Archbishop Hurley and The Southern Cross
This is the full text of the address by Southern Cross editor Günther Simmermacher at the launch of Paddy Kearney’s biography of Archbishop Denis Hurley, Guardian of the Light.
Before we came together here at the Chancery, many of us gathered at the baptismal fount in St Mary’s cathedral, where the infant Denis Eugene Hurley was baptised. The priest who administered the sacrament in 1915 was Fr John Colgan. Years later, in 1932, Mgr Colgan became the editor of The Southern Cross.
So one might say that Denis Hurley’s link to The Southern Cross began, tenuously, five years before the newspaper was actually founded. It was an association that lasted a lifetime, right to the last couple of months of his rich, eventful life.
After I stepped into Mgr Colgan’s old footsteps in 2001, I started a new tradition in The Southern Cross: the leading article in the Christmas issue would be written by a guest editorialist. In 2003, in the course of an e-mail correspondence about cricket (during which we identified young Hashim Amla as a player to look out for), I asked Archbishop Hurley whether he would write an editorial for that year’s Christmas issue. He agreed, and I gave him a deadline. Right on time, he submitted a breathtaking reflection on the origins of the cosmos—drawing from the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, whom he admired so much—relating that to the birth of the Son of God. It truly was a tour-de-force.
To my knowledge, it was the last writing by Hurley to be published during his lifetime. Less than two months after the Christmas edition appeared, Hurley went to his heavenly reward.
Denis Hurley’s debut in print also was in The Southern Cross. In the 1920s the newspaper featured a text-heavy and apparently wildly popular children’s page, the “Children’s Corner”, which was edited by Mgr Frederick Kolbe. The Hurley children were members, with nicknames given to them by Mgr Kolbe. Elder sister Eileen was March Lily, younger brothers Jerry and Chris were St Patrick and Towser, and Denis was Robin. Mgr Kolbe travelled throughout South Africa to meet members of his Children’s Corner, among them the Hurley children in Natal.
The Hurley kids even had a photo of themselves published, in maritime uniforms as the crew of the notional “Mystery Ship” of which Robin, of course, was the captain, and March Lily “head cook and bottle washer”. The photo was accompanied by a cute little poem to introduce the crew, probably written by Eileen. The verse referring to Robin, or Denis, read:
The captain is young Master Robin,
He is strict in command
Keeps the crew well in hand
And is as steady as any old Dobbin.
That sounds like the job description of a good archbishop!
The encounter of Mgr Kolbe and young Denis Hurley is rich in symbolism: Kolbe, South Africa’s Catholic giant of the first half of the 20th century, meeting Hurley, South Africa’s Catholic giant of the second half of the 20th century.
In a message on the occasion of The Southern Cross’ 75th birthday in 1995, Archbishop Hurley noted that he was certain that his family were among the founder readers of The Southern Cross. For most of the 1930s, as he was studying in Ireland and Rome, his relationship with the newspaper took a hiatus. It resumed in 1946, when he was named a bishop and never ceased thereafter.
On the day of his consecration, The Southern Cross printed a special message by the new bishop of Durban. Speaking about his appointment, he wrote: “It has come to me at a time when two tremendous powers are at grips almost all over the world, on the one hand the power of Christ’s Church, on the other the power of evil in the form of utter materialism, whose fiercest expression is Communism. Only Catholicism can preserve the dignity of man”.
It is interesting to note the editorial in the same issue, the 19th of March 1947. The editor at the time — Fr Owen McCann, the future cardinal — grappled with “The Colour Question”, rejecting the statement by the Dutch Reformed Church that claimed scriptural support for racial separation. It seems appropriate that The Southern Cross should have dealt with issues of what the world would come to know as apartheid in the edition that covered Denis Hurley’s episcopal consecration that day.
In the run-up to the 1948 elections, The Southern Cross published Hurley’s warning that a victory for the National Party would ultimately lead to bloodshed. It was the first of his many statements against apartheid to published in the newspaper. The researcher will be able to trace Hurley’s evolution in his position on apartheid by following his statements in The Southern Cross, a position that developed from a pragmatic but essentially colonial approach to the prophetic opposition with which we associate him today.
Only once, in the mid-’60s, did The Southern Cross cause the archbishop distress. The newspaper had published a critical response by the conservative archbishop of Bloemfontein, William Patrick Whelan, to Hurley’s public statements in opposition to the regime’s new doctrine of separate development, the homeland policy. Here was one archbishop — and a fellow Oblate of Mary Immaculate — openly attacking another archbishop. Before a public row could develop, the bishops’ conference intervened and instructed the editor, Fr Louis Stubbs, to close the debate in any form immediately — without giving Hurley the right to reply. Fr Stubbs complied with the conference’s instruction. Times have changed… But for a man so consumed by notions of fairness, this must have seemed very unjust indeed.
Before that episode, Hurley had been a leading light at the Second Vatican Council. I think that Southern African Catholics sometimes don’t quite appreciate the importance of the role the archbishop played at Vatican 2. Throughout the Council, Hurley would write articles — published anonymously — from the Council for The Southern Cross. It must have been the best-connected Catholic newspaper in the world on conciliar matters at the time.
Hurley loved to talk about Vatican 2, and felt very protective over it. About a decade ago, I wrote a long chronological series of articles about every pope in history. My article on Pope Paul VI annoyed Hurley — I had covered Vatican 2 in only a couple of paragraphs, too few for his liking. He wrote a letter to complain about that. I responded to him, pointing out that brevity was a necessary characteristic in the series, and that Vatican 2 probably got more column inches than the Hundred Year War. His response was gracious, saying he understood and offering unduly lavish praise for my erudition. Of all correspondence I have received in my time at The Southern Cross, I treasure this the most.
His sister Eileen was a rather more frequent writers of letters to the editor. Her letters were imbued with wit, sometimes of an acerbic variety. Quite clearly, Eileen was rather more conservative than her brother, certainly on matters pertaining to the Church. One wonders how these two siblings, who were so devoted to one another, discussed such things when they got together. How did they discuss Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s ban on artificial means of birth control?
It is well known that Hurley was dismayed by Human vitae. The Southern Cross frontpage of the edition covering the encyclical makes for fascinated reading. It quoted four leading bishops:
Archbishop Hurley: “I don’t think I have ever felt so torn in half.”
Cardinal McCann: “The Holy Father has spoken. We must obey him.”
Archbishop Garner of Pretoria: The pope is correct; why is there even a debate about this?
Bishop Van Velsen of Kroonstad: This is a discipline rather than a doctrine and it’s up to individuals to exercise their informed conscience.
Vatican 2 clearly had raised expectations that the Church could change its old teachings. Humanae vitae disabused those hoping for change of that notion.
Which brings us back to Hurley’s love for the Council. About three years before his death, my predecessor, Michael Shackleton, and I were looking at ways to mark the 35th anniversary of the closing of the Council. We hit upon the idea to ask Hurley to write something along the lines of a personal memory. Mike contacted Hurley, who agreed to write an article. 1,200 words? Fine.
A little while later Hurley phoned. One article is not enough; could he write two? Sure. Soon after, another call. Two articles would not be enough. In fact, he didn’t know how many articles would be enough. I told him: “Your Grace, write as many articles as you feel necessary; we’ll be delighted to run them as a series.” And so, over the next few months, the archbishop would e-mail a total of 17 articles in batches of three or four, always well ahead of deadlines and perfectly sized for easy publication. This was, I have been told, the impetus he needed to finally write his memoirs of Vatican 2. These memoirs, taking the Southern Cross series as a basis and expanding on it, were published as Keeping the Dream Alive the year after his death (reviewed here).
At present, The Southern Cross is publishing weekly excerpts from Guardian of the Light. His biographer Paddy Kearney has expressed his profound appreciation for my generosity in doing so. I don’t see it as an act of generosity at all. To me, and I’m sure to most readers of The Southern Cross, it is a fitting tribute to a giant of the modern Church, a son of South Africa and prophet of Christ, in whose life this newspaper played such an important role — and he in it.