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Download a PDF biography of Archbishop Hurley 'Courageous and compassionate leader'

The following is a summarised extract from Archbishop Hurley's biography ‘Guardian of the Light’ written by Paddy Kearney, published by Continuum (New York) in June 2009.

Denis Eugene Hurley was undoubtedly the most significant Catholic leader in South Africa during the twentieth century. Appointed bishop one year before the National Party formed a government in 1948, he retired as archbishop in 1992, two years before the Nationalists ceased to be the ruling party, when the country's first democratically elected government came to power. Hurley had a profound effect upon the Church's struggle against apartheid and played a major role in the process of renewing the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Tall and impressive, he was an eloquent speaker, years ahead of his time not only in his views on South Africa's racial problems, but also on the reforms needed in the Catholic Church. His outspoken views on taboo subjects such as birth control, married priests and the ordination of women are thought to have prevented his being chosen as a cardinal, though many thought him eminently qualified.

As a young matriculant in the early 1930s, Hurley shared the typical racial prejudices of white people of the day. He was a solid supporter of the British Empire and thought Mahatma Gandhi was spoiling things by his opposition to British rule in India. Gradually his attitudes changed as he opened himself to new ideas and admitted the inadequacies of his earlier thinking. He was always a keen learner, even in old age.

While studying for the priesthood in Rome, he was strongly attracted to the Church's social teaching, though initially only in an academic and cerebral way. The official Church was nervous of anything that smacked of activism or revolution; Hurley seemed to reflect that nervousness. In his first assignment as a curate at Durban's Emmanuel Cathedral in the early 1940s, immediately after his priestly studies and return to South Africa, he was a cautious young man. Though excited by attending a meeting about the establishment of black trade unions, he accepted the advice of older priests that this was not the sort of thing in which a priest should involve himself.

A few years later, however, as superior of St Joseph's Scholasticate, he played an active role in the Pietermaritzburg Parliamentary Debating Society and enjoyed discussions with its wide range of members. His fellow staff members at St Joseph's were young South African priests becoming concerned about the country's racial policy. Hurley enjoyed discussions with them about the changes that would have to take place in South Africa; he introduced a course on social justice into the scholasticate curriculum so that priests in training would also confront these questions. But, by his own admission, the discussion and the training were still only theoretical. The staff were all white and, with one exception, so were the students, and there was little, if any, exposure to educated black opinion.

Appointed a bishop at the extraordinarily young age of 31, he continued the discussions he began at St Joseph's by organising a three-day conference for all the priests of the Natal Vicariate in 1948. This was the year the National Party came to power and began to implement hard-line racial segregation. The conference discussed these issues, though still in a remote and theoretical way.

When Hurley was appointed archbishop in 1951and president of the Bishops' Conference in June 1952 (a position he held until early 1961), he persuaded the bishops to make their first-ever joint statement on human rights and race relations, despite the strong opposition of the papal representative, Archbishop Martin Lucas, and the latter's confidential plea to him not to publicly criticise the government. The 1952 statement was important because it broke a long-standing episcopal silence on key racial issues, yet Hurley later acknowledged that it was "horribly patronising" towards black people. In that statement, and for many years after, the bishops favoured the idea of a qualified franchise. Such limited access to voting rights was not acceptable in progressive black circles.

In their desire for gradual evolution, the Catholic bishops were not in sympathy with the African National Congress (ANC), which wanted to force the pace of change through civil disobedience to apartheid legislation. The bishops regarded this campaign and its ANC sponsors, as Marxist and Communist-inspired. The Catholic Church was still cut off from ecumenical contacts, another potential source of more enlightened ideas. Other churches had their synods and assemblies, where black clergy and laity made known their views about the South African situation. There were no equivalent opportunities for Catholics.

The Catholic bishops' eyes began to be opened by the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which directly threatened the mission schools – the Church's main instrument of evangelisation. In a test of strength with the formidable Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Bantu Education, Hurley and his colleagues decided not to hand over their schools to government, but to embark on an ambitious fundraising drive that would finance the schools for at least a few years after the withdrawal of government subsidies. Hurley led the Church through these difficult years, his confidence increased not only by high office but by the successful Marian Congress in South Africa. Its large outdoor rallies, services and processions were a dramatic change for a Church that had previously kept a low profile to avoid stirring up anxiety about the Roomse gevaar (‘Roman danger').

In the 1950s and early 1960s Hurley remained, however, under the influence of the moderate approach of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). This assumed that whites would act more justly towards blacks if they had the facts at their disposal. Little thought was apparently given to how blacks could achieve their own liberation.

The Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965) was a major landmark in Hurley's life. He was a significant participant from the beginning, having been chosen by Pope John XXIII as one of the 100-member Central Preparatory Commission that paved the way for this assembly of the world's 2,500 Catholic bishops, the first in nearly a hundred years. Hurley revelled in the debates and discussions, but above all in the open and positive atmosphere, in which leading theologians updated the bishops through informal lectures and seminars. Despite coming from a remote and little-known diocese, Hurley came to be regarded as one of a small group who were responsible for the success of the Council. Its major documents gave new impetus to his views on Church reform and social justice, making him both a father and a son of Vatican II.

Hurley devoted the immediate post-Vatican II years to implementing the Council decrees in his own diocese, and in South Africa generally. Through the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the Interterritorial Meeting of Bishops in Southern Africa (IMBISA which linked all the Catholic bishops of eight Southern African countries), and the worldwide Synod of Bishops, he promoted the Council's emphases on collegiality, lay participation, liturgy, catechetics, ecumenism and justice and peace.

As a result of the Council, Hurley became more determined than ever in his opposition to apartheid, despite the South African government's attempts to market their policy as an acceptable form of partition. There were in fact no black people in South Africa, they claimed: instead all blacks were citizens of one or other homeland, the only places where they would have political rights. Behind this sleight of hand was the stark reality: the majority of black people had never lived in the homelands, nor had any desire to do so. They would have starved were it not for their employment in South Africa's urban areas. Moreover, their labour was key to the South African economy.

Hurley's exposure of the fallacy of separate development brought him into direct public conflict with his colleague, the Archbishop of Bloemfontein, William Patrick Whelan, and, less publicly, with Archbishop Joseph McGeogh, the pope's diplomatic representative in South Africa. Both Whelan and McGeogh thought that separate development was not without Christian justification, a view Hurley vigorously opposed in his 1964 presidential address to the SAIRR.

When Paul VI's controversial encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, was published in 1968, Hurley publicly stated that he did not agree. He was at that time involved in a fascinating private correspondence with the Pope, urging him with surprising frankness to involve his brother bishops in a more collegial resolution of this issue, especially through the Synod of Bishops. Sadly, the Pope did not accept this advice. While Hurley was engaged in this high-level international exercise, back in South Africa, he involved himself in the issue of forced removals, especially with the community of Limehill in Natal. The government was pressing ahead vigorously with apartheid policy, moving an estimated four million people to consolidate the homeland areas and abolish "black spots", where relatively small numbers of black people were living, surrounded by white communities. Hurley took up the cause of these and other people who were forcibly removed, assisting them with erecting tents on the day of the move, and repeatedly challenging the government about the unhealthy conditions at Limehill, conditions which led to the early deaths of many children.

Black Consciousness, similar to the Black Power movement in the United States, began to win the support of Africans towards the end of the 1960s. Hurley saw it as one of the most important political changes in South Africa's history, giving black people self-confidence, restoring their pride, and helping them realise that only they had the power to change their situation. Early in the 1970s, workers began to stand up for their rights, beginning with the landmark Durban strikes of 1973. Hurley's thinking began to alter: it became clear that more was needed from the Church than attitude-change among whites, important as that was. Impressed by the power of unionised workers to effect change in a disciplined, non-violent way, he publicly backed them.

At the same time, there were important initiatives that white people could undertake, most notably conscientious objection to military service in the apartheid army. Hurley's strong support for those who declared such objection and faced the consequences, highlighted their significant contribution to peace-making but made him unpopular with the government and many whites.

To Hurley, apartheid was a form of organised evil, which he believed could only be overcome by organised good. Thus, in the 1970s, he established organisations that would help to bring about change. He founded Diakonia (1976), an ecumenical agency promoting action for justice and peace in the Greater Durban Area; initiated the Human Awareness Programme (1977) which strengthened civil society efforts; and supported the establishment in 1979 of PACSA (the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness). Through his contacts with leaders of other churches and other faiths, his ecumenical commitment grew ever stronger. The dynamic ecumenical movement in KwaZulu-Natal even now owes much to his pioneering efforts.

As president of the Bishops' Conference for a second period – from 1981 to 1987 – Hurley was once again in the national limelight. During these years, Hurley's leadership was key to major reports published by the Conference highlighting the situation in Namibia (then called South-West Africa), the problem of forced removals, and the extensive use of violence by the police in black townships of the Vaal Triangle. He led the bishops in outspoken and practical support to trade unions in their struggle for worker rights.

As a result of comments he made at the launch of the report on Namibia, he was charged with libelling the police anti-insurgency unit known as Koevoet (crowbar). Only days before the case came to court in 1985, the charges were dropped. The government had realised they were taking on a formidable opponent, with widespread local and international support, whose prosecution would only draw attention to the illegality of South Africa's presence in Namibia and the gross human rights abuses of which its security forces were guilty.

During the latter years of apartheid, when his own ministry as Archbishop of Durban was coming to an end, Hurley made efforts to unite church initiatives to promote change, through "Christians for Justice and Peace". Unfortunately it did not win sufficient support from the black community. Much more successful was his promotion, throughout the Catholic Church in South Africa, of a "Pastoral Plan" with the motto "Community Serving Humanity".

1990 was a momentous year for South Africa, with the unbanning of the liberation movements – the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – and the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment, events that gave Hurley great joy. Decades of struggle for racial justice in South Africa had not been in vain. In 1994 came the first democratic elections and the installation of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa an event that Hurley saw as a highlight of his life second only to the Second Vatican Council.

When Hurley retired as Archbishop of Durban in 1992, he worked as parish priest of Emmanuel Cathedral where he had begun his pastoral ministry in 1940. During nine years of ‘retirement' in this demanding post, in addition to being Chancellor of the University of Natal, he was for several years a Patron of Jubilee 2000, a campaign to have the debt of poor nations cancelled and to counter economic globalisation. This was a return to Hurley's early interest in economic justice when he wrote a dissertation on "Economic Domination through Credit Control" at the Gregorian University in the late 1930s.

In the last years of his life, as South Africa took rapid strides towards democracy, it was ironic that the Catholic Church was retreating from many of the progressive positions of Vatican II. ICEL, which Hurley helped found in 1963, and to which he had given nearly 40 years of service, 16 of them as Chair, came under attack from the Vatican's Congregation for Sacred Worship, eventually being restructured and having its mandate and the whole process of translation substantially altered.

These were painful experiences for Hurley, yet he remained a man of hope, sustained by his frequent meetings with the Rome-based lay Community of Sant'Egidio, which he regarded as an embodiment of the vision and ideals of Vatican II, strongly based on daily community prayer. He was particularly impressed that their efforts to promote justice and peace stemmed from their friendship with marginalised communities and countries and that they were linked to ongoing welfare and development work. This continuum of Christian effort, he felt, provided a model for the whole Church.

Less than a week before his sudden death on 13 February 2004, he had attended one of Sant'Egidio's assemblies where cardinals and bishops, as well as laity, met for several days with leaders of other churches and faiths to discuss efforts to promote peace. He was comforted by the realisation that the values of Vatican II were alive and well. In the Sant'Egidio gatherings, he glimpsed the possible shape of future councils, indeed he tasted what the Church of the future might be like. He returned from Rome in February 2004 unusually happy: despite his disappointments with the official Church, it seemed as if his life journey was ending on a high note - there was hope for the future.