This is the homily I delivered for my friend Officer Sean Michael Cassels – given at his funeral Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, West Orange, NJ on August 8, 2016. I share this at the request of some who attended and asked for a copy and with the permission of the family. I pray that it will be of comfort to those who are in pain at this tragic loss.
JOHN 14: 1-6
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If there were not,
would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.
Where I am going you know the way.”
Thomas said to him,
“Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.”
When I first got the news of Sean’s death from your pastor, Fr. Ferry, last Wednesday morning, it immediately felt like a punch to the stomach, followed immediately with the impulse to think
this has to be a mistake
– this can’t be true –please don’t let it be true.
Unfortunately this wasn’t some horrible nightmare that we would wake up from, but one that all of us are finding is very horrifyingly real. I say that as a friend of Sean’s and of his family
– his loving wife Jessica, his boys Michael, Patrick and Jamison
– his Mom and Dad – Mary and Mike;
– his sisters – Eileen and Meghan
– and brothers in law – Brian and Cory;
– his godmother Anita …
all people I love and have been a part of my priesthood for 17 years. That I can’t seem to wrap my mind around all of this, just underscores even more that I cannot even imagine how much you are hurting today – and I cannot express adequately how sorry I am that you are hurting as you are.
That’s sadly something that all of us have in common this morning. Whether you’re one of Sean’s brothers in blue from Millburn Police Department, or his hometown Police Department of West Orange, and from other agencies… – or you’re one of his friends – some from when you were growing up in this very Parish of Our Lady of Lourdes or from more recent years. Or you’re apart of this tremendous extended Cassels family or friends of them… We all share this one thing in common – not being able to imagine how much hurt you are all in today and how sorry all of us are… which has brought us together this morning – something we never would’ve imagined a week ago.
Every death, every funeral is heart wrenching. When they come suddenly – a heart attack, a car accident – the shock, on top of the grief is often overwhelming. For Sean, this sometimes fatal illness of depression which had caused ups and downs for him and for those who knew him, loved him – that shock, that grief, that pain is even more devastating.
Death – no matter how it comes about - is unjust – unnatural. Death wasn’t a part of God’s creation, it wasn’t a part of God’s plan in the beginning – and so it defies logic or reason. And when we’re dealing with this horrible illness of depression, that’s even more so the case – it has the ability to change how we think, turn our problem solving reasoning upside down as we try to somehow figure this out.
I don’t want to dwell on all of that this morning, since I’m limited myself in discussing these things. But I do feel a responsibility to say that if you’re feeling guilty or questioning what more you could’ve done to help Sean – that’s normal. This tragic, this mysterious illness of depression when it’s fatal like this can trap us in a vicious cycle of obsessing trying to find answers to questions we’re speculating over that will remain unanswered – – – even after our best attempts to do so. And so I simply want to offer this brief observation: None of us could’ve known how painful the darkness that Sean was dealing with. Sean didn’t die because you didn’t do enough – he died because of this horrible illness or disease of depression. And please, if you’re beating yourself up over this, please reach out to someone – a priest, a relative, a friend or a co-worker for help… don’t go this alone.
That we’re here today – and for hours upon hours yesterday at the Dangler Funeral Home in such great numbers is a testament to what Sean was able to do in spite of that illness. I keep thinking back to my earliest memories from 17 years ago when Sean was playing softball with the Quigley’s Tavern Softball team. When I do, I can picture that legendary smile so many talked about – at least I can visualize that remembering the times when Quigley’s was winning. One time he said to me “Hey Father, you should join our team and play with us…” I politely declined saying “I see how well you take it when someone screws up on the field and I can guarantee you, if I were to play, it won’t go well for either of us…“ So that’s one image I have is Sean’s smile.
But over the last week, there’s been countless anecdotes, stories that people have been sharing all demonstrating how loving and generous Sean was. One such example that stayed with me in the midst of so many was seemingly insignificant: One of the guys from the Millburn PD shared how Sean knew someone who worked dispatch liked a certain snack and that he made it a point to stop at the 7-11 and pick it up for him. It reminds me of Mother Teresa’s quote – Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love. Looking out at the outpouring of love and support – even the gofund me page nearly $50,000 in 4 days – it’s obvious Sean did a great number of those small things with great love over a great period of time for a great number of people. Many of which are probably unknown and hidden to us over the course of his career of serving and protecting the peoples of West Orange and Millburn.
Reflecting on these stories and images, makes coming back to this moment all the more painful. Even hearing this Gospel reading was initially hard. The first words we hear from Jesus’ in that reading were “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God, Have faith in me.” Just reading them out loud I almost felt like I lost the entire congregation.
How could we not be troubled?
I know I felt troubled reading them and trying to pray with them for this morning. But the more I sat with it, and struggled with it, some other things came to mind.
Jesus first said these words at the Last Supper. This was the night before his unjust arrest and trial, his torturous passion, his brutal execution. So knowing what he is about to face, he’s trying to prepare those closest to him to not be troubled. Jesus loves them. And He doesn’t want all that He has taught them, all that He demonstrated to them, all that He was to them to be lost in the darkness that was slowly moving in preparing to strike him down.
Despite Jesus’ plea that evening, to not let their hearts be troubled – we know that they were. As Jesus is arrested, tried, brutalized and killed – they weren’t just troubled, they were gone. The disciples disappeared. They ran and hid. It’s only in hindsight, it’s only after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead – when he had at last conquered death and made eternal life real to them that their faith in Him, their trust in Him started to grow. It was only after the fact that they remembered those words, and began again to start to believe them.
The point is, Jesus understands that when we’re in the midst of our own darkness and pain, and trials, and suffering how easy it is for us to give into that despair. For him in a sense to seem eclipsed from our view, even when he hasn’t.
In reading this Gospel again, I try to imagine Jesus saying those words to Sean, Do not let your heart be troubled…Have faith in God have faith in me. That’s what our prayers are meant for today. We pray that Sean has heard those words from Jesus in a new way. That the pain, the illness, the darkness that consumed him is gone and that he is experiencing the radiant, eternal, loving light of Christ a new. That is what we mean when we pray for Sean when we pray that the perpetual light shines upon him and that he rests in peace.
But Jesus is able to multi-task. While we entrust Sean to Jesus’ loving and merciful arms, we ask him to be with us, reveal Himself to us in real ways that help alleviate our troubled, conflicted, confused hearts. Hearts that are heavy with grief, filled with emotion, consoled with loving images of Sean’s great love and angry at this loss. Jesus who loves us sees the condition of our troubled hearts – and as the source of all healing, of mercy, of love, and of hope wants to bring us His Peace. Can we accept this precious gift from God at a time like this?
I believe we can. One way is to keep Sean’s memory alive. Doing what we have been doing the last few days – sharing our stories our memories, especially with his sons. Too often, people think that not mentioning someone who’s died to his family members will spare them pain. The opposite is true. It is more painful. Earlier I talked about how Sean gave to others with love. We can all learn from this and follow his example of good works, daily. Even with heavy hearts and swollen eyes, we can be inspired – and inspire others – by his example of how to care for others.
Yes, there will be tears, but remember that tears are an important part of the healing process. God promises us that in time, ”He will wipe away every tear”. We must remember – and remind each other – that everyone grieves differently and that’s okay. Grieving is a release. Grieving leaves space for God to work – to heal us and bring ultimate peace. God is with us even if it’s hard to feel His presence right now. His grace is real and tangible and His grace will carry us through this time. Peace will not come overnight but it will come. Be okay with that. Be patient with yourselves. Don’t try to rush it.
Have faith that Sean no longer walks in pain and darkness. He has been released from that. However, there are others in our world – perhaps others that are around us – who suffer from this terrible disease. May the Lord give us not only the awareness to extend a helping hand and lend a compassionate ear to all in our lives but to never forget that the world’s darkness can never extinguish His eternal Light. I believe the same God who turned Good Friday into Easter Sunday doesn’t waste anything, especially a precious life like Sean’s. He will weave this terrible event into something that will be beautiful for His kingdom. Our earthly crowns of suffering are replaced with heavenly crowns of glory. We may not understand how that can ever be, but that’s where we are back to those first words of the Gospel – Do not let your hearts be troubled -You have faith in God, have faith also in me. Knowing that when we do, his promises of having a place in the Father’s house are meant for Sean, and for each of us.
Sean, May you rest in the peace of Christ, my friend