Chai Brady discusses the social justice work of an Irish friar
A scuba-diving Franciscan friar who has fought against human trafficking and drug abuse all his life says sometimes being a true Christian means breaking the rules.
Hailing from Ballygerdra, Co. Kilkenny, Fr Seán Cassin (69) now works as the CEO of the anti-human trafficking charity Dasatt, who operate in Ireland and Vietnam.
One of many turning points in his life was meeting a Franciscan friar while working as a residential social worker in Drogheda.
Hired by the Daughters of Charity he was charged with helping 15 young people, most of whom had been in State care most of their lives, get through education and obtain jobs and flats. While it was “tough” his friar friend always seemed to come back to work “refreshed and rejuvenated”, Fr Cassin said.
“That really led me into the whole idea of the need to develop yourself spiritually in order to be able to give to other people,” he told The Irish Catholic.
Fr Cassin became a Franciscan aged 27. He spent time in Rome in St Isidore’s, a college which has retained an Irish Franciscan presence, when possible, for centuries. He pursued the idea of living the contemplative life.
It was there he began interacting with drug users who he would often see outside the college. It was after a reading of Matthew 25:35-40 that he said: “It suddenly struck me that, hiding in this kind of contemplative zone, if I wanted to encounter Christ in some meaningful way I was far more likely to do so with the drug users outside the gates than I was hiding inside my monastery.
“I began to talk to the drug users and engage with them, really with a view to try and find them a place where they could come off drugs.”
When he returned to Ireland, aged 31, he began wholeheartedly working with drug users, and later would establish Merchants Quay Ireland – who continue to work with drug users and homeless people in the capital. However, his style of care ultimately led to criticism from the Church.
He returned at the time of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s when the first deaths due to the virus in Ireland were being recorded. Starting with one room in the Franciscan friary on Merchants Quay in Dublin inner city, Fr Cassin soon obtained the whole floor, and began working with families and people addicted to drugs. “It became swamped, so much so the poor friars had to move up a storey,” he said.
The friars were often asked to conduct Masses for people who had died as a result of the virus but weren’t in their parish, as people “didn’t want it known that their son or daughter had died from AIDS”. Because Fr Cassin knew more about the virus, he was often asked to conduct the ceremony and visited people in hospital.
Illegally the priest brought sterile needles and syringes from London to give to users. “I got into trouble with the Church, some parishioners reported me to the Papal Nuncio,” Fr Cassin said, adding that they were also giving out condoms. The Nuncio summoned the Franciscans to the nunciature to discuss the morality of needle exchange and supplying condoms, and a committee was established at his behest, which Fr Cassin says came out in favour of the services they were providing.
“At the time I wrote to the bishop and said I had a dilemma, that I was working with people with AIDS, that I had been asked to perform a marriage of somebody who was HIV positive with AIDS and who wanted to be married and I wanted some advice as to how they should consummate their marriage: I’m still waiting for a reply.”
After handing over the wheel of MQI, he worked with the Government on their national drug strategy for 10 years while also being the Guardian of the Franciscan community.
Fr Cassin left Ireland to work in a shanty town in Mombasa, Kenya for six months after his work in Ireland. Huge amounts of heroin were being shipped into the port there, as it was largely unregulated according the priest, who says it was then brought to Europe. As the heroin was being stolen and sold in the shanty towns, often by police and other authorities, Fr Cassin worked with both Christian and Muslim charities and helped them deal with the issue.
Fr Cassin is certified as a scuba diving instructor, a long-time hobby of his, which brought him to his next job in Nha Trang, Vietnam. He was tasked with teaching several people who couldn’t speak English or even swim – who worked with a French company that was studying coral reefs – how to scuba dive.
It was soon after that he was asked to teach English with Franciscans for three months in Saigon, Vietnam’s capital, which is where he met the ethnic minorities who had travelled from the highlands in the north – who are experiencing discrimination and are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.
Foreigners aren’t allowed to visit this mountainous area in the communist state, where several Franciscan parishes were established in secret. Fr Cassin “snuck in under the radar” which friars do by travelling in motorcycle helmets or in cars with tinted windows.
His experiences with human trafficking in Vietnam led him to establish Dasatt, in which he is still CEO, but is now looking for someone to take the reins.
“To be a Christian is to be a rebel. I think that to be faithful to our Christian calling means challenging people to see things differently, to do things differently, to be different,” he said.