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Issue Date:  February 27, 2004

A 'giant' of the church and South Africa

The following are excerpts from an appreciation of Archbishop Denis Hurley, emeritus archbishop of Durban, South Africa, written at NCRís request by John Page, a close friend and colleague of Hurley. The full text of this article can be found in the Special Documents section of


“There were giants upon the earth in those days.”

Thus the Book of Genesis describes our earliest ancestors in the faith. When a careful and objective history of the Catholic church in the second half of the 20th century is essayed, it will no doubt echo Genesis 6 in recalling that there were yet again “giants on the earth in those days.” And surely one of those singled out will be Denis Eugene Hurley, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, archbishop emeritus of Durban, South Africa. Hurley died Feb. 13 at 88.

At the time of his death Hurley had been a priest for almost 65 years, and was just a few weeks short of his 57th anniversary as a bishop.

Hurley was born in Cape Town on Nov. 9, 1915. His father worked as a lighthouse keeper, a duty that his son would in some sense emulate.

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Hurley was named the first archbishop of Durban in 1951. The following year he was elected president of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, a position he would hold several times.

During the early 1950s Hurley began to take a stand against apartheid. Over time he became increasingly outspoken.

In 1984, Hurley was indicted for treason after having accused the South African army of atrocities. On the day the trial opened in February 1985 the courtroom was filled with bishops from many countries who had come to show their support. After a brief proceeding the case was dismissed on a technicality. During this period Hurley was threatened with public banning by the government, was subject to house arrest, had his life threatened, and on three occasions bombs went off near his residence.

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Pope John XXIII, having announced the convoking of an ecumenical council in January 1959, would the following year name Hurley a member of the Central Preparatory Commission. Hurley’s participation in the work of the commission left him discouraged and pessimistic. It was only when he had read the draft constitution on liturgy that he began to hope that the council could be a transforming moment in the church.

When the council convened in 1962, Hurley was elected to the commission on Catholic seminaries and education. Unfortunately the commission’s work, in his view, never came together successfully. The resulting documents were not ranked among the major achievements of the council.

Hurley made several interventions during the four sessions. They dealt with liturgy, religious freedom, the pastoral thrust of the council, collegiality, the teaching office of bishops, and the role of conferences of bishops.

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Representatives of 10 bishops’ conferences met in 1963 to launch what would in time become known as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). Hurley was present, the start of a nearly four-decade association with ICEL.

In 1975, Hurley was elected chairman of ICEL. He was reelected by his fellow bishops on the board over the next 16 years. By the early 1980s he had the major role in the beginning of ICEL’s revisions process, especially the Missal.

By 1998, all the conferences in ICEL had approved the Missal and asked Rome for recognition. But after four years the judgment of the Roman authorities was negative. Hurley was greatly disappointed. He was deeply saddened as well by the wholesale restructuring of ICEL, mandated by Rome beginning in 1999. He saw it as a reversal of the Vatican II decrees that favored bishops’ conferences in the preparation of the vernacular liturgical texts.

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Hurley was a man of deep and devoted prayer. His reverent, attentive celebration of Mass at ICEL meetings and the homilies he gave showed the rock-solid spirituality of the man.

His episcopal motto was Ubi Spiritus, ibi libertas (“Where the Spirit is, there is freedom”). How truly these words speak to the character of the man, the religious, the priest, the bishop, Denis Eugene Hurley, devoted pastor of God’s holy people.

“Behold the great priest who in his days pleased God and in the time of wrath was made a reconciliation.”

John Page served on the staff of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy from 1972 to 2002, and was executive secretary from 1980 to 2002.

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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