Ask any parishioner of St. Francis Parish in Staunton about Msgr. Cassin and we will describe him with affection. Officially retired from the Washington Archdiocese, he is a priest in residence, a distinctive presence in cassock and hat, and the style of glasses favored by older priests and younger hipsters. Retired in title only, he celebrates at least one weekend Mass and a couple during the week, and often drops in to assist at additional services, or quietly slips into the back pew for a different perspective. His faith is strong and his homilies intelligent and inspiring, whether he is exhorting us to enjoy the gifts of God or to endure the trials of the world. His humor is quick but kind, as he likes to laugh, but only at himself specifically or at the human condition in general. He is eager to engage with parishioners and especially enjoys good news or fresh ideas, which he will ponder for a moment, affirm with an enthusiastic "Yes, well, isn’t that great! I must remember that!" and punctuate the point with his cane before heading off to save another soul or pass along a joke.
Fr. Cassin was ordained in his native Ireland in June of 1954 and celebrated his first Mass as a priest of the Washington Archdiocese three months later, at the age of 24. He spent the rest of the 20th century serving as a parish priest in various assignments throughout the same diocese, receiving the designation of monsignor at some point although he cannot be bothered to remember when or why. He delights in his flock rather than his achievements, as he says with quiet satisfaction, "I was always so proud of the people in my parishes."
In the late 1970's Msgr. Andrew Cassin was assigned to St. Pius X Church in Bowie, Maryland, where he met the Knestouts, a clan with nine children he describes as "an exceptional family, good Catholic people!" He was particularly impressed with a boyish Barry Knestout, a student of his who struck him as "very memorable, an unusually pleasant young man." The parish priest was implanting a few memories as well, as Bishop Knestout reminisces about his teenage and college years: "I remember specifically on a couple of occasions him speaking about vocations, their importance and encouraging young men to think about the priesthood. I couldn’t say he was the only influence on my call to the priesthood, as my parents take pride of place here, but he was a significant influence, giving me an example of a dedicated and happy priest. At the same time he could hold his own and exuded a strength and yet a gentleness of heart that gave a great example to me of priestly life." Thus, soon after college, he asked his pastor to recommend him to the seminary.
The seminarian took off to study at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg and his pastor was transferred a few years later to a parish in Waldorf where, at St. Peter’s Church, their paths would cross again. A fresh Fr. Knestout was sent there on his second assignment as parochial vicar and once again impressed his mentor, who recalls, "He was a wonderful assistant priest. I quickly found that no matter what I threw at him, he could handle it. I thought, ‘I can really trust this guy.’ And the people of the parish, they loved him!" The assistant remembers this as "an ideal assignment" for himself as well, noting that "Msgr. Cassin had clear expectations and gave good direction, yet gave me the leeway to manage my particular responsibilities according to my best judgment. It was here with his example that I gained a deeper appreciation of the role of the pastor."
That trustworthy young priest went on to lead his own parishes and to earn the confidence of the cardinals in the chancery of his home diocese. And now he is trusted by the Pope himself to shepherd the diocese that his old friend and sponsor chooses to call home. Asked if he has any predictions for Bishop Knestout’s tenure in Richmond, Msgr. Cassin says simply, "Well, if he hasn’t changed –and why should he?– people are just going to love him. He is an exceptionally fine man."
Our Msgr. Cassin is an exceptionally fine man as well, and at the moment is particularly proud –and why shouldn’t he be?– of his old protégé, his new bishop.
Annie Dixon is a parishioner at St. Francis Church in Staunton and has known Msgr. Cassin for over 25 years.
This article appeared in The Catholic Virginian issue of January 15, 2018, covering the installation of His Excellency, Most Rev. Barry Knestout as the 13th Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond.