Michael Hurley – Remembering the Father of Irish Ecumenism

imageOn Friday, Fr Michael Hurley SJ passed away at age 87. Hurley was a co-founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics, where I now spend most of my days lecturing on the master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation.

The Irish Times obituary referred to him as ‘the Father of Irish Ecumenism’ and that description seems apt.

For me, the witness of Hurley’s life has to be very real and personal, because without him I would simply not be where I am today doing what I am doing. I believe in the work of our school and I am continually inspired by the students who come from all over the world – to teach us, as well as to learn.

I did not know Hurley well, as he had retired by the time that I started working at the school. I have of course read some of his writings, and remember well the day in Belfast when the book he edited, The Irish School of Ecumenics 1970-2007, was launched. That book recounts the history of our school through the memories of its directors and is worth returning to as we celebrate our 40th year as a part of Irish life.

The obituaries (Irish Times, RTE, Irish Independent) and the testimonies yesterday at Hurley’s funeral provide rich material for reflection not just on Hurley’s life, but on the journey of Irish ecumenism during the last generation.

I hope that Hurley’s death, less than a year after the death of David Stevens, a leader of the Corrymeela community, prompts memories and the telling of stories that can inspire and motivate.

For me, among the most remarkable of the stories was Hurley’s difficulties with the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who opposed the ecumenical project in general. The Irish Times obituary put it this way:

Archival material has revealed, however, that Hurley’s activities were a source of “anguish” to then Catholic archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. The deeply conservative McQuaid decided to impose an absolute prohibition on Hurley speaking within “my sphere of jurisdiction” but yielded when “Fr Hurley’s cause was . . . ably and passionately defended by Fr Cecil McGarry [the Jesuit provincial in the early 1970s]”.

The current Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, apologised to Hurley for this treatment in 2008.

I was also fascinated listening to the stories told at yesterday’s funeral, which focused on Hurley’s sense of purpose and his courage to work for what he believed. The scripture readings focused on the role of a prophet, the one from within the community who tells us difficult news when we need to hear it.

So stories were told about Hurley’s co-founding of the Columbanus Community in Belfast, in the immediate aftermath of the hunger strikes and of course partly in response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Columbanus Community, where Christians from all denominations lived together, was located in the house that now serves as the Belfast campus for the Irish School of Ecumenics.

And I was particularly moved by a story told by Hurley’s brother, Fr James Hurley SJ. He said that when Michael was born in Co. Waterford in 1923, that there was little money to spare. A neighbour visited the home and pressed some money into the infant Michael’s hand. Fr James said that his mother later told how she originally intended to use the money to buy some items the family needed, but decided to use it to have a mass offered to pray for the baby’s life, that he would be a servant of God.

I can join with many in thanking God for the answer to that prayer.

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