Faithful Ferryman

JOSEPH CUNNEEN, 1923–2012

Joseph Cunneen, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, passed away in his sleep on July 29. He was eighty-nine years old. The son of an attorney and a teacher, Joe attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and served in France with the 101st division of Combat Engineers during World War II. It was there he discovered the theological renewal that would flourish in the postwar years and ultimately lead to Vatican II. This nouvelle théologie was very different from the theology to which he had been exposed in college, which was mainly a kind of apologetics.

In 1950, Joe founded a quarterly magazine, CrossCurrents, whose purpose was to introduce American Catholics to the new theological developments in Europe. The magazine published the work of people like Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Jean-Guenolé-Marie Danielou, and many of the articles were translated into English by Joe himself. During the early years of CrossCurrents, the main editorial office was Joe’s garage. His staff consisted of his wife, Sally, a writer and teacher who supported Joe wholeheartedly. In the early days, he would write out the addresses for each copy of CrossCurrents by hand, pile the magazines into his car, and deliver them to the local post office. CrossCurrents would become an important point of reference in the evolution of American Catholicism. Thomas Merton was especially supportive of the work Joe was doing. Meanwhile, to make ends meet, Joe taught courses on cinema at several universities, while Sally worked as an English teacher at Rockland Community College. Eventually Joe came to realize that CrossCurrents would need some sort of sponsor in order to survive. After exploring his options, he finally decided to associate the magazine with the Association for Religious and Intellectual Life, which had its seat at the College of New Rochelle. The Association provided resources for CrossCurrents, but it also had a broader agenda of its own, which was somewhat different from Joe’s. He continued on as one of the editors, and Sally remained on the editorial staff, but they were no longer the decision makers.

It was at this point that I first got to know Joe. I had happened upon an early issue of CrossCurrents while I was doing theological studies in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s. Like the theology Joe had been exposed to at Holy Cross, the formation I was receiving was mainly an extension of the catechism, with loaded questions and easy answers. Cross Currents questioned the questions, and, instead of supplying easy answers, it invited the reader into the mysteries of the faith. The new perspectives it offered had an important effect on some of the big decisions I would make. Many years later, never having published anything before, I submitted an article to CrossCurrents on a lark. I was surprised to receive a long and very encouraging letter from Joe. He would have liked to use it, he said, but he was no longer “in charge” at CrossCurrents and had been overruled. Shortly after this exchange, Joe came all the way up to Boston to meet me, and we spent a couple of days together. We hit it off at once; it was as if we had always known each other. This moved me very deeply. I was a nobody, a custodian at the New England Aquarium, and Joe was—in my eyes—a major figure in American Catholicism. Thus began a wonderful friendship. I went to New York several times to visit Joe and Sally, who received me with a disarming simplicity and made me feel like one of the family.

Eventually Joe retired from CrossCurrents and dedicated himself to translating and promoting the works of the French writer Jean Sulivan—a project that met with little success. For many years, he was the National Catholic Reporter’s film critic, and published a book on the director Robert Bresson. Both he and Sally continued to contribute to magazine such as Commonweal, America, and Spirit.

The last time I saw Joe was at the Catholic Worker’s seventy-fifth-birthday celebration in New York. Sally was recuperating from breast cancer and had to follow a strict and exquisitely insipid diet. Out of solidarity, Joe followed the same culinary regime—until he became anemic and started to have fainting spells. At night, he would read Sally to sleep, no matter how much time it took. The relationship between Joe and Sally was not just lovey-dovey: I witnessed several occasions when they didn’t see eye to eye or got on each other’s nerves. Yet the tensions almost immediately receded into the background of their deep love. This made a lasting impression on me. Last year Sally finally succumbed to her illness. I tried to keep in touch with Joe after her death, but he rarely replied and, when he did, it was with only a sentence or two. His last email to me, sent a few months ago, simply informed me that he was entering a nursing home.

Joe was not an original thinker. He was what the French would call a passeur—a “ferryman,” literally: someone who channels other people’s ideas, and this he did with enthusiasm, dedication, and self-effacement. He had absolutely no pretensions; he was an open book. He was aware of all the good he had done and equally aware of his failures. He would speak of both in the same tone. We should be grateful to him not just because of what he did but also because of what he was: a true Israelite, without guile.

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 
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Jerry Ryan joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1959. He lived and worked with them for more than two decades in Europe and South America. He and his family now live in Massachusetts.

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