Friday, July 17, 2015

Ned Cassem, SJ, MD

Ned Cassem, SJ, MD former Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital died on 4 July after  long illness.  Ned was my chief when I was on staff at MGH and was, of course, quite involved with the consultation psychiatry fellows.  He and George Murray, SJ, MD entered the Society a month apart though George was a few years older. They met shortly after vows when they did philosophy together in St. Louis.   Ned did all of his post-high school education through the Society.  Won't bother enumerating all the degrees.  Perhaps most impressive is that after receiving his MD from Harvard Medical Ned did his theological studies simultaneously with his psychiatry residency.  

The Mass was this morning at Campion.  As was true for George, I was main celebrant and preached.  I never imagined back in 1991 when the two of them interviewed me for the consultation psychiatry fellowship at Mass General that I would celebrate their funeral Masses.  Of course I was only at the beginning of discerning my vocation to the Society.  But, even after entering, it was one of those things I hoped I wouldn't have to do.  Given the age difference, however, it is no surprise.  Ned was 80.  George would be 85 now.  I am a mere stripling at 66 (in a few weeks).  


Wisdom  3:1-6, 9
Psalm 23
Romans 12:3-9
Mark 4:35-41

There is a degree of comfort in the first reading from the ancient Book of Wisdom.  But only a degree.  "The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them."

Hearing these words of assurance gives us a little comfort.  But only a little. It is too soon.  It will take time to get used to the idea that Ned has died.  It will not be easy to internalize that Edwin Cassem, of the Society of Jesus, MD is dead.  It will take a while to comprehend  that he has entered eternal life, that he now knows something none of us know, or will know, until we too have died.

Death has a different meaning for a Christian.  It is no longer simply an inevitable future to which one must be resigned.  It is no longer a condemnation to nothingness.  Dying in Christ is dying to death itself.  Dying in Christ is entering into new life.  Once again the reading from Wisdom, "They seemed in the view of the foolish, to be dead, . . . but they are in peace."   Ned was many things.  Foolish was never one of them.

Barbara McManus, Ned's former administrative assistant, faxed me several pages of his thought. The first page was titled "CREED."  The fourth tenet is:  "Death is not depressing. It's inspiring. It makes one sad but being sad is different from being depressed. If there is a lot of sadness it is a measure of how much the person was loved."  Were we to turn on a sadness meter here it would make three or four complete revolutions about the dial before it settled into place.  Ned was loved.  By many.  Ned seems to have condensed the reading from Wisdom in the following tenet: "If you confront death with somebody you love who is dying, out of that will come learning that transforms your life. It leaves you stronger, braver, and calmer."

Paul's letter to the Romans, the second reading, detailed the various gifts with which each of us may be endowed.  The reading implies that we may be granted one or perhaps two of these gifts.  But not all of them.  Obviously St. Paul had never met Ned.  Or, he never considered the possibility that he would exist.

Ned was one of those very rare men who exercised all of the gifts enumerated by Paul . . . simultaneously.  And he did so with great grace in both the secular sense of: "a controlled, polite and pleasant way of interacting, and in the theological sense of: "the gift of God which contains all other gifts, through which he who accepts God's grace finds comfort."

There are many stories about Ned as a generous giver, a superb teacher and lecturer, a man who could exhort others to do their best,  (oftentimes by example rather than word), and as a chairman of psychiatry who was diligent in his duties; sometimes, it seemed, to the point of obsession.

Basil Cardinal Hume, the late Benedictine Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster and son of a physician wrote the following. "The doctor and the priest have much in common.  Both are concerned with people, with their well-being."  Our starting points are different, but inevitably we discover that our interests converge."  (The) experience of people tells us, priest and physician, "that many are still bewildered, indeed haunted, by the perennial problems of pain, suffering and death."

Three tenets of "CREED" flesh out Hume's writing, as if Ned were writing midrash on it:

The first was, "As clinicians our responsibility is to always protect the patient. Our obligation is to stand up for the rights of the patient."

The second, "The secret of care for the patient is caring for the patient."

And the third, "The core of the doctor's healing role is loving the patient as the doctor loves himself."

Then there was the prophetic.  As Paul wrote, "if prophecy, in proportion to the faith."  It was in the prophetic sense that Ned responded intellectually, spiritually and concretely to the perennial problems of pain, suffering and death.  Ned's pioneering work in terminal care, the care of the bereaved and, in particular, with the optimal care committee proved him a visionary, a cousin, at least, to the ancient prophets of Israel.  He saw the need well before anyone else.  But unlike most, after seeing the need he did something about it.  And he did so because of the deep love for others given him through God's gift of grace and his response to that gift in faith. 

I was puzzling over the choice of gospel reading.  None of the recommended options caused the limbic "chung" that said, yes, this is the one.  I asked Bill Foley, another Jesuit physician, if he had any thoughts.  He did.  The calming of the storm at sea. 


Because he did the heavy lifting, because he was always prepared, because he knew his stuff, Ned calmed many a storm, if not actually at sea, then in the hearts of his patients trainees, staff and, at times, entire swatches of Massachusetts General Hospital. 
Ignatian meditation includes inserting oneself into a gospel narrative and exploring it.  In that spirit, place Ned in that boat with Jesus and the anxious whimpering apostles.  What would THAT conversation have been like?  I will refrain from putting exact words into Ned's mouth.  But, I suspect he would have indicated that they shut up, bail, and row. And hearing this Jesus would have grinned, nodded, and said, "Ned, you get it, and you git it.  Now, as for the rest of you poor sorry. . ."

After I sent the e-mail announcing Ned's death and funeral plans to the former Murray fellows and other psychiatrists, replies began to arrive within an hour.  The most common statement across the e-mails was, "it is the end of an era." 

It is the end of an era.  But , the end of the era is not the end of a legacy. The end of an era is not the end of a man's influence. It is, rather, a challenge to those who lived and worked during that era. It is a challenge to those who were graced to experience this multi-gifted man.  The end of this era is the time to reinforce the legacy and to build upon it through your own gifts of teaching, caring, comforting, and in prophetic action.

The prayer on the back of Ned's memorial card was on the back of his ordination card.  It was composed by Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  It summarizes Ned.  It summarizes his mission. 

"May the Lord
only preserve in me
a burning love for the world
and a great gentleness,
and may he help me
to persevere to the end
in the fullness of humanity." 

Ned.  God answered your prayers.  And then some. 

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis!

"Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord

and let perpetual light shine upon him."

I wrote the homily while at Regina Laudis for a few days last week.  I may go there whenever I have major writing to do.  I will be going back in early September for my annual eight-day retreat.  
I took the photos below when I hit a real snag in getting the homily moving.  

Most of the outbuildings at the abbey are mostly unpainted except for the doors and window frames.  Those are painted red.  It has been a while since the trim was repainted.  I like the effect of the sun-bleached red, the blistering and peeling of the paint and the variation of color. 

A day lily near the barn. 

 These old wooden wagon wheels were begging to be photographed. I obliged.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD


  1. Sorry for you loss father. AMDG

    1. Thank you. For those who trained or worked under Ned the loss is not complete. He taught us all much that we cannot articulate easily but can appreciate. Thus the loss is attenuated somewhat.

  2. Blessing on you, Father, for the lovely tribute. Ned's been gone for more than a year and a half and I still expect to see his cheerful face when ever I visit MGH. Alas...

  3. Thank you for the comment. Ned was a good guy and then some. And smart. One of the smartest men I've known. He and Murray were quite a team. I was blessed to be trained by both of them and to have celebrated and preached at both of their funerals.