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Honoring a giant of the anti-apartheid fight


Georgetown President John J. “Jack” DeGioia and his wife, Theresa, last month honored retired Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durbin, South Africa, at a dinner. DeGioia succeeded Jesuit Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan as Georgetown’s 48th president and its first lay president July 1.

The dinner was held under a summer-perfect sky in front of the campus’ Dahlgren chapel. Two-dozen faculty members and friends showed, all having been supporters of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggles in the 1970s and ’80s.

The DeGioias’ gesture to honor a Catholic human rights legend at their first public dinner did not go unrecognized by the guests.

A grateful Hurley, trim and healthy at 85, responded, saying the warm support he had been shown in Washington made it easier for him to return to South Africa, a country he described as “ravaged by poverty and AIDS.”

Hurley came to Washington last month in an effort to raise funds for scholarship assistance for the desperately poor seeking to attend the University of Natal where he was chancellor for several years after he retired as archbishop. He spoke at the dinner of his fondness for the United States and the American people. He has received six honorary degrees from American Catholic colleges and universities, including one from Georgetown in 1987.

“I leave here with a renewed faith as I return to my country,” he said.

Born to Irish Catholic parents, Hurley said he spent five years as a child on Robben Island where his father tended a lighthouse. The island has been notorious in South African history as a prison that housed among its inmates anti-apartheid activists. The most famous of these was Nelson Mandela, who was held there from 1964 to 1988.

“I joke with President Mandela,” Hurley said, “that we both had Robben Island experiences, though mine were certainly more pleasant.”

Ordained an Oblate priest at age 24, Hurley was appointed a bishop in 1947 at age 31. At the time he was the youngest Catholic bishop in the world. The Oblates have long worked with the poor in South Africa and have struggled in human rights causes for decades. Some 400 Oblate priests are active there today.

Interviewed in 1997, shortly before the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop, Hurley said it was in 1947 that he first gave serious thought to the unjust conditions in South Africa. It was also then that he began to call for the church to oppose apartheid.

Hurley became the first elected president of the South African Bishops’ Conference in 1951. He served as its leader until 1961, and again between 1981 and 1987. Through his influence, the conference became increasingly outspoken and active against apartheid and other forms of injustice.

The South African bishops issued their first official statement on race relations in 1952, and in 1957 declared apartheid “intrinsically evil.”

Over the years Hurley 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. He defended those who were conscientiously opposed to serving in a military that was based on apartheid.

Hurley also suffered personally. His home was firebombed. He was threatened with banning, an act tantamount to house arrest. In the early 1980s, charges were brought against him and he was threatened with a trial and imprisonment.

In response, former member of the U.S. Congress and Georgetown University law professor Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan brought up the charges with the ambassador from South Africa, saying “all hell would break loose” if Hurley went to trial. The charges were soon dropped. Drinan recalls speaking to Hurley about the incident and the archbishop’s facetious remark. “ ‘Damn,’ Hurley said,” according to Drinan. “ ‘I thought I was going to be famous.’ ”

Tax exempt donations can be made to the Denis E. Hurley Educational Fund, Suite 1200, 11300 Rockville Pike, Rockville MD 20852.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001