'The best cardinal Africa never had' - new biography of Archbishop Denis Hurley

“One of the church’s great prophetic bishops”, a venerable father of the African church” , “a vivacious exponent of Vatican II” were among the tributes to the late Archbishop Denis Hurley voiced during the London launch, of a new book chronicling his life.

Guardian of the Light by Paddy Kearney,  tells us that Hurley, born in Cape Town in 1915 of Irish parents, became the youngest Catholic bishop in the world in 1947 at the age of 31 and then at 36, the youngest archbishop. He was twice President of the Bishops’ Conference of Southern Africa. But it particularly records the life of an heroic churchman - the Catholic equivalent of Desmond Tutu – who become a courageous opponent of South Africa's apartheid regime and a champion of the reforms and spirit of Vatican II. At the gathering of around 50 family, friends and admirers on Wednesday, 9 September at Westminster’s Abbey Centre, Hurley was particularly remembered for being “a truly great human being”.

Among the anecdotes told by the first speaker, Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg in South Africa - a first cousin once removed of Hurley - was a supportive phone call to him by Hurley on the evening of 21 March 1991. That day, on the 31st anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, Dowling had been shot at during a human rights protest in his parish. Hurley started off the conversation with “I hear you’ve been ducking the bouncers today” for he was very fond of sport – particularly cricket - imagery. On another occasion when Hurley was trying, unsuccessfully, to get the Bishops’ Conference to discuss women’s ordination, he turned to Dowling and whispered, “I think this is where we must beat a strategic retreat”.  Dowling reported that Hurley “would champion many a just cause” however unpopular his stance might be in Rome. Indeed, it probably cost him the red hat.  
Hurley’s life spanned the entire 46 years of the apartheid system and he tirelessly lobbied the bishops’ conference eventually to declare apartheid “intrinsically evil” in 1957. His sermons, pastoral letters and public addresses cut across conservative white attitudes and assumptions of racial superiority which had been formed in the colonial era. He marched in demonstrations alongside Desmond Tutu and Alan Paton and encouraged Catholic schools to start admitting nonwhite students. Hurley always said his greatest struggle was convincing South African Catholics – including bishops - that social justice was integral to their faith rather than an optional extra. He founded an ecumenical agency, Diakonia, dedicated to social justice. Dowling recalled seeing him celebrate his 80th birthday “in a simple way with justice and peace people”. He watched Hurley sit in his garden sharing stories about the struggle against apartheid with Beyers Naudé, another famous anti-apartheid campaigner.

As a theologian, Hurley was chosen by Pope John XXIII to sit on the 25-strong central preparatory commission of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. He was prominent among the progressive bishops who battled against a reluctant Vatican bureaucracy to steer the church in a reformist direction, influenced by bishops like Hélder Câmara of Recife, Brazil, who were speaking on the need for a church to encourage Catholics everywhere to seek justice for the poor. Dowling reported that the end of Hurley’s life was marked by great sadness as he saw the insights of Vatican II being rolled back and felt estrangement from the model of leadership in the Roman Curia. “He believed in intellectual freedom and believed the church would grow though intellectual pioneers willing to take risks” said Dowling. He was passionate about the church’s social teaching.

Julian Filochowski, chair of the Archbishop Romero Trust, who worked with Hurley in the 1980s as Director of CAFOD, highlighted Hurley’s “nurturing of a worldwide web of solidarity”, including building partnerships with overseas agencies. At 6ft 4 inches tall he was a “gentle giant” who “pointed out the structural sin of apartheid with clarity and bluntness”. He was a “vivacious exponent of Vatican II and helped to shape its outcome”. Hurley was also a “distinguished liturgist” and his interest in a more active and increased participation of the laity in the liturgy led him to believe ardently in the need for use of the vernacular. Filochowski described him as “the best cardinal Africa never had”.

Christine Allen, Executive Director of Progressio, and one of the sponsors of the launch, described being very moved to receive a letter of support and affirmation from Archbishop Hurley when she was appointed to the post. The other sponsors of the launch were CAFOD and The Tablet.

Photos were shown throughout the evening of the Denis Hurley Centre at Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban. All royalties from the sale of Guardian of the Light go to this centre which provides programmes for refugees, homeless and unemployed people and those living with HIV/AIDS. 

The author, Paddy Kearney, headed Diakonia for three decades and worked closely with Archbishop Hurley.

Guardian of the Light: Denis Hurley - Renewing the Church, Opposing Apartheid
By Paddy Kearney - Published by Continuum,  Hardback £16.00

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