Honouring the burly Hurley

2009-08-17 00:00

IT took two years for Paddy Kearney to write his biography of Archbishop Denis Hurley, Guardian of the Light, but, knowingly or unknowingly, he has probably been working on it his whole life. “He was a presence in my life from childhood, through his visits to St Mary’s Church and St Charles’ College in Pietermaritzburg,” writes Kearney.

Hurley was more than just a presence in Kearney’s life; on several occasions he directed its course. “‘I’ve got a big job I would like you to do’, he told me,” recalls Kearney, when in the seventies after a meeting of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, of which Kearney was a member, Hurley explained his vision for Diakonia, an inter-denominational organisation that would focus on issues of social justice. He wanted Kearney to be the organiser. Kearney decided “it was definitely not me”.

But when nothing happened “I thought ‘it’s all my fault. So I offered to start it up and find someone else to head the organisation.”

The selected candidate turned it down. “So I said ‘okay I’ll do it’. I did it for 30 years.”

While at Diakonia, Kearney also helped create a legal precedent. On August 26, 1985, he was detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act. Advocate Chris Nicholson, then director of the Legal Resources Centre, was keen to challenge Section 29 in court. Kearney’s case was exactly what he was looking for. Hurley’s evidence was crucial and Nicholson got his judgement: the detention was unlawful. “I knew nothing until I was released after 17 days,” says Kearney, who quotes Nicholson’s frequent quip: “When you’re in the hurly-burly, it’s good to have the burly Hurley.”

Kearney’s first biographical foray into Hurley’s life was in 1987 when he edited a special commemorative brochure to celebrate Hurley’s 40 years as bishop. Two years later, when Hurley celebrated 50 years as a priest, Kearney edited a book of tributes entitled Guardian of Light. “Working on both books I discovered hitherto unknown aspects of Hurley’s life,” he says.

But probably the real catalyst for Guardian of the Light came in 1997 when Colin Gardner invited Kearney to record interviews with the archbishop for the Oral History Project of the Alan Paton Centre on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal. Up to Hurley’s death in 2004, Kearney completed over 20 interviews. “It was this experience which convinced me that it was time to begin work on a biography.”

Did Hurley know Kearney was working on his biography? “Yes,” says Kearney, “his response was ‘who will be interested?’”

Hurley was not particularly interested in himself either, and had to be bullied into writing his own memoirs. By the time Hurley died in 2004, he had managed to write up recollections of the first 50 years of his life from 1915 to 1965. Kearney was given the job of editing the existing material and adding a chapter detailing the rest of the archbishop’s life. The result: Memories: The memoirs of Archbishop Denis E. Hurley OMI.

Given Kearney’s closeness to his biographical subject was he able to maintain the necessary critical distance from his subject? “I was worried about that and I tried as hard as I could to take notice of people who were critical of Hurley.” Like the politician who referred to Hurley as an “ecclesiastical Che Guevara”.

For many, Hurley’s name is synonymous with the politics of the struggle era, but Kearney wanted equal emphasis to be placed on Hurley’s concern for the renewal of the church and this is reflected in the biography’s subtitle: Denis Hurley: Renewing the Church, Opposing Apartheid.

Politics and piety intertwined quite naturally in Hurley’s life. His political interest was first awakened in Rome while studying for the priesthood in the thirties. “There he was exposed to the social teaching of the church,” says Kearney. “Particularly the encyclicals of Pope Pius XI that took on Mussolini and Hitler, and attacked Nazism and communism. When he got back to South Africa he found that what he had learnt in Rome was extremely relevant to South Africa.”

Hurley’s first active intervention was in 1943 when he was a curate at Emmanual Cathedral in Durban and people came to see him concerned about two city councillors, who happened to be Catholics, who were supporting the Pegging Bill (this forbade the transfer of land from whites to Indians). “He felt he had to meet the two councillors and challenge them over this.”

Hurley’s political education took a further step in 1944 after he was appointed Superior of St Joseph’s Scholasticate, then in Prestbury, Pietermaritzburg, and he joined the city’s Parliamentary Debating Society. “He was someone who really relished intellectual discussion and this exposed him to a variety of people,” says Kearney. “He really enjoyed it and here you see him at his best.”

Several occasions during Hurley’s life provided him with such intellectual stimulation, as when he was chancellor of the University of Natal from 1993 to 1998. “It wasn’t the status but the opportunities it involved — being able to discuss matters with intellectuals.”

Another such forum was the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), which Hurley helped found in 1963, and to which he gave nearly 40 years of service, including 16 as chair. “He loved talking to the translators, the experts on liturgy and scripture. He wasn’t threatened by them like some. These meetings were a delight for him.”

They didn’t delight the Vatican’s Congregation for Sacred Worship who changed the ICEL’s mandate, effectively muzzling it. “It’s sad to think of all those translations gathering dust on shelves,” says Kearney.

The ICEL was an initiative that grew out of the Second Vatican Council, the key event in Hurley’s life. Held from 1962 to 1965, the council was called by Pope John XXIII who said he wanted to open the windows of the Roman Catholic Church to let in some “fresh air”. Hurley spent the rest of his life championing the reforms of the council and was not afraid to differ from the official Catholic line on matters such as contraception, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. Which is why, despite being made the youngest Catholic bishop at 31 in 1947 and an archbishop in 1951, he never received the cardinal’s hat.

The windows opened in the sixties have steadily closed since. “He hoped the reforms of the council would seep into all aspects of the church,” says Kearney. “But later he became very disturbed at the almost systematic managing of the church, taking it in a different direction.”

Hurley’s depression at this turn of events was offset by his links with the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay society dedicated to serving the poor, founded at the time of the council. “In them he saw a living example of the values of the council,” says Kearney. “While from their side they saw him as one of the founding fathers of Vatican Two, in which lay their own origins.”

Hurley attended one of their assemblies in Rome less than a week before his sudden death in Durban while being driven home on a summer’s day, happy having attended the golden jubilee of Our Lady of Fatima School in Durban North. His last words: “Isn’t it wonderful that we have all these beautiful trees and flowers ...”

Tribute: Alan Paton gives thanks

Denis Hurley was not born in a lighthouse as some people imagine. His father was a keeper of the lighthouse at Cape Point, the guardian of the light that warns the sailors of dangers and guides them away from destruction.

Now the son did not follow in his father’s footsteps. But he became a lighthouse keeper too; the guardian of the light that warns of dangers and saves us from destruction. The lighthouse has become a symbol of light and hope, and our Archbishop has been doing this work of warning and guiding for the greater part of his (life). And he has done it with great faithfulness, for which today we give thanks.

— Tribute on the occasion of Archbishop Denis Hurley’s 70th birthday celebration in the Durban City Hall, by Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country. Hurley’s father was also lighthouse keeper on Robben Island from 1918 to 1923.

What You Need To Know

• Check the website: www.archbishopdenishurley.org

• Guardian of the Light — Denis Hurley: Renewing the Church, Opposing Apartheid by Paddy Kearney is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

• Durban launch: August 24, 5.30 for 6 pm. Venue: Denis Hurley Hall, Diakonia Centre, Diakonia Ave. Speakers include Premier Zweli Mkhize, Ela Gandhi and Bishop Kevin Dowling.

• Pietermaritzburg launch: August 31, 5.30 for 6 pm. Venue: Leeb du Toit Council Chamber, UKZN Pietermaritzburg campus. Speakers: Mervyn Brahams, Albert Nolan and Bishop Michael Nuttall.

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