National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Posted: February 20, 2004

An appreciation of Denis Hurley, archbishop emeritus of Durban, South Africa

By John Page

John Page served on the staff of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy from 1972 to 2002, and was executive secretary from 1980 to 2002.

    “There were giants upon the earth in those days.”

    Thus the Book of Genesis describes our earliest ancestors in the faith. When in the next 10 to 20 years a careful and objective history of the Catholic church in the second half of the 20th century is essayed, it will no doubt echo Genesis 6 in recalling that there were yet again “giants on the earth in those days.” And surely one of those singled out will be Denis Eugene Hurley, archbishop emeritus of Durban, South Africa, who died Feb. 13 at 88.

    Ever the devoted pastor, Hurley died as he was being driven back to the Oblate retirement community in Durban after a joyful celebration of the 50th anniversary of a school at whose dedication he had presided as a young archbishop. Just three days before he had returned from “a happy visit to Rome.”

    At the time of his death Denis Hurley had been a priest for almost 65 years and was just a few weeks short of his 57th anniversary as a bishop. Named a bishop in December 1946, six weeks after his 31st birthday, Hurley often quipped that Rome had confused his “confirmation” with his episcopal consecration. His extraordinary length of service as a bishop would have earned him a footnote at least in any history of late 20th-century Catholicism. But in fact his achievements merit so much more than a footnote or a passing reference. So very much more!

    Denis Hurley was born in Cape Town of Irish parents on Nov. 9l, 1915. His mother was an O’Sullivan. His father worked as a lighthouse keeper, a duty that his son would in some sense emulate during a long and faith-filled life.

    In 1931, after secondary school, Hurley entered the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a community with a strong missionary presence in South Africa. He was sent to Ireland for his novitiate in 1932 and in 1933 to Rome for his studies in philosophy and theology at Angelicum University. The archbishop developed a lifelong love for the city.

    The 1930s were obviously a critical time in Italy, and Hurley had many interesting recollections of that period. He was ordained to the priesthood in July 1939 and directed to continue in Rome for a doctorate in theology. His studies were interrupted in June 1940 when Italy entered the Second World War on the side of the Axis. Through a roundabout route, Hurley with several other priests and students made their way to Spain and then by cargo ship down the western coast of Africa.

    Once home, he was assigned as a curate at the Durban cathedral, the city he would call home with just one brief interruption, as rector of the Oblate scholasticate in Pietermaritzburg, for over 60 years. In December 1946 he received word of his nomination as vicar apostolic of Natal and titular bishop of Turuzi. He was ordained bishop on March 19, 1947, in Durban. He took as his episcopal motto words from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, Ubi Spiritus, ibi libertas (“Where the Spirit is, there is liberty”).

    When the hierarchy was constituted in South Africa in January 1951, Hurley was named the first archbishop of Durban. The following year he was elected president of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, a position he would hold several times.

    It was during the early 1950s that Hurley began to take a stand against the system of apartheid in his native country. Over time it became an increasingly bold and outspoken public opposition. The archbishop would recall that the awakenings of his opposition came while he was on a train traveling to Cologne, Germany, early in the 1950s. For the first time it struck him forcibly that he a priest and bishop was part of an oppressor class, a participant in an evil and inhuman system.

    His efforts to rally Catholics against apartheid were not always understood or accepted. There was opposition, for example, to his efforts to integrate the Catholic school system. Even as late as the 1980s, his position in opposition to the government did not always receive a full understanding in Rome. Some in the Vatican thought he was meddling in politics. It was during the late 1970s that Hurley held a daily silent protest, standing in front of the central Durban Post Office for a period each day with a placard expressing his opposition to apartheid and the displacement of people from their homes. It was both a call to social justice and a visible evidence of the archbishop’s deep-seated belief in a nonviolent, peaceful solution to the situation in his country. Photographs of the archbishop’s courageous testimony appeared in newspapers all over the world.

    In 1984, Hurley was indicted for treason after having accused the South African army of atrocities in Southwest Africa. There was an outcry from church and government figures around the world, and on the day the trial opened in February 1985 the courtroom was filled with bishops from many countries who had come to show their support for the archbishop. After a brief proceeding the case was dismissed on a technicality. During this period Hurley was threatened with public banning by the government, was at times subject to house arrest, had his life threatened, and on three occasions bombs went off near his residence.

    In 1976, Hurley, always a devoted ecumenist, joined in the founding of Diakonia, which made possible an effective common Christian instrument in opposition to apartheid and its injustices. Hurley also worked to assist young men who for reasons of conscience were opposed to joining the South African military. In the late 1980s, Hurley continued to fear that eventually there would be a civil war with an enormous loss of life. With so many others he rejoiced to see a virtually peaceful transfer to a democratic system only several years later.

    After his retirement as archbishop in 1992, Denis Hurley received his government’s highest honor (1999) and the tremendous respect he had earned was shown when in 1993 he was appointed to the esteemed position of chancellor of the University of Natal.

    During the 1950s, as the young archbishop was taking an increasingly public role in his diocese and country, he had also begun to achieve something of an international reputation. He traveled frequently in an effort to raise funds for his archdiocese, especially in Europe and in the United States, where some of his mother’s siblings had settled. Letters asking for help for the archdiocese were well-known in many Catholic homes in the United States from the 1950s through the 1990s, and there was a generous response.

    But the archbishop’s trips were not simply fundraising efforts. They gave him a chance to engage his searching interest in the theological and social issues of the day and to meet many of the leaders in these fields in Europe and North America.

    Already Hurley was establishing a name in various areas of church life. He had written a number of articles in Catholic journals and was frequently invited to give lectures overseas. His interests were wide-ranging, and he was an eager student of the generation of theologians who were to have such a profound impact on the Second Vatican Council. Names such as Congar, Chenu, De Lubac, Teilhard de Chardin, Jungmann and Murray come easily to mind. Hurley took as special subjects the church’s late 19th- and 20th-century teachings on social justice, marriage and the family, reforms in seminary education, the need for an increased role for the laity in the life of the church, and the active participation of all the baptized in the church’s liturgy, especially the Mass.

    It was not a great surprise, then, that Pope John XXIII, having announced the convoking of an ecumenical council in January 1959, would the following year name Hurley a member of the central preparatory commission. With Hurley’s death the only remaining survivor of the commission’s members is Cardinal Franz König of Vienna.

    Hurley would often recount that his participation in the work of the central preparatory commission left him frequently discouraged and pessimistic about the worth of the coming council. It was only when he had read the draft of the constitution on the liturgy that he began to take hope that the council could truly be a transforming moment in the life of the church.

    When the council convened in October 1962, Hurley was elected to the commission on Catholic seminaries and education. Unfortunately the commission’s work, in his view, never came together successfully. The resulting documents, especially the one on Catholic education, were not ranked among the major achievements of the council.

    Hurley made several spoken and written interventions during the council’s four sessions. They dealt with liturgy, religious freedom, the pastoral thrust of the council, collegiality, the teaching office of bishops, and the role of conferences of bishops. In an early speech, given at the close of the first session, Hurley gave a strong intervention showing his unhappiness with many of the drafts that had come from the preparatory commission and calling for their re-casting. Having lost this debate in the commission, this time, joined with many other bishops who had gathered for the council, he would be heard.

    Hurley’s interest in a more active and increased participation of the laity in the liturgy, not surprisingly, led him to believe ardently in the need for at least a limited use of the vernacular, particularly in the Mass. In Rome during the first session he found several other bishops who had the same hope, particularly Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta.

    Hurley knew that if some degree of vernacular usage were to be sanctioned his own conference would be unable both to prepare the needed texts and to publish them in suitable liturgical books. Over the first session conversations among several English-speaking bishops, assisted by Msgr. Frederick McManus of Catholic University in Washington, led to a plan that a number of English speaking conferences would join together to prepare a single text for proposed use all over the world. Hurley played a major role in fostering conversations towards this goal and in preparing the preliminary plan for the work. By the end of the first session of the council, it was clear that the council fathers were in favor of a significant increase in the use of the vernacular.

    Early in the second session, officially designated representatives of 10 conferences met at the English College on Oct. 17, 1963, to launch what would in time become known as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). Hurley was present at the first meeting, the start of what would be a nearly four-decade association with the work of ICEL as a member of its Episcopal Board. In 1965 Pope Paul VI named Hurley and several other bishops from the first ICEL meeting to the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This allowed the work of ICEL to move forward in tandem with the decisions being made in Rome to revise all the liturgical books of the Roman Rite as called for by the council.

    In 1975, Hurley was elected chairman of ICEL. He was reelected to that position by his fellow bishops on the board over the next 16 years. In this position Hurley oversaw the completion of the first stage of ICEL’s work, most notably the four-volume breviary. His first term began after the completion of the ICEL text of the Roman Missal. The archbishop had some reservations about that work.

    By the early 1980s he was delighted to have the major role in the beginning of ICEL’s revisions process. He was especially happy when in 1982 ICEL took up the immense task of revising the Missal. He played a strong part in guiding the revision in his years as chairman and, after 1991, as a member of the governing board of bishops. On the occasion of Hurley’s 40th anniversary as a bishop in 1987, the bishops of ICEL and their advisors dedicated the revision of the Missal to the archbishop. He was deeply moved by this gesture and looked eagerly forward to the Missal’s being implemented at the parish level.

    By 1998 all the conferences in ICEL had approved the Missal and submitted their decrees of approval for the Roman recognition process. But after four years the judgment of the Roman authorities was negative. Hurley was greatly disappointed. As well he was deeply saddened by the wholesale restructuring of ICEL, mandated by Rome beginning in 1999. He saw Rome’s decision as a reversal of the ecumenical council’s decrees in favor of the rights of bishops’ conferences in the preparation of the vernacular liturgical texts.

    Hurley had a very hands-on role as chairman of ICEL. Even before the advent of faxes and e-mail, the archbishop kept his involvement strong through many meetings, not limited to the annual meeting of the full board of bishops, phone conversations, telex messages and extensive correspondence. In this day of instant and insistent communication one might indulge some regret for the days of letters sent across great distances. There was more time to consider what should be said and how it should be said. The response wasn’t expected in an hour or two.

    Hurley often said that the presence of so many scholars who had been called to Rome to assist with the work of Vatican II had created for the bishops the greatest adult education experience in the history of the world. He brought this same respect for scholars and scholarship to the work of ICEL. The authority of the bishops’ board as the final decision-maker was never in question, but Hurley always showed considerable respect and appreciation for ICEL’s scholars and staff. He created in ICEL a spirit of openness, trust and friendship. At meetings he would question the scholars, sometimes closely, but always with courtesy and in an atmosphere of true dialogue. Over the course of a meeting he might change his opinion, but even when he was not convinced, he remained a true gentleman — polite, gracious and appreciative. The spirit that permeated ICEL in those years was very much influenced by the council, Hurley being just one of the bishops and advisers who been at Vatican II.

    A man of many and warm friendships, an engaged participant in wide-ranging conversations, a masterful and witty raconteur, Hurley looked forward at the end of a long day’s work at ICEL meetings to the relaxed evening gatherings of the bishops, committee members and staff. There was a serious side to these gatherings with the marvelous opportunity they provided for learning about the life of the church all over the world. But there was also much laughter and sharing of stories and reminiscences. A good history of the Second Vatican Council could have been compiled from those late evening chats.

    Though Hurley was seen by some as very much a “liberal,” those who knew him well could not help but know his great respect for the Holy See, and especially his beautiful and touching affection for and loyalty to the Holy Father. There was surprise in 1965 when Hurley was not chosen for the honor of being the first cardinal from South Africa. Perhaps already some of his positions at the council had led to his being overlooked. Many believe that his respectful and very careful questioning of Humanae Vitae in 1968 and at the Synod of Bishops in 1980, made the cardinalate impossibility. Yet there was still some hope that even after reaching 80 his long service would at last be recognized, and particularly given that he was the last survivor of the central preparatory commission who over four decades later had never been honored.

    While the bishops of South Africa several times elected Denis Hurley to represent them at synods of bishops and while his fellow synod bishops twice elected him to the synod council, after the early 1970s he was never appointed to a Roman congregation, council or commission. All who knew Hurley recognized his genuine humility, but one sensed a disappointment that his great love for and service to the church were never fully appreciated and recognized.

    As has been said, Hurley from his student days had a great love for Rome. Over the years he developed a very special bond with the Sant’Egidio community, and it was this close bond that kept him going to Rome right up to his last days.

    Hurley was a great figure of the postconciliar church as well as the preconciliar church. In the 1950s and ’60s bishops were addressed with great deference, and their robes of office were even more elaborate than now. Add to this that Hurley was a tall, imposing man with broad shoulders and a confident military bearing. The youthful athlete who had a passion for sport, especially cricket, could still be seen in his ramrod stance even as in his late 70s he began to experience some loss of hearing and diminished eyesight.

    Once, after a meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican, Hurley had to walk in his bishop’s red-trimmed cassock with wide purple sash and shoulder cape along the streets of Rome to a place where he would be able to change into a suit before going to dinner. He knew the Roman protocol that high prelates dress on the streets as simply as possible, usually in black cassocks devoid of any symbols of their rank, but the logistics of the day had worked against any other solution for him. As he walked the mile from the synod hall to the Casa Internazionale del Clero near the Piazza Navvona, the Romans, used to seeing such sites before and normally utterly indifferent to them, stared in admiration as this tall, handsome figure made his ways along the crowded streets. All through the walk Hurley was engaged in a conversation on some subtle point in Thomistic philosophy, completely unaware of the admiring attention he was receiving.

    Basically a shy man, the archbishop realized as life went on that he had been put on a pedestal very early in life at the expense of easy interchange, especially in large public gatherings. He was always most gracious, but his capacity for small talk was often limited. He preferred deep, animated conversations with a few close friends. Having been addressed as “Your Grace” since becoming an archbishop at 35, this was the form that continued in South Africa and many other places all through his life, almost as a term of affection.

    Overall he was a modest man, deeply close to his brothers and their families and to his cherished sister, who preceded him in death by just a few months, and to his many friends worldwide. There was nothing false or artificial about the man, and his close friends never doubted his respect and affection for them. His attention to correspondence was astounding right up to the last days.

    In his sad parting from ICEL in July 2001, Hurley must at times have thought of his first audience with Pope John XXIII. As a young archbishop, Hurley had been received in audience by Pope Pius XII. He found the pope distant and austere, “almost like talking to someone in a trance.” He was then a bit nervous when some years later he entered the papal apartments again for an audience with the new pope. But as soon as the archbishop had entered the papal study, Pope John came to greet him and the bishop who was with him with great and lively warmth. Pope John invited the bishops to sit beside him at his desk. “Excellencies,” he began, “we bishops all have our crosses to bear. Tell me of your joys and consolations!”

    Hurley tried always to look forward in joyful hope.

    Hurley, who spent so many years in the service of the church’s prayer, was himself a man of deep and devoted prayer. His reverent, attentive celebration of Mass at ICEL meetings and the homilies he gave on those occasions showed the rock-solid spirituality of the man. To sit beside him as he prayed the Morning Prayer of the Church at the opening of each day’s meeting was an unforgettable and privileged experience. One knew that this was a man truly “lost in prayer.”

    In mid-December 1946 a young South African priest received the news of his appointment as a bishop. In the coming weeks as he prepared for his episcopal ordination, he chose the motto mentioned above, Ubi Spritus, ibi libertas. Fifty-seven years after, one can only marvel at the choice of that prescient watchword for such a long and remarkable episcopate. How truly these words speak to the character of the man, the religious, the priest, the bishop, Denis Eugene Hurley, devoted pastor of God’s holy people.

            “Behold the great priest who in his days pleased God and in the time of wrath was made a reconciliation.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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