ARTICLES > SPIRITUALISM / RELIGION > Gandhi's Influence on a Catholic Archbishop
Gandhi's Influence on a Catholic Archbishop
By Paddy Kearney*
As a schoolboy Denis Hurley regarded Mahatma Gandhi as a troublemaker who was doing great damage to the British Empire. Later on, as Archbishop of Durban, he described Gandhi as one of the greatest souls since Francis of Assisi in the 13th century.

Denis Hurley
COUNTLESS PEOPLE HAVE been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, amongst them many famous political and religious leaders. But little has been written about Gandhi's influence on the late Denis Hurley, renowned former Catholic Archbishop of Durban.1
Consecrated bishop one year before the National Party came to power in 1948. Hurley retired as archbishop in 1992. This was just two years before the Nationalists ceased to be the ruling party, when the country's first democratically elected government came to power and apartheid was systematically dismembered. Hurley had been one of the foremost opponents of apartheid throughout his episcopate.
Hurley's inspiring life as a courageous opponent of apartheid for over 50 years and as a champion of the reforms and spirit of Vatican II make him one of the most significant religious leaders South Africa has produced. This article will attempt to show the ways in which Gandhian thinking helped to shape his life and witness.
Tall, handsome and physically impressive, Hurley was a brilliant analyst and an eloquent speaker, years ahead of his time not only in relation to South Africa's racial problems but also the reforms needed to bring the Catholic Church into the twentieth century.
As a young matriculant in the early 1930s, Hurley shared the typical racial prejudices of young white people of the day.2 He was a solid supporter of the British Empire and thought Gandhi was spoiling things by his opposition to British rule in India. "Mahatma Gandhi appeared a troublesome person to me. Though of Irish descent I was... thoroughly steeped in the belief of the civilizing force of the British Empire, as it was taught to us at school. I resented the words and actions of a person who appeared determined to disrupt the great empire."3
By 1969, when asked to participate in a symposium at the University of the Witwatersrand to mark the centenary of Gandhi's birth, it was dear from his address that he had learnt much more about the Mahatma?4 What he had read and heard about Gandhi "led to one of those cultural shocks we experience from time to time and which are truly gifts from God. Gandhi appeared to me now as the greatest soul the world had seen since Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century."5
How had such a dramatic change taken place in Hurley's thinking?
In the late 1940s Hurley began to read Indian Opinion, a newspaper founded by Mahatma Gandhi, and came "to know and love" its editor, Manilal Gandhi (son of the Mahatma) and his daughter, Ela.6 These experiences exposed him to many socio-political issues of the time. He paid a number of visits to the Gandhi home at the Phoenix Settlement outside Durban for discussions with Manilal and his wife Sushila. Ela Gandhi recalls that there was a "very warm relationship" between her parents and Denis Hurley.
The Second Vatican Council (1962- 1965) was a major landmark in Hurley's life. He was a significant role player even before it started, having been chosen by Pope John XXIII as one of the 100-member Central Preparatory Commission that paved the way for this assembly of the world's 2,500 Catholic bishops, the first in nearly a hundred years. Hurley revelled in the debates and discussions, but above all in the open and positive atmosphere of informal lectures and seminars in which leading theologians updated the bishops. This was not part of the official programme but organised by the bishops themselves in various national, continental and language groupings. Hurley called it "the greatest-ever experiment in adult education".7 Despite coming from a remote and little-known diocese, he came to be regarded as one of a small group of bishops who shaped the Council and were responsible for its success.
It was in the first few years after the Second Vatican Council, that Hurley had another great encounter with the life and ideals of Gandhi which he had first read about in Indian Opinion. In preparation for an address to a centenary celebration of Gandhi's birth held at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1969, he made a careful study of several books about the Mahatma.8
From this centenary address, it is clear that the more Hurley reflected on Gandhi's life and thought, the greater was his admiration. He was most impressed that for Gandhi, truth was not simply to be spoken about but to be lived. As a result, the religious truth "that illuminated his [Gandhi's] mind was lived out in political activity as honestly and courageously as in any other facet of his life."9 He was also struck that when Gandhi disagreed with someone, he did not want to prove that person wrong or rejoice in humiliating them but to present the truth in such a way that they would be won over by it.
Gandhi knew that intellectual persuasion was not an adequate strategy for an oppressed person to change the mind and heart of an oppressor but the voluntary acceptance of suffering on the part of the person resisting oppression could make the difference. In his 1969 Gandhi centenary address, Hurley quoted the famous passage from Gandhi's letter to the British Viceroy of India on the eve of the 1930 Salt March:>
. . . my ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India. I do not seek to harm your people. I want to serve them even as I serve my own. I believe that I have always served them. I served them up to 1919 blindly. But when my eyes were opened, and I conceived [the idea of] non­cooperation, the object still was to serve them. I employed the same weapon that I have in all humility successfully used against the dearest members of my family. If I have equal love for your people with mine, it will not long remain hidden. It will be acknowledged by them even as members of my family acknowledged it after they had tried me for several years. If people join me [in the Salt Match], as I believe they will, the sufferings they will undergo, unless the British nation sooner retraced their steps, will be enough to melt the stoniest hearts.10
Hurley saw this as Gandhi's "superhuman resolve": only a man of Gandhi's extraordinary simplicity could make a statement like that; but more important - could mean it and live up to it:
"The object of Satyagraha was not to achieve the physical elimination or moral breakdown of an adversary but, through suffering at his hands, to initiate those psychological processes which could make it possible for minds and hearts to melt."11
This is what Hurley called Gandhi's "extraordinary regard for the purifying role of suffering-both that suffering that others inflicted on him and that suffering he inflicted on himself in the form of voluntary poverty, celibacy, protracted fasting and other bodily austerities not easily understood in this age"12 but which were not unknown to Hurley, who was himself bound by religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience from the age of seventeen. As Hurley put it, "Gandhi’s immense capacity for self-discipline helps to explain the extent and intensity of his accomplishments in politics, in writing, in his struggle against the caste system and in the practical education and training that he endeavoured to promote among the humble and poor".13
"Only by ridding himself of all possessions and of selfish longings and by making a friend of privation could he rid himself of the fear of pain and privation which makes it difficult to live the truth. But suffering for Gandhi was not an end in itself. Its purpose was above all to prepare the sufferers themselves and the ones they were trying to influence for a meeting of minds and hearts.''14
Hurley's reflections on Gandhi's life and writings and the great boost that the Second Vatican Council gave to his views on social justice, prepared him to adopt a rather different attitude to political developments in South Africa towards the end of the 1960s when Black Consciousness, similar to the Black Power movement in the United States, began to win the support of Africans.15 Hurley regarded it as one of the most important political changes in South Africa's history, giving black people self-confidence, restoring their pride, and helping them realise that only they had the power to change their situation.
To Hurley, apartheid was a form of organised evil, which he believed could only be overcome by organised good. Thus, in the 1970s, he established organisations that would help to bring about change.
Through his contacts with leaders of other churches and other faiths, his ecumenical commitment grew. He saw clearly that a divided church and divided religious faiths would have little to offer to a divided South Africa. If, however, they would work closely together this could make a huge impact on apartheid. The dynamic ecumenical movement in KwaZulu-Natal even now owes much to his pioneering efforts.
As president of the Bishops' Conference for a second period­ from 1981 to 1987-Hurley was once again in the national limelight. During these years, his leadership was the key to major reports published by the Conference highlighting the situation in Namibia (then called South-West Africa); focusing also on the problem of forced removals and on the extensive use of violence by the police in black townships of the Vaal Triangle in what was then the Transvaal province. In addition, he led the bishops in outspoken and practical support to trade unions in their struggle for worker rights.
As a result of comments he made at the launch of the report on Namibia, he was charged with libeling the police anti-insurgency unit known as Koevoet (crowbar).
Only days before the case came to court in 1985, the charges were dropped. The government had realised they were taking on a formidable opponent, with widespread local and international support, whose prosecution would only serve to draw attention to the illegality of South Africa's presence in Namibia and the gross human rights abuses of which its security forces were guilty.16
It is interesting to note that at the media conference that followed the withdrawal of the charges, Hurley showed the true Gandhian spirit when he expressed "the hope that the aborted trial may be used by God in hastening the day when the horror of Namibia may come to an end, when the good name of the security forces so grievously tarnished, when the designation of 'policeman' so sadly disgraced, will be reinstated and rehabilitated and when freedom and peace will come to a country subjected to the distress and cruelty of a war for which South Africa is mainly responsible. May God grant the grace of repentance to the offending party and the grace of forgiveness to the offended, that reconciliation may result and peace and friendship come into their own."17
When Hurley retired as Archbishop of Durban in 1992,he returned to the place where his priestly ministry had begun in 1940, and took up the task of parish priest of Emmanuel Cathedral- the first time he had been a parish priest though he had been a bishop for 45 years.18
During these years as a parish priest, Hurley reflected on Gandhi's spirituality and was profoundly impressed about how holistic it was: "All too often the pious even the saintly person pursues a path of spiritual perfection that brings results merely in the field of personal holiness, albeit a personal holiness that is deeply marked by the love and service of others. In that sense it is social, but social has broader dimensions: the political, the economic and the cultural."19 Gandhi's spirituality embraced all these dimensions. His was the sort of mind that saw with startling clarity that if you wanted to be true to yourself and true to the people you loved you had to put that love into practice to change political, economic and cultural factors hurting the people, stifling their freedom and impeding their growth and progress. Gandhi's love was total and integral. In that sense his morality was total and integral."
In these last years of his ministry, under Gandhi's influence, Hurley's enthusiasm for ecumenism became broader and stronger than ever. He noticed that among the various aspects of Gandhi's legacy there were two powerful messages about religion: first, that it is of the utmost importance in how human society is governed, and second, that all the major religions have something to offer in how society should be governed. He realised that in the great struggle to ensure that moral values would be observed not only in private domestic life but also in social and political life, each major world religion would not on its own be able to supply the needs of the world . "The great religions of the world will have to work together. They will all be sitting at Gandhi's feet, cherishing their dearest beliefs as Gandhi cherished his, but finding common cause in the grave need to give the world the moral guidance so necessary for its survival and development."20
In the last years of his life, as South Africa took rapid strides towards democracy, it was ironic that the Catholic Church was retreating from many of the progressive positions of Vatican II. This was a painful experience for Hurley, yet he remained a man of hope, sustained especially by his frequent meetings with the Rome-based lay Community of Sant'Egidio, which he regarded as an embodiment of the vision and ideals of Vatican II.21
The Community derives its name from a church in the Trastavere area of Rome, which they made their headquarters. Founded by a group of young lay people inspired by the Second Vatican Council, the Community believes that it is only possible to understand the Christian message by serving the poor. This they do through their voluntary work with the homeless, the elderly, gypsies, refugees, the elderly, and people living with AIDS and many others - work that would have found much resonance with Gandhi.
The members of the Community of Sant'Egidio work and lead normal family lives. Within these constraints, they give part of each day to serving and befriending the poor. Central to their community life is daily communal prayer. Hurley was particularly impressed that their efforts to promote justice and peace stemmed from their friendship with marginalised communities and countries and were linked to ongoing welfare and development work. He greatly admired their contribution to the Mozambican peace accord and a number of other peace efforts in Africa.
Less than a week before his sudden death on 13 February 2004, Hurley attended one of Sant’Egidio’s assemblies, at which cardinals and bishops, as well as laymen and women, met for several days with leaders of other churches and faiths to discuss efforts to promote peace. He was comforted by the realisation that the values of Vatican ll were alive and well. In the Sant'Egidio gatherings, he tasted what the Church of the future might be like - a Church more in tune with the great social concerns of Mahatma Gandhi.
Hurley returned from Rome in February 2004. He had said to one of his hosts at Sant'Egidio that he would have liked to start his life all over again, because there were some things that he  was only beginning to understand. One of those was the centrality of love in the life of a believer which would surely have embraced not only the person and domestic but also the political, economic and cultural dimensions of life as practised by Gandhi himself.

Notes and References:
  1. Paddy Kearney, Guardian of the Light: Denis Hurley - Renewing the Church, Opposing Apartheid (Pietermaritzburg: UKZN Press, 2009). ). For further information about Archbishop Hurley, cf. Paddy Kearney, Memories: The Memoirs of Archbishop Denis E. Hurley OMI, (Cluster Publications: Pietermaritzburg, 2006. Or  visit the website:
  2. Ibid. p 25.
  3. Quoted in Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Sita: Memoirs of Sita Gandhi (Durban: Durban Local History Museum, 2 03), p. ii.
  4. Denis Hurley, "The Call to Conscience in Gandhi’s Approach", unpublished paper from Gandhi Centenary Symposium, University of the Witwatersrand, 2 October 1969, Archives of the Archdiocese of Durban, G155.
  5. Quoted in Dhupelia- Mesthrie, p.ii.
  6. See Dhupelia-Mesthrie op.cit for details.
  7. Kearney, op.cit. pp 116- 117.
  8. Most notable among them is B.R. Nanda,  Mahatma Gandhi:  A Biography (London: Unwin Books, 1965).
  9. Denis Hurley, "The Call t0 Conscience", p. 3.
  10. Quoted in ibid., p. 11.
  11. Ibid., p. 12.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Denis Hurley, "Mahatma Gandhi and Religion", unpublished address given on 5 May 1994, p. 2, Archives of the Archdiocese of Durban, G 357.
  14. Denis Hurley, "The Call to Conscience", p. 13.
  15. Kearney, op.cit., pp. 181- 182.
  16. Ibid., p. 224.
  17. Ibid., p. 226.
  18. Ibid., pp. 302 - 305.
  19. Denis Hurley, "Mahatma Gandhi as Model of Integrity", unpublished address, 23 April 1995, Archives of the Archdiocese of Durban, G 333.
  20. Denis Hurley, "Mahatma Gandhi and Religion", p. 3.
  21. Kearney, op.cit., pp. 319- :322.
Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 31, No. 4, January-March 2010

* PADDY KEARNEY has a Masters Degree in Education from Toledo, Ohio, where he had a Fulbright Scholarship. He taught in secondary schools in Durban and Johannesburg and lectured in Education at Natal University. From 1976 to 2004 he headed the staff team at Diakonia, an ecumenical social justice agency founded by Archbishop Denis Hurley to help Durban churches respond to the socio-political challenges of the area. He is at present a consultant to the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, a Trustee of the Gandhi Development Trust, a member of the Board of the International Centre of Non-Violence (ICON) based at the Durban University of Technology, and Coordinator of the Denis Hurley Centre Project at Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban. He recently completed the first full length biography of Archbishop Hurley, Guardian of the Light: Denis Hurley -Renewing the Church, Opposing Apartheid (Continuum: New York, 2009.) Email: