Jesuit regarded by many as the father of Irish ecumenism


Fr Michael Hurley:FATHER MICHAEL Hurley SJ, who died suddenly yesterday aged 87, was regarded by many as the father of Irish ecumenism. He co-founded the Irish School of Ecumenics in 1970 and was its director until 1980.

“The movement promoting Christian unity is not just some sort of appendix which is added to the church’s traditional activity,” he once noted. “Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does . . .”

It was work that allowed him develop many deep, personal and lasting friendships among Christians of all denominations on this island and abroad. But this reaching out extended beyond Christians.

As a former professor of divinity at Cambridge, David Ford, wrote in 2008, Fr Hurley “was ahead of his time in how he brought ecumenism among churches together with interfaith dialogue and dedication to religious, political and cultural reconciliation across some of the deepest differences in our world.

“Hurley’s daring alliance of faith with intellect and institutional creativity has challenged the religious and the non-religious to take seriously the role of religion in healing the contemporary world.”

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]”.

McQuaid’s successor, Dermot Ryan, was no less pleased. As Fr Hurley himself recalled in recent years: “Archbishop Ryan, became somewhat unhappy with [the Irish School of Ecumenics] and with myself in particular, because, although I’m called after the archangel, I’m no angel.

“I’ve never quite managed to be angelic, much less archangelic, in my behaviour.

“So towards the end of the school’s first decade it seemed best to remove myself from the scene. After that the school’s relationship with the Catholic archdiocese did improve.”

Cardinal Desmond Connell later became the first Catholic archbishop of Dublin to be a formal patron of the school.

In 2008, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, who uncovered the archival material relating to Fr Hurley, apologised to him “for some misunderstandings on the part of my predecessors”. In a good-humoured exchange at Milltown, Fr Hurley spoke of his “great sense of relief and joy and gratitude” as he listened to Dr Martin’s “magnanimous apology”.

A Waterfordman, Michael Hurley was born at Ardmore in 1923 and educated at Mount Melleray before joining the Jesuits in 1940.

He attended University College Dublin, Louvain and the Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained in 1954. He taught at Mungret College, Limerick, and from 1958 to 1970 at Milltown, before becoming director of the school of ecumenics.

In 1983, he co-founded the inter-church Columbanus Community of Reconciliation in Belfast, where he lived and worked for 10 years. Since 1993, he had been living at Milltown.

Michael Hurley SJ: born May 10th, 1923; died April 15th, 2011