Annie Dixon, Special to The Catholic Virginian
During the Tuesday, Dec. 5 press conference following the announcement that Pope Francis had named him the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, Bishop Barry C. Knestout opened with a prayer, then acknowledged and thanked the major influences in his life and vocation — the members of his family, Msgr. Andy Cassin of Staunton, and the three cardinals he served in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Who is that monsignor? Why did the bishop mention him?
Ask parishioners of St. Francis Parish, Staunton, about Msgr. Cassin and they 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. His humor is quick but kind, and he is eager to engage with parishioners, whether sharing news and jokes or saving souls.
Msgr. Cassin was ordained in his native Ireland in June 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 parishes throughout the archdiocese, receiving the designation of monsignor at some point, although he cannot remember when or why. He delights in his flock rather than his achievements.
“I was always so proud of the people in my parishes,” he said.
In the late 1970s, Msgr. Cassin was assigned as pastor of St. Pius X, Bowie, Maryland, where he met the Knestouts, a family with nine children that he described 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. 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,” Bishop Knestout said. “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.”
The bishop added that Msgr. Cassin “exuded a strength and yet a gentleness of heart that gave a great example to me of priestly life.”
When he realized he was being called to the priesthood, the recent college graduate asked his pastor to recommend him to the seminary, which he did.
While the future bishop was pursuing seminary studies at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, his pastor was transferred a few years later to St. Peter Parish, Waldorf. It was there their paths would cross again. For his second pastoral assignment, then-Father Knestout was assigned to that parish as parochial vicar and once again impressed his mentor.
“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!” Msgr. Cassin said.
The bishop remembered it as “an ideal assignment” for himself as well, noting, “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 priest would eventually become a pastor, as well as earn the confidence of the cardinals in the archdiocesan chancery. Now, Pope Francis has entrusted him to shepherd a diocese of his own.
Asked if he had any predictions for Bishop Knestout’s tenure in Richmond, Msgr. Cassin said, “Well, if he hasn’t changed — and why should he? — people are just going to love him. He is an exceptionally fine man.”