The Pope Who Inspired Romero and Hurley
Two giants in the struggle for justice studied at the same time in Rome and took inspiration from the pope at the time, explains PADDY KEARNEY.
Archbishops Óscar Romero of San Salvador and Denis Hurley of Durban were both famous in their time for their prophetic witness for justice — for which the former paid with his life. Both studied in Rome at the same time, and both were deeply influenced by Pope Pius XI (1922–39).
In the late 1930s Denis Eugene Hurley and Óscar Arnulfo Romero were young seminarians studying theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. Many years later Archbishop Hurley said that while they didn’t meet, they might well have passed each other in the corridors of that great university.
Their common admiration of Pius XI was based on that pope’s courageous opposition to the great dictators of that era: Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini.
Pius XI gave these young seminarians an outstanding example of how the Church should stand up against tyranny. It’s a lesson that later came to mind when, as archbishops, Romero faced the violent military regime of El Salvador and Hurley the brutal apartheid regime of South Africa.
In a letter to his family, Hurley described Pius XI as being “of small stature and [with] a rather small face”.
“From a distance of about 20 to 30 yards he looks about 50 years of age, [with] a slightly stern expression and a firm chin that would be the envy of any movie actor. When one has a closer look at him, however, the deep lines of worry and age appear, and sometimes he seems so tired that I’d love to take him and put him to bed,” he wrote.
“There you have the short description of the one man that Mussolini could not shift.”
Similarly, Romero is said to have developed a devotion to Pius XI, whom he called “the pontiff of imperial stature” for the way in which he confronted totalitarian regimes.
He observed Pius XI’s living example closely and regarded it as more important for his formation than the entire curriculum of his studies in Rome.
“In Rome I had to live through the drama of the Church facing the totalitarianisms of Hitler and Mussolini. I learned from the imperial Pius XI the boldness to confront those in power fearlessly and to tell them: ‘As long as I am pope, no one will laugh at the Church’,” Romero would recall.
During his years at the Gregorian, Hurley focused on the Church’s social teaching as set out in papal and other Church documents. In his fourth year of theology, he chose an optional course on Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, written to mark 40 years since the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking social encyclical Rerum Novarum.
For his dissertation entitled “Economic Domination by Credit Control”, Hurley chose a passage by Pius XI. He was impressed by the angry phrases the pope used against credit control “We ate and slept and pondered over Quadragesimo Anno,” he would recall.
“[T]he encyclicals of Pius XI against communism, against fascism and against Nazism…were our bread and butter, so I couldn’t imagine a seminarian in those days not being influenced in that way.”
Boycott of Hitler
The impact that Pius XI made on the young Hurley is clear from his account of the visit paid by Hitler to Rome on May 3, 1938, for a six-day visit.
Hitler wanted to be received by the pope in the Vatican, but Pius XI showed his total disapproval of Nazism by leaving the city for his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, saying: “I cannot stay in Rome with a man who has raised the crooked cross against the cross of Christ.”
Moreover, he gave instructions that the Vatican Museums be closed and no member of Hitler’s party allowed into any part of the Vatican.
To welcome Hitler to Rome, Mussolini staged an impressive military parade along the Via dell’Impero, a broad, modern road between the Colosseum and the monument to Victor Emmanuel II. Hitler was given a place of honour alongside Mussolini in the reviewing stand.
That morning, Hurley was in the study hall of the Oblate International Scholasticate, close to where these events were taking place.
One of the scholastics came running into the hall and said to him: “Come quickly. You can see Hitler from the roof.” Following the pope’s example, Hurley said: “No, I’m not going. I don’t want to see that man.”
In 1999 he explained how much he had been influenced by Pius XI: “By that time…we knew that Hitler was already something of an embodiment of evil. We didn’t know about his attitude to the Jews, but we knew he had taken up the cudgels…against the Catholic Church and that Pius XI had published an angry encyclical against Nazism, entitled Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern)
“I was very, very convinced of [Hitler’s] evil influence in Europe at the time and saw him as a person to be utterly avoided.”
Both Romero and Hurley were in Rome at the time of Pius XI’s death in 1939 when he was putting the finishing touches to an even more scathing denunciation of Nazism than Mit Brennender Sorge. This final encyclical was suppressed by his secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who was to succeed him as Pope Pius XII.
Pius XI “is the pope whom I admire the most”, Romero said at that pope’s tomb in January 1980, during his last visit to Rome, just weeks before his assassination.
Romero had frequently visited Pius XI’s tomb, having attended the pope’s burial on February 14, 1939. “We saw him close up: his pale face…we touched his right hand with an indescribable emotion,” he recalled.
Hurley, like Romero, developed an extremely high opinion of Pius XI, much later in life calling him the “second greatest pope of the 20th century, after John XXIII”.
Perhaps other future bishops studying in Rome during Pius XI’s papacy were also greatly influenced by the man, but we know for sure that these two men — Romero and Hurley — who turned out to be internationally known champions of justice, took courage from their memories of those years when Pius XI was so bravely outspoken.
Romero, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, is to be canonised on October 14.
And in Durban’s Emmanuel cathedral a shrine has been made at Hurley’s tomb. The faithful of the archdiocese have been encouraged to pray for his intercession—hopefully as a prelude to the initiation of his cause.
May Romero and Hurley’s holiness, courage and passion for justice be an inspiration to many other bishops, priests, nuns and lay people, especially in El Salvador and South Africa.
Paddy Kearney is the biographer of Archbishop Denis Hurley and co-editor of a new anthology of letters by the late archbishop.