Joe Cavanagh?or Cav, as we knew him?would have thought of himself as just another of those grunts who worked well out of the limelight in a distant part of the world. He never founded a school, as his fellow Micronesian missionary Hugh Costigan did. His image was not projected onto the international screen, as were those of Hugh?s and some of his other predecessors like Jake Walter or Len Hacker or Bill Rively. His contributions were simply of the grass-roots sort that nourished the life of the people of Pohnpei, where he spent nearly all of his fifty years in the mission. He was a village pastor, who was once known for his informal liturgies in traditional meeting houses that he called the “missa banana” after the banana leaves on which he was seated. That is to say, when he wasn’t at the side of Bill McGarry training island deacons and catechists who would become the heart of the local Pohnpeian church. Or when he wasn’t giving retreats to any who needed his help. Or when he wasn’t working with people to resolve the marriage problems that kept them away from the sacraments, often for years.
The fact that there is still a thriving church on Pohnpei is a testament to Cav’s “grunt” work along with two of his fellow Jesuits, Jack Curran and Bill McGarry, who logged almost as many years in Pohnpei as Cav himself.
We all shed our images in the course of our lives. So did Cav. After winning a reputation as a closer of mission schools during the late 1960s when public schools were on a roll, Cav went on to keep the Jesuit-run vocational high school, PATS, alive when many were about to dig its grave. The Jesuit who had once been governed by the rule book, as he himself used to admit, later made it his mission to help others get beyond the law to find the person of Christ.
Cav, a life-long New York Giants fan, used to tell how his brief try-out for the high school football team ended when he lost a foot race to a heavy lineman on the roof of New York?s Xavier High School. But the disappointment didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for coaching when he found himself during his regency at the other Xavier High School half a world away. He liked to brag about his undefeated baseball team there?the team that strung out more than 20 wins over a two-year period. Former players tell it a different way. They say that their hardiness was a product of the suicide laps that Cav forced on them during practice, and their victories came from the fear that they would have to run even more if they lost.
Like so many of us from that era, Cav was touched by the parish appeals to save pagan Chinese babies. Most of us gave our nickels and dimes to the cause, but Cav decided early on that he would offer himself as a Maryknoll missionary. A conversation with his high school counselor convinced him that he could enter the Jesuits with the stipulation that he would be sent overseas. So, in 1949, he joined the hordes of Xavier graduates who were entering the Society during that era?including his long-time companions Bill McGarry and Jack Curran.
He may never have had the chance to rescue those Chinese babies, but he did plenty for the people of Micronesia. After regency in Chuuk and theology at Woodstock, Cav was assigned in 1964 to Pohnpei, where he worked for close to half a century before his return to New York in 2011. Besides his pastoral work, he became involved in social ministry, serving as our representative to the East Asian Assistancy and touring other island groups in Micronesia to conduct the weekend reflections that he fondly referred to as our “dog-and-pony shows.” He took a large hand in developing church media programs on Pohnpei?first the weekly radio broadcasts and then the videos for local viewing. He was heavily involved in training church leaders, a vital step toward the goal of creating a church that was truly Micronesian.
Grunts don?t have grand stories spun around their work. In that respect, I suppose, Cav was like some of the other unsung heroes with whom I have had the privilege to work over the years: men like Andy Connolly, Bill Suchan, and so many others. As I age, I find myself more and more praying not for them but to them. Cav now has joined their number. Perhaps it?s only at his death that we can recognize a person like Cav for what he was: in the words of Bob Dahlke, ?a great man, a great Jesuit, a great missionary.?