By Basil Fernando
Father James Hurley, a great man and a humanist, passed away last week. I had the privilege of associating with Father Hurley since 1970. He impressed me as a man who was very deeply concerned with individuals as well as on the great social issues of his time.
As a human being, he had the enormous capacity to listen to others, including people who were much younger than him. I first met him when he was the students’ chaplain for university students at an organization known as Pax Romana. I attended this meeting as a representative of the Catholic Students’ Federation of Sri Lanka. This meeting left an indelible mark in my memory. What attracted me most was the tolerance with which students were received and the space that was made available to students to discuss and debate all kinds of very controversial issues.
At the time, the more burning issues amongst the Catholic students were related to the developments of the Second Vatican Council. Father Hurley had a very ardent interest in the developments within the church during this time. He had been associated with progressive theologians from Asia over a long period. He was aware of the controversies that were taking place all around Asia on the issues relating to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
At this pan-Asian conference in 1970, one of the main debates was relating to a theme that was very familiar at the time: institutionless Christianity. Several theologians have written about this issue and the critique of institutional limitations to the spread of the message of the gospel was quite a common theme everywhere. The conference encouraged the students to share their views, and Father Hurley, in particular, followed these discussions after the meetings at the dinners.
Once Father Hurley knew somebody, he knew how to sustain a friendship over the years. A short time after this meeting, he was going for a vacation in Ireland, and he stopped in Sri Lanka to meet me. He spent a few days in Sri Lanka and talked to many people. Going out of his way to keep that sort of close connection was, I think, the way he thought of his duties as a priest.
At the time, he had the idea of being a worker-priest, which meant working at a factory just like any other worker. He wanted to know the life of the workers and the circumstances under which they lived, and their difficulties as well as the richer side of them as human beings. Some time later he carried out this wish and spent a year or more working in a factory. Later, he would narrate some of his experiences in a very moving manner.
In 1989, I had to leave Sri Lanka and I chose to come to Hong Kong, mainly because I knew I had two friends there, Father Hurley and John Clancey, who I also got to know at the students’ meeting mentioned above. By the time I arrived in Hong Kong, Father Hurley had already left for Ireland for his sabbatical year. However, as soon as he arrived back, he contacted me and we had a long friendship over the following decades.
I used to address him as Father Hurley and then he told me, “Just call me James.” That was his way. There was no trace of clericalism in him. You could discuss anything with him, including things that were happening in countries he had never been to. For example, he had a keen interest in what happened to Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime, which followed the massive bombing of the country by the United States. He listened to the story of millions of deaths, inquiring a great deal about the details of the results of these times and how far things had improved (or not).
Naturally, one of the conversations we returned to many times was the situation in Sri Lanka itself. He already knew a lot about Sri Lanka because he had friends like, for example, Father Tissa Balasuriya OMI, who was the Asian chaplain for Catholic students. He also knew some bishops, particularly a priest, Father Michael Rodrigo, who was assassinated by the military while he was trying to protect young people in a remote rural area.
I have heard a lot from him about the Irish struggles for freedom. When he came to speak about the killings of some of the fighters whom he knew personally, there were occasions on which he became very emotional, and at least on one occasion, he cried. That was when I one day recorded an interview with him on the issue of the Irish people’s struggles against colonialism. As he was narrating this story, he began to mention many names of people who he had known, admired and loved very deeply. At this point, he became emotionally very involved, and started to cry. That was the deep love with which he remembered his country, and also the real depth of his feelings about freedom. He was a person who was very committed to struggles for freedom wherever it happened.
One time, after he returned from Ireland after a holiday, he mentioned the use of rubber bullets by the Irish police. He was given one of those bullets by someone. He kept it to remember the kind of problems people are faced with. During his visits to Ireland, he visited people who were involved in these struggles, some of whom had gone to jail for a long time over these matters. He had a deep love for Hong Kong and the struggle of the students happening at that time. He knew most of these students, and told stories about them with affection and admiration.
He was a deeply spiritual man. He associated with the people and often said the rosary with them when they came to discuss some of their problems with him. I particularly remember one instance when the mother of a convicted prisoner used to visit him on Sundays after the mass. Father Hurley used to visit this man in the prison often, and went out of his way to help the children to have their education despite of the fact that their father was in prison. He always spoke with a deep sense of affection for the prisoner, with that spirit of forgiveness that also made it possible for people to appreciate the good side of people even if they were convicted of crimes.
We used to meet often for lunch or dinner. During these times, he had the capacity to tell many stories, sometimes very humorous ones. He once talked about a Protestant in Ireland who used to be very virulent in his attacks against the Catholics. When this man was dying, he called a Catholic priest to come and admit him to the Catholic faith. The priest arrived and, just out of curiosity, asked the man why, after being so strongly against them, why he wanted to become a Catholic at the moment of his death. The man replied, “Well, when I die, it will be one of them that died, and not one of us.”
When recalling Father Hurley, one remembers that one was meeting at the same time a deeply human person with an enormously deep spirituality and a commitment to his religious beliefs, who was able to bring these into a relationship in the context of the modern world. Most of the time, he was dressed in trousers and a shirt, and behaved like other people. This way, he befriended people without making them feel that the relationship was one that involved any kind of hierarchy.
He was a democrat to the core, and a person who was committed to human rights absolutely.
He reminded me of a definition that a Dutch priest gave of priesthood: a priest is a person who gives gratuitously. Father Hurley certainly was such a priest.
Legacies such as that of Father Hurley will not be erased.