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Hurley continues to work for equality for black South Africans


Denis Hurley, retired archbishop of Durban, South Africa, spoke briefly and eloquently at a reception in his honor at the South African Embassy in Washington recently. Everyone knew that this Irish-born Oblate fought for decades against apartheid and finally won.

The archbishop, who will be 84 Nov. 10, seems to be at peace. His courage and his help in making apartheid disappear is legendary in South Africa and known throughout the world. The archbishop is now raising funds for scholarship assistance for the desperately poor among the 18,000 poor students at the University of Natal, where Hurley was chancellor for several years after he retired as archbishop, a position he held for some 40 years.

The more one explores the life of Denis Hurley, the more amazing it is.

In 1947 Hurley was ordained a bishop at age 31, the youngest Catholic bishop in the world at the time. In 1951 he became the first elected president of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. In 1957 the conference declared apartheid to be “intrinsically evil.” This was decades before the other Christian churches in South Africa declared segregation unacceptable.

The position of the Catholic bishops startled and to some extent alienated the white leadership of South Africa. To this day the church can claim only 3 million Catholics, 80 percent of whom are black. But around the world the heroic stance of Hurley and the entire hierarchy of South Africa won applause.

It is of course true that the Catholic church’s stance in South Africa was ambiguous. Segregated churches and all-too-frequent silence in the face of injustice mars its record. But it’s still true that the Catholic bishops of the country, and Hurley in particular, were out front in ways that demanded vision and courage.

For decades Hurley spoke out. He condemned the migratory labor laws that separated families. He excoriated forced removals that were used by the government to uproot hundreds of thousands of black people from their traditional homelands. The archbishop defended those who were conscientiously opposed to serving in the military that was based on apartheid.

Hurley suffered personally. His home was firebombed. He was threatened with banning, tantamount to house arrest. Criminal charges against him were eventually dropped.

But those dark decades have disappeared. The archbishop was a special guest at the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. In 1997 all of the bishops of southern Africa came to Durban to celebrate Hurley’s life and to pay tribute to his courage, which for 40 years he transmitted to believers of all kinds. Hurley’s collected writings and speeches, titled Facing the Crisis, recently appeared and are getting admiring notices.

Hurley remembers with gratitude that during dark days American universities such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, The Catholic University of America, DePaul and Santa Clara reached out to him with honorary degrees. Now he is appealing to his American friends and admirers to help the thousands of very poor young people in South Africa to get to college. These are the students who until 1991 were deprived of basic education by the apartheid government. They are the children of black Africans who for some 200 years were deprived of basic literary skills.

They are the future leaders who want to attend the University of Natal, an institution established in 1910 for white students but which today is 80 percent black.

Chatting with Hurley at the South African Embassy on Trinity Sunday was a unique experience. I had met him twice during the awful years of apartheid. No one could have predicted that there would be such a glorious second spring for Hurley or for the 38 million black people in South Africa. An entire country was transformed.

From the day of his ordination to the priesthood in 1939 to the day he resigned as Durban’s archbishop, Denis E. Hurley worked to give equality to the black people in South Africa.

He wants to continue that work in the Denis E. Hurley Education Fund. All contributions are tax exempt. They can be sent to the Denis E. Hurley Educational Fund, Suite 1200, 11300 Rockville Pike, Rockville MD 20852.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999