Sweeping the clouds away


Towards the end of his extraordinary life, Archbishop Denis Hurley would be called the “guardian of the light”—truly someone who swept the clouds away and let the light shine in. His selected letters are an eloquent mirror





On 27 Jan 1934, writing to his family from Rome, where he was studying for the priesthood, the 18-year-old Denis Hurley described himself as an “optimistic egotist”; facing up to the difficulties of logic and cosmology, he said that he was “sitting on a rainbow, sweeping the clouds away.”


Sweeping the clouds away. Years later, towards the end of his extraordinary life, Hurley would be called the “guardian of the light”—truly someone who swept the clouds away and let the light shine in.


Nine years after publishing the excellent biography, Guardian of the Light: Denis Hurley, Renewing the Church, Opposing Apartheid, his close associate Paddy Kearney, with co-editors Philippe Denis OP and Jane Argal, has now brought us A Life in Letters: Selected Correspondence of Denis Hurley—and what a rich and compelling collection it is. If a biography is a work of history, a life recounted at second-hand, then a person’s letters convey his or her life at first-hand, and contemporaneously.


The letters, 251 of them, are presented in strict chronological order, arranged into chapters that correspond to significant periods in Hurley’s life—youth and seminary formation, his ministry before Vatican II, experience of the Council, his emergence as the foremost Catholic critic of apartheid, and his long contribution as a leading light in the southern African hierarchy. Each entry is introduced or contextualised briefly, and there are excellent short commentaries by Mr Kearney at the beginning of each chapter. Concise footnotes are provided in explanation of the many intriguing people and incidents that populate the letters.


Epistolary muse


Of course, there are themes that span the whole of his life, his family, first and foremost, especially his sister Eileen. The earliest letter is written to “Dear Mummy”, for her birthday, and encloses a tea-cosy. The last letter, composed 78 years later, is to his brother Chris: it was discovered on his dictaphone a few days after his death. Eileen seems to have been his main epistolary muse, and his many letters to her are full of observations about the people he met, the places he saw, and the weighty matters he was busy with, all lightly described. Eileen had been paralysed by meningitis in 1967, and was confined to a wheelchair. Hurley recounts to others his many visits to her, the picnics and outings he took her on, and her ever-cheerful acceptance of her condition. Just seven months before he himself died, he wrote to friends, “My sister Eileen died on Friday 30 May. […] A sudden attack of pneumonia carried her off and made her mobile again, mobile please God on her way to heaven.”


Hurley’s last letter contains two other enduring themes. One was travel: he had just returned from a trip to the Sant’Egidio Community in Rome, and he wrote with relish about the food, the architecture, and the scenery of the Roman countryside. He clearly enjoyed seeing the world, and seeing familiar places all over again. Many of his letters were written during his numerous long sojourns overseas—in the seminary in Ireland and Rome for seven years, the extended sessions of the Second Vatican Council, meetings of the Synod of Bishops, and while on innumerable trips to attend meetings, to speak at conferences, to accept honorary degrees, and sometimes just to relax with friends.


Certainly, his early experience of fascism in Italy, and later on his many enduring connections with people around the world, must have contributed to his deep sense of the evil of white South Africa’s racial policies in the second half of the last century.


An avid cricket fan


The other theme is cricket. Hardly any of the early letters, written while he was a student at St Charles’ College in Pietermaritzburg, fail to contain some reference to a cricket match, or to comment on the performances and prospects of his younger brothers. A few years later, aboard ship on his way to Ireland, he lamented the fact that the Springboks had lost a test match by ten wickets; and was appalled that this news was given less space on the ship’s wireless bulletin board than matters concerning the gold standard and the stock exchange.


Cricket was an enduring interest, along with sport in general. Both of the last two letters refer to the West Indies’ tour of South Africa; the visitors were receiving “an unmerciful hammering, despite the fact they have Ryan Hurley in their team.” And I was delighted to encounter again the little quip that he liked to trot out in his later years whenever cricket came up: “It was once said that the British had to invent cricket because they have such a low capacity for religion that they had to find something else to remind them of eternity.” Not everyone of Hurley’s intellectual, philosophical and ecclesiastical achievements was at the same time an avid cricket fan; and more’s the pity, he might have said.


But amidst the many enchanting letters concerning domestic, cultural and recreational matters, the collection also deals extensively with deeply serious issues. In their introduction, the editors note that “[i]n the 1930s, the young Hurley was still a victim of the social and racial prejudices which his education as a white South African had inculcated in him.” Indeed, it is shocking to read in a letter written during his voyage to Ireland to commence his novitiate in 1932, a line such as this: “The only fly in the ointment is that we have Indians and Coloureds on board, no Indian rajahs and nabobs but common old sammies and as dirty as they are common.” Or, the following year, commenting disparagingly on the habit of Roman men and boys, under the influence of Mussolini’s fascism, of wearing militaristic clothing, “[t]hey are like a lot of raw nigs, thinking what brave fellows they look in gold braid and brass buttons.” The words of a 17-year-old, we should remember.


Real Christianity


As one works through the letters, and as Hurley’s consciousness of the evils of racialism and oppression developed, one sees how he managed—unlike the majority of his white South African contemporaries—to free himself from these prejudices. By 1961, Albert Luthuli, president of the ANC, was writing to him as “one so concerned about our liberation. We value very much your efforts for our welfare.” Four years later, after Archbishop Whelan of Bloemfontein had notoriously defended apartheid, the journalist Donald Woods sent Hurley a telegram: “THANK GOD FOR YOU STOP IF YOU HAD NOT REPUDIATED WHELAN STATEMENT I WOULD HAVE LEFT THE CHURCH STOP KEEP ON ADVOCATING REAL CHRISTIANITY STOP MANY ARE PRAYING FOR YOU AND DEPENDING ON YOU—DONALD WOODS


The letters of this period are among the most fascinating for any reader interested in the institutional Church’s stance towards the then encroaching ideology of apartheid. In a word, the stance was timid. Hurley was taken to task—in excruciatingly polite terms—by the Apostolic Delegate and by Cardinal Agagianian, the head of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, for his decision to accept the presidency of the SA Institute of Race Relations. It “[did] not seem convenient, in the present circumstances” that the Church should be seen as “tied to an institution, the activity of which does not fall under its control,” wrote the latter. Thus was the idea of even a mild example of Christian prophetic witness to be sacrificed on the altar of Catholic exceptionalism.


Hurley’s determination to address social and political wrongs at home—and his perseverance in doing so from a minority position among his peers, and in the teeth of prevailing authority—was mirrored by his resolve to speak out forcefully on theological and pastoral issues which he felt demanded attention. There are many striking examples. Perhaps the most moving is a long letter he wrote to Pope St Paul VI in 1967, in the wake of the publication of Humanae Vitae. In it, Hurley deals with various points: birth control (“In conscience, I find it more and more difficult to tell people that they must obey what was considered until recently to be the natural law, because the doubt about it is so great”); the magisterium (“We must be honest. The magisterium has been wrong on several matters”); collegiality (“Holy Father, could you not decide to take your brother bishops into your confidence and discuss the matter with them?”); leadership (“the benefits of human experience in the matter of consultation and consensus can be used by the Church”).


Ahead of its time


This letter brought a lengthy personal reply from Pope Paul—“We have reserved to Ourself personally the giving of a reply”which made no concessions and which, amidst many felicitations, noted reprovingly, “here and there in the letter, certainly without intention on your part, there are expressions which a less well-disposed reader might find somewhat wanting in respect for the Apostolic See.” Nothing daunted, Hurley wrote again to the Pope a few years later, in anticipation of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, “While realising how painful any discussion of priestly celibacy will be to Your Holiness, I think it inevitable that the Synod will give a good deal of attention to this aspect of priestly life.” It is not clear whether this letter received a reply.


The question of women’s ordination comes up a number of times. He wrote in 1970, “If we really believe in human rights, we have a job to explain why we debar women from the sanctuary.” Hurley held to that view to the end of his life, writing to a friend in 2002 that, despite the Pope’s having “forbidden people even to discuss the matter… I think women have the human right to enter the Catholic priesthood and I believe that one day they will. Please don’t whisper that in the Pope’s ear!”


There were many other causes, from all walks of life, that took him to his typewriter. The terrible political violence in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1990s; the situation of African workers, exploited and denied the right to strike; the HIV/AIDS pandemic; and, perhaps one of the greatest frustrations of his final years, the Vatican’s highbrow linguistic vandalism that left the Church with such clumsy and awkward English liturgical texts.


Both our country and our Church were blessed by the ministry of Denis Hurley, in both its depth and its longevity. This collection, itself just a fraction of the letters he is known to have written, can only reinforce our appreciation of that blessing, and renew our affection towards the man who did—and still does—so much to sweep the clouds away.



Pull quotes:

The question of women’s ordination comes up a number of times. He writes in 1970, “If we really believe in human rights, we have a job to explain why we debar women from the sanctuary.”