Fr. Cazenavette: A ‘single-hearted’ priest to his core

“It’s not about what I want. It’s not about what we want. It’s about what God wants,” Father Steve Bruno said his friend Father Joseph Cazenavette repeatedly told him during his courageous bout with cancer that took his life Dec. 3 at age 50.

Speaking at Father Cazenavette’s Funeral Mass Dec. 7 at St. Rita Church in Harahan, Father Bruno said his friend since their days studying for the priesthood at Notre Dame Seminary “often lamented, that we, even the church, too often focused on us and left God out of the equation. And his lament … was that we didn’t put enough emphasis on God, who is everything to us if we believe in the creed. He should dictate our whole lives and our schedules.”

Father Joseph Cazenavette

Father Bruno, a fellow 2005 ordinand, emphasized Father Cazenavette’s strong belief in the Nicene Creed and its meaning for Catholics by reading it.

“Not only did this creed affect how Joseph responded to those beliefs, this creed permeated his life,” he said. “I’ve never met Mother Teresa or John Paul II. But, I can honestly and sincerely say to you today that I have never met anyone who so zealously and tenaciously embraced this creed and used it to dictate all his decisions, his thoughts, his speech and behaviors. That’s Joseph Emile Cazenavette.”

He jested how Father Cazenavette carefully planned everything at the funeral. Even though he preferred hymns from the church’s sacred tradition, Father Cazenavette allowed his friend to select one popular song from the “Glory and Praise” hymnal – “Only This I Want,” by Dan Schutte, based on a St. Paul passage that appropriately described Father Cazenavette’s virtue and quest for God.

While he didn’t pull out his guitar, Father Bruno did read and sing a few verses. “Only this I want, but to know the Lord, and to bear his cross, so to wear the crown he wore. … For to gain the Lord is to gain all I need. … I will run the race … fight the good fight so to win the prize of the kingdom of my Lord.”

“If we believe our creed and respond to it … then we would shape our lives accordingly, longing not for the things of this world, but setting our schedules not to simply include prayer but rather … around prayer, which is what Joseph often did, every day,” Father Bruno said. “And we should approach death … not with trepidation, but like Joseph with courage, a submission to God’s will, with a sure and certain hope and faith in God’s merciful love.”

Archbishop Gregory Aymond concelebrated the Funeral Mass with Archbishop Alfred Hughes and Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri and dozens of priests. He cited Father Cazenavette’s faith, dedication to his priesthood and how he lived in faith and died in faith, surrendering himself to God throughout his life and even at the time of his death.

“When I think of Joseph as a priest, I think of him as being single-hearted,” Archbishop Aymond said. “The priesthood was who he was and, and the priesthood was what he did. … We thank God for his example of being single-hearted.”

He said it’s a mystery why a person with so much life left dies, but he believes that person has completed what he was called to do on earth and was called home to heaven.

“And I believe that with the death of any young person that the gift of faith is ignited and reborn in someone else,” the archbishop said. “I have no doubt that Joseph prayed for us and strengthened those who will be born in faith because of his death.”

 

Always in his clerics

His brother George’s eulogy expressed Father Cazenavette’s acceptance of his illness as a blessing for a priest who could serve others.

“Everything about him was being a priest,” George Cazenavette said.  “From sunrise to sunset, he was a priest and wore his clerics to everything. … It paid dividends.” Even at M.D. Anderson in Houston where Father Cazenavette received cancer treatments, people saw him in the priestly garb, and he was able to minister to them.

He continued to be God’s presence on Catholic pilgrimages that he led with Jimmy Hyland through Catholic Journeys. Hyland described Father Cazenavette as the ever-smiling, approachable priest who responded joyfully when people sought him for a blessing or confession, including on a cruise ship.

“His devotion and spirituality poured out of him, especially when he celebrated Mass and consecrated the Eucharist,” Hyland said. “You knew he believed in the true presence (of the Lord). He celebrated with such reverence, you couldn’t help but be moved by it.”

Early interest in priesthood

Father Cazenavette’s first inkling of a vocation to the priesthood was expressed in a card he filled out for a religious community while at Pope John Paul II High School in Slidell. Yet, he attended Tulane University and earned degrees in mathematics and political science. He then was commissioned in the Air Force and earned a University of Virginia law degree and served five years as a JAG (Judge Advocate General Corps) military lawyer.

Military law as a civilian attorney came next. When he returned home to New Orleans as an assistant U.S. attorney, his faith grew, his brother said, attending daily Mass. In 2000, he entered Notre Dame Seminary and was ordained in 2005.

As a priest, he was parochial vicar and administrator at St. Edward the Confessor Parish in Metairie, parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Lake in Mandeville and spiritual director for the Legion of Mary in New Orleans.

He served the past six years in Washington, D.C., as policy advisor for the Defense of Marriage in the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Monsignor J. Brian Bransfield, USCCB general secretary, worked with Father Cazenavette and commended his spirit to the Lord with incense at the funeral’s end. He thanked Archbishop Aymond for letting him serve the USCCB.

“In doing that, you shared one of the great treasures of the Archdiocese of New Orleans with the entire country,” he said.

Attention to the sacred

Father Bruno said Father Cazenavette did not desire his funeral to be a canonization. Rather, Father Cazenavette had a special desire for his Funeral Mass to help people gain “not just sentiment, but a resolve to conform their lives to the beliefs we profess” in the Creed. “To make it make a difference in our life because we believe.”

George Cazenavette shared touching words that his brother left him: “You’ve got to be plugged into the frequency. He is the most important thing in your life, and you need to give time to God if he is the most important thing in your life … because he speaks to you. And, when you do, you will hear him speak to you … through someone else, the quiet in nature. If he’s speaking to you and you’re not listening, you’re going to miss it.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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