Denis Hurley – A Portrait By Friends
DENIS HURLEY A PORTRAIT BY FRIENDS, edited by Anthony M Gamley. Cluster Publications, Pietermaritzburg, 2001. 193pp.
Reviewed by Gunther Simmermacher
South Africa, it is fair to say, is a breeding ground for living legends. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu readily spring to mind. Archbishop Denis Hurley doubtlessly belongs to that category, too. As this book proves, his legendary status is not confined to the Catholic community, but transcends many boundaries.
In A Portrait by Friends, 27 individuals from various religious, ethnic, political and national backgrounds recall their association with “that man, Hurley,” as Fr Smangaliso Mkhatshwa affectionately calls the archbishop. The exercise was the brainchild of Anthony Gamley, a Presbyterian minister who also edited the book, with much sensitivity.
The book delivers exactly what the title promises, a portrait of Archbishop Hurley, describing the various sides of this intriguing man: the episcopal authority, pastor, theologian, ecumenist, liturgist, social and anti-apartheid activist, guiding light and, indeed, friend to many people.
The archbishop is presently working on his autobiography. This book will serve as an ideal companion to these memoirs: Hurley’s life from his own perspective complemented by his life as seen by others.
Archbishop Hurley’s public life is well known and suitably recounted in A Portrait By Friends. The value in this book lies in the behind-the-scenes perspectives.
Particularly insightful is the chapter by Mgr Paul Nadal, who as his former private secretary knows the archbishop well. Mgr Nadal describes Archbishop Hurley’s difficulties in interacting easily with clergy and laity, partly because of his inability to engage in banal small talk, and partly because his distinction and episcopal office would intimidate many. This led to an isolation which the archbishop did not cherish.
On one occasion, Mgr Nadal recalls, “one of his contemporaries reprimanded me for speaking in a way that bordered on familiarity. He himself would never dare to speak to him like that! Thinking that I might have been disrespectful, I approached the archbishop, telling him what had been said to me. He simply smiled and said, I wish more people would speak to me like that.”
Gamley procured a coup in obtaining a contribution from Robert Blair Kaiser, veteran Vatican correspondent for Time and Newsweek. During Vatican II, Kaiser’s Rome apartment was a hub of discourse among theologians and bishops, including Archbishop Hurley. Sadly, this is the book’s only essay by an eyewitness to Vatican II.
Journalist Carmel Rickard of the Sunday Times writes an absorbing account of Archbishop Hurley’s role in taking on the apartheid state’s detention law. Law professor Tony Mathews, another contributor, rates the case Hurley and Another vs the Minister of Law and Order “the most important civil rights ruling for several decades.” It is still taught in law schools today.
Equally fascinating is the story of the archbishops’ other brush with the law, recounted here by Brian Currin, in the 1980s, when the apartheid authorities accused Hurley of disseminating “lies” about atrocities committed by the notorious Koevoet paraforces in then South West Africa. Realising that the court case would prove Hurley’s allegations, the state withdrew the charges in 1985.
In a delicious twist of irony, the prosecuting authorities served the summons on October 9, feast day of St Denis. With the senior counsel another Denis (Kuny), Currin asks: “How could we lose with a triumvirate like that?”
Of course, the archbishop’s political engagement forms only part of the bigger picture. His loyalty to the Catholic Church has been absolute, as Fr Mkhatshwa notes.
Some may interpret Archbishop Hurley’s reservations on some Church issues such as intercommunion or Humanae vitae as signals of dissent. Colin Gardner, former head of the English department of the University of Natal, however places him “right at the centre of the real mainstream” of the contemporary Church.
Inevitably, all essayists are in varying degrees liberal in their praise of Mhlwemamba (“the eyes of the mamba,” the archbishop’s Zulu name), though never to the point of sycophancy.
The contributions, which include a foreword by Archbishop Tutu and a message by Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, consistently and independently emphasise Archbishop Hurley’s many attributes, qualities which leave the reader in no doubt that the book’s subject is, indeed, a legend.