Remembering the ‘missed Jesuit’ of South Africa

Archbishop Denis Hurley OMI
Archbishop Denis Hurley OMI

This week, the Church in South Africa – and more widely – has been celebrating the centenary of the birth of Archbishop Denis Hurley. The event coincides with the opening of the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban – a facility which continues Hurley’s work with the marginalised: feeding the homeless, tending the sick and welcoming refugees, according to its Director, Raymond Perrier. “We do so in the ecumenical and interfaith spirit that drove him,” he says. “And we find ways to be a voice for the voiceless – hosting the Durban homeless committee, sponsoring dramas that tell the lives of drug users, and giving people skills to get back into employment.”

Writing in the winter edition of Jesuits and Friends, Raymond points out that although he was not a Jesuit, Denis Hurley was certainly very fond of the Society of Jesus: he welcomed Jesuits into his diocese to run a rural mission and novitiate at Elandskop. Raymond even recalls that some people have jokingly described Hurley as a ‘missed Jesuit’, “given his intellect, his willingness to speak his mind, and his openness to some key Jesuit theologians".

A passionate opposition to apartheid

Denis Hurley was a courageous opponent of South Africa’s racist regime for 50 years, dubbed by opponents ‘the scourge of apartheid’. “Hurley had no time for those who argued that religion should be kept out of politics,” writes Raymond, “and he was intrigued by politically active Jesuits like Fr Robert Drinan SJ (who was a US Congressman) and the modern-day and historic Jesuits fighting in Latin America … But we might also see a philosophical basis for Hurley’s passionate opposition to apartheid in the influence of the writings of the Jesuit anthropologist, Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ.”

Denis Hurley was a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate for 71 years. He was the youngest bishop in the world when appointed aged 31 and then the youngest archbishop when elevated at the age of 35. He was almost 90 years old when he died in 2004. “But the attraction of Hurley is not just how long he lived but how much he did,” argues Raymond in Jesuits and Friends. “His role as a church leader extended from Durban, to the country … to the wider world. As a young, energetic, non-European multi-lingual bishop attending the Second Vatican Council, Hurley had an impact on the way that the Church reimagined itself through the debates and documents of the Council.”

Read more in the latest edition of Jesuits and Friends. And visit Thinking Faith to read Paddy Kearney's personal appreciation of Denis Hurley's legacy.