On Monday 21 June 2014 Bishop Kevin Dowling arrived in England as guest speaker of the Denis Hurley Association, London . Over the ensuing week he spoke in Edinburgh, Birmingham and London. The rapturous response of the people who heard him, suggested that there was a prophet in our midst. What made him such a hit? The clue may lie in what he said, and the passion with which he said it, and his faithfulness to those whom he regarded as his mentors. He spoke his mind plainly, a habit which has, over the years, gained him many admirers and some critics.
One of Dowling’s talks: “The Joy of the Gospel then and now: From Archbishop Hurley to Pope Francis” began with the notion that memories, stories, and experiences are the stuff of life. We are spurred on by the “so-called ordinary people” who have touched and influenced our lives. Among them Dowling mentioned his own mentors Archbishops Denis Hurley OMI, Oscar Romero, and Pope Francis.
Throughout his entire life, Hurley fought for justice and peace in an apartheid driven South Africa , He was a magnificent human being whose warmth, humanity encouragement and challenge “carried me through my own years of struggle,” said Dowling. For anyone who knew Hurley well, listening to Bishop Dowling was something of a deja vue experience. Dowling is his own man, so maybe it was the genes (Hurley and Dowling are cousins) but both Hurley and Dowling stood up and were counted. It was their dogged Christ-like perseverance that bothered, and continues to bother, not only the supporters of injustice, but even some members of the Church.
Hurley found a kindred spirit in John XX111. Dowling takes inspiration from Pope Francis who calls the Church to a new kind of “missionary discipleship” rooted in an evangelical joy that is capable of transforming everything.
If the Church does not transform, says Francis, victims of oppression will stand convinced that God does not love them. (Evangelii Gaudium). Dowling knows, just like Pope Francis, that “conventional responses may no longer be relevant or meaningful” in the reality of todays world. The Church needs to find new ways of transmitting the Gospel, otherwise it risks making the message irrelevant. True shepherds, says Francis, know and feel the suffering of their sheep. They “smell like their sheep.”
It is not only where mentors succeed, but where they struggle and fail, that we can empathize with them.
Archbishop Hurley was among the most influential Fathers of Vatican Council 11. Every aspect of the Church’s life was important to him but Liturgy was his great love. Dowling adds:” It was painful for me to sense his great sadness and disappointment towards the end of his life at what was done to the work of his beloved ICEL (International Commission for English in the Liturgy) on which he had served with such distinction for so many years.”
Bishop Dowling spoke to a capacity crowd at Cathedral Hall, Westminster , and London on 26 June 2014. When he finished they took to their feet and applauded him enthusiastically. Like Hurley before him, Dowling also knew the pain of having his words fall on deaf ears. Perhaps that is why he could identify with another of his mentors: Archbishop Oscar Romero.
The year 2005 marked the 25th anniversary of the assasination of Romero. Poor rural people flocked to the Archbishop’s tomb in the crypt of the Cathedral in Il Salvador. Bishop Dowling was there. Together they remembered the man who witnessed to the Gospel in the midst of extreme violence, and paid with his life as a consequence.
Pope Francis, Archbishops Denis Hurley and Oscar Romero, took seriously the words of the anointed Jesus: “bring the good news to the poor, open the eyes of the blind, set the downtrodden free.”
Bishop Dowling, was anointed for that same mission. He refers to his mentors as “ordinary people”. But for prophets, the extraordinary, it seems, is ordinary. They are driven and they get spent in the process.
The members of the Denis Hurley Association: Robina Rafferty (Chair), Julian Filochowski, Declan Keane, Janice Burn, Lorcan O’Reilly OMI and I, had three aims in inviting Bishop Kevin Dowling to England : One, that as many people as possible might benefit from his wisdom and zeal. Two, that they might remember Denis Eugene Hurley OMI whose 10th anniversary we celebrate this year. Three, that we might help generate some funds for the Denis Hurley Centre, Durban where the poor, sick and homeless gather daily and are supported. Thanks to the generosity of SCIAF, the dioceses of Edinburgh , Birmingham , The Tablet and private indivuals, all three aims were realised.