There in solitude and with fraternal love, he could continue to deepen within them his vision of the kingdom of God. That invitation of Jesus is a most appropriate way to celebrate this funeral liturgy for our beloved Fr. Cassian. We make up such a great variety of witnesses to his human and spiritual impact on us as we come to bury our beloved brother, uncle, relative, fellow religious, churchman, and friend.
Innumerable well-deserved tributes will be written about Fr. Cassian as the word of his passing makes its way around the world rapidly with social media. His creative energy and passionate love for the Church launched him into so many different sectors of life and groups of people during his life and ministry as a Passionist. The remembrance of his contribution to the life of the church, especially in the half-century since Vatican II will be celebrated for a great while to come. But as we have gathered on this hill crowned with the Basilica of St. Anne, our concern turns to the prayerful celebration of Fr. Cassian’s life in Christ, his Passionist religious vocation and priestly ministry, and prayer for the comfort of his myriad relatives, friends and acquaintances who remember him with great admiration and affection.
In our first reading, Isaiah the prophet has invited us to come to Jerusalem, the mountain of the Lord, where a festive banquet will be prepared for all the nations. Isaiah is describing a future time when God will save all people from death and the abiding sense of separation from God, which was widespread over the earth, both then and now. Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah proclaims with great conviction that there will be a time when all people will rejoice in the God to whom they looked and he saved them. That is a glorious day we who live two thousand years after the resurrection of Christ Jesus still await in hope. Isaiah’s mountain was Jerusalem, which is about 2400 feet above sea level with a view looking southward out to the Judean desert. Hazleton PA rises some 1689 feet above sea level with no sea in sight, but surely there was great feasting and joy there on July 12, 1922 when the seven children of the Yuhaus family at that time welcomed this eighth child named Ferdinand into their ever-expanding clan which would eventually number fourteen siblings, of whom three died at birth. Though Ferdinand would receive the name of Cassian when he entered novitiate at 21 years of age, he would always be “Uncle Freddie” to some members of successive generations of the Yuhaus clan.
The biblical names of his parents, Adam and Elizabeth, invite us to interpret Fr. Cassian’s life from a biblical perspective right from the beginning. The name of Adam reminds us of our bond with every other human being, a quality, which deepened within Fr. Cassian as he came to love all people as men and women for whom Christ died. Elizabeth brings to mind the mother of John the Baptist, whose son would be herald of the coming of Christ, as Fr. Cassian would also give his entire life to announce what the coming of Christ meant for our lives and, indeed, for all the world. Elizabeth Yuhaus seems to have had a special gene for organizing pilgrimage trips mixed in with a fondness for winning at bingo. She must certainly have passed on this gene to baby Ferdinand who shared her enthusiasm for pilgrimage trips, and during summer holidays at Shelter Island also won a few friendly poker games from his Passionist brethren over the years. Amusement parks were few and far between in south-central PA in the 1920s and 1930s. Papa Adam Yuhaus was sexton of the church and his kids and grandkids delighted in helping him ring the church bell, especially when the swing of the giant bell pulled them up off the ground as they held tight on the rope.
The birth of Ferdinand Yuhaus put Hazleton on the map, so to speak, at least for those of us who had never been there nor knew of its greatness, as Fr. Cassian would enlighten us through the decades. I read the Hazleton article in Wikipedia on the Internet but surprisingly they make no mention of the momentous event of his birth. However, it is also true that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Bethlehem Tribune failed to make mention of his momentous birth either. The Gospels would have to recall that event much later. Momentous births are not often recognized when they happen but only in the light of what comes of this child. The Gospel of Luke says of Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, “What will this child be, for surely the hand of the Lord is with him?”
When you hear me describe Fr. Cassian’s birth as ‘momentous,’ you have no doubt already heard within you some echoes of his own viewpoint about life and his language style which seemed to have been permanently stuck in the comparative and superlative degrees of the English language and all the other languages he read and spoke. Though his time in Italy certainly fostered that tendency and his dramatic flare for gestures of the hands, I think it really goes back to being born into a large family with all the give and take brothers and sisters experience in their first years together and then through a lifetime. As the eighth child in this group big enough to field a baseball team, his penchant for the dramatic was most likely practiced from the cradle. The Yuhaus household was not like other families, simply a loving group gathered around the family hearth. I think the atmosphere must have been more like a volcano of love, which sent him forth as a teenager to share the love he had known in his family with the entire world. That formation in intense human love became a permanent factor in his life far from the hills of Luzerne County for the rest of his life, even until these last years, which he spent on this holy hill. I think he spoke in the superlative degree because he lived in the superlative, thought in the superlative, and prayed in the superlative!
If Fr. Cassian in any way exemplified those eminent qualities of love, which St. Paul enumerates in his canticle of love sent to the Corinthian community, surely the Yuhaus family had a hand in it all, taming young Ferdinand’s strong ego into a spirit of generosity and thoughtfulness of others. It was certainly in that household that God started to form in him the humility of authentic love which is never embarrassed, symbolically, ‘to wash the feet of others,’ as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in order to dramatize, note well, ‘dramatize’ the depth of his humility, as well as the readiness to lay down his life for them. “Faith, hope and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.” In the future, we may remember Fr. Cassian’s faith and hope which inspired a litany of accomplishments through teaching, writing, and programs he directed. But we will certainly remember most his love lived in the superlative degree.
So many people recall his innate sense that the things most of us take for granted and speak of in ordinary ways were, in fact, only the surface of something extraordinary. That is the mystical sense he brought to life, seeing beneath the surface of events, because he always saw the bigger context of history, thanks to his doctoral studies in Ecclesiastical History, and his conviction of the all-pervasive grace of God everywhere among us within human experience. In family life, he learned to laugh heartily with delight and a little bit of mischief, often marked by his keen insight into the ironic moments of life.
Once born in the mountain city of Hazleton, it seems that mountains, or at least small hills, were to play a significant part in his life. In July 1943, 21-year-old Ferdinand was given his new name of Cassian for religious life. He and his eleven classmates, like the twelve disciples of Jesus, spent their novitiate year at St. Paul’s Monastery on the hill entrusted to the first Passionists who arrived from Italy in 1852. Seventy years ago, the city of Pittsburgh was sometimes barely visible through the smoke from the steel mills of South Side. The novices rose at 2 AM for the chanting of the psalms. The roar of the sizzling molten steel being poured into different shapes occasionally punctuated their prayer. The novices could never forget the workers laboring hard for their family’s welfare and the patriotic efforts of a country deep in the midst of World War II.
Another Passionist hill would play a formative role in Fr. Cassian’s life, namely the Coelian Hill in Rome, which along with the Palatine and Oppian hills frames the valley of the Colosseum. Fr. Cassian first came to the Passionist residence there for his first post-ordination studies in Theology and Church History at the Gregorian University from 1952-54. He would return again from 1960-62 to complete his Doctorate in Church history, receiving the Papal Gold Medal for Excellence. So you can see where he got a taste for the superlative.
Near the Colosseum is a large bronze marker bearing a Latin inscription, which is translated, ‘This is the Center of the World.’ From that spot, distances along the extensive stone highways of the Roman road system were measured. Thus arose the proverb, “All roads lead to Rome.” Once again, looking back from our vantage point, some things make eminent sense. Was it not appropriate that Fr. Cassian live on the Coelian Hill for a while, since his life from that time forward would carry him almost to “all the world,” or certainly further than all the Roman roads put together? There is the superlative degree again. His expertise in establishing his Institute for Religious with renewal programs for religious women and men for decades led to his participation in the Synod on Religious Life. He worked with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), assisted in the development of RENEW which benefitted so many parishes nationally, was co-founder of the Institute for World Concerns at Duquesne University, directed the Cardinal Tardini Trust, and devoted more than thirty years to specialized consultation with Religious Institutes worldwide. This closeness to the upper echelons of the church inevitably led to homespun witticisms, such as an imaginary group of American pilgrims standing in St. Peter’s Square for the recitation of the Sunday angelus. One tourist says to the other, “Who is that man there in the white cassock on the balcony next to Fr. Cassian.” Or another humorous quip in which Fr. Cassian is in private conference with Pope John Paul II when the phone rings. The Pope answers the phone and says, “It’s for you, Cassian.”
It would take a great deal of time just to mention the extent of his contributions to the Church locally and internationally. His books and videos show his readiness to offer insight on living the faith today. Our experience of his exuberant descriptions of everything was only the tip of the ‘Cassianberg.’ Inside his mind and heart he was all energy, a “sun” emitting solar explosions, but very gently. His presence was quiet for the most part, but you could always sense there was something going on nonstop inside. You could find on his bookshelf the works of Teilhard de Chardin, a passage of which seems to point to what was going on inside Cassian himself. “What paralyzes life is lack of faith and lack of audacity… The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” (“The Evolution of Chastity” (February 1934), as translated in Toward the Future (1975) edited by René Hague.)
Fr. Cassian knew and spoke with people in whom the church has discerned the elements of sanctity. He personally knew St. Padre Pio from frequent conversations, as well as Pope John Paul II. He knew well our own Fr. Theodore Foley. No one of us has the knowledge or power to canonize someone as a saint, nor do I do that of Fr. Cassian today. But certainly I would dare say that many other people were led on the way to sanctity by being close to him. I am not thinking only of those to whom he ministered the sacraments of the Church as priest, nor even those from young to old whom he diligently counseled and encouraged to greater commitment to Christ than they might otherwise have chosen if they had not caught that fire of enthusiasm for the Lord from him. Rather, I am thinking of the many people over the years who were there for him when he needed a ride to the airport, often at breakneck speeds because he seemed to look upon airline schedules as rough estimates of when the stewardess would finally close the door of the plane for takeoff. It is good that most of his flying days were over before the more time-consuming security measures came to our airports. That would have greatly impeded his 100-yard sprints through airport concourses, which kept him in good physical shape for decades. I am thinking of those who experienced the concern of Christ when Fr. Cassian selflessly journeyed to console them as they buried their loved ones. I am thinking of those whose deepest secrets he received in the utmost confidence and carried in his prayer even to the last moment of his life.
“Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.”
Our churches usually depict the four evangelists with the images of the human face for Matthew, a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke and an eagle for John. The eagle image associated with John’s Gospel is often said to suggest that, like an eagle who soars swiftly to the highest mountain peaks, John’s theology soars to the throne of God. Indeed, the opening chapter of John lifts us up to the divine presence with its profound declaration, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.”
This particular Gospel mirrors well Fr. Cassian’s own passion to soar into the presence of the divine, but not alone. He always wanted to take others along, lifting them up as if on eagle’s wings, sheltering and encouraging them where they might fear to go. During one of Fr. Cassian’s frequent visits to Rome in the early 70s, I took a photo of him atop the open-air patio of the Generalate in Rome with the majestic dome of St. Peter’s some two miles away in the background. Those were the years when he seemed to spend more time in airplanes than on the ground. I gave him a copy of the photo with the caption underneath, “The Eagle has landed.” These words were a reference to July 21, 1969 when the Lunar Landing Module nicknamed “Eagle” brought the first American astronauts to the surface of the moon. During the Module’s dangerous descent, there was a terrifying silence when all seemed lost. Then came the words “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” It was followed by the historic words; “This is one step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.”
Today we remember and pray for the blessed repose of a loving and much loved man who played a small part in modern history in a variety of ways that are well documented, and countless other ways only the participants themselves know. In recent months, Fr. Cassian passed through a dangerous time and that death which brings a terrifying silence as it did also on Calvary. But today in the spirit of the risen Lord, whose body and blood gives us strength for our present journey and the promise of eternal life at the great banquet of the Lamb of God, we can say with great faith, deep hope and that genuine love, which Fr. Cassian nurtured in us, “Tranquility has come. The eagle has landed.” May he rest in the peace of Christ, whose cross he bore and whose love he imitated and shared with us to the end.
Rev. Paul Zilonka, C.P.