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‘The people knew he loved them’

Ed West meets the priest continuing the work of Archbishop Denis Hurley by helping the poor of South Africa

By on Friday, 16 July 2010

Fr Stephen, Tully, pictured outside Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban (Sandile Ndlovu)

Fr Stephen, Tully, pictured outside Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban (Sandile Ndlovu)

Every day half a million commuters arrive in Durban, the biggest port on the east coast of Africa and a regional powerhouse of 3.5 million people. And every day, among those teeming commuters, another 500 refugees turn up in the city centre, fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Africa’s various other wars and famines for this rather British African city.

It is an awesome tide of human misery, and one that many might feel unable to face. But Fr Stephen Tully, the administrator of Durban’s Emmanuel Cathedral and the man at the front line, is facing it with a giant at his side.

For the centre he is building in Emmanuel Cathedral bears the name of Denis Hurley, the former Archbishop of Durban who died in 2004. He was a hero of the anti-Apartheid movement and a Christian leader whose shadow looms large over this part of South Africa where Zulu, English and Indian cultures mix.

Born in Cape Town in 1915 to Irish parents (like many in the South African Church), Fr Hurley became the youngest Catholic bishop in the world in 1946 when he was installed in Durban at only 31. He played a major part in Vatican II and on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). But it was as an opponent of Apartheid, the grotesque political ideology that became law after 1948, that he would be best known. In one of the most notorious incidents of the Apartheid era, “the Hurley Case”, he took on the South African government, and won.

Hurley turned up to prevent the forcible removal of black communities that were to be resettled. After hearing that children had died after one such incident, he recorded their names and ages and released the details to the press. Afterwards the Zulus nicknamed him Mhlwemamba (Eyes of the Mamba) in appreciation.

So should he get more recognition for his opposition to Apartheid, I ask Fr Tully. He laughs. “He wouldn’t worry about recognition. He was far too humble. The fact that as an archbishop and president of ICEL, as well as being fundamental in Vatican II, he then retired to become a parish priest, shows he was not worried about recognition. He just wanted to do God’s will.”
Indeed, for with Nelson Mandela free in 1990 and the country on the road to full democracy, Archbishop Hurley retired two years later and spent his last 12 years as a humble parish priest.

“The people knew he loved them,” says Fr Tully. “Lots needed to be done in the parish but people weren’t complaining. He was old by this stage but his incredible holiness and personality kept people there. He was the man who sent me to the seminary. He was a man who could relate to everybody, even if you were an old grandmother in the rural areas. His Zulu wasn’t very good but that never stood in the way.”

It was Archbishop Hurley who founded the refugee pastoral care project when he was a parish priest. It is a job that Fr Stephen Tully hopes to continue. In fact when we meet, in Westminster Cathedral, the jovial but serene 50-year-old South African is on a fundraising trip to help fulfil Archbishop Hurley’s work.

Fr Tully himself was born in Durban, close to the cathedral, and grew up just outside the city in a suburb called Morningside, which is as gentrified as its Edinburgh namesake. After college and two years military service in which he did not see action, in Angola or Mozambique – he wanted to, he says, because of the money – he began to think about his vocation.

“I wasn’t really religious,” he says. “I mean. I went to church, but I was a sausage-machine Catholic and had no religious convictions at all at that stage.” But in the army he met Baptists and Nazarenes who challenged him.

“That’s when I had a conversation about whether I wanted to be a Christian or not. I went through a born-again stage, and then I had to ask myself a very serious question, which was whether I wanted to remain a Catholic or not, because the most fundamental experience is to get to know Jesus Christ. I’d not had that opportunity in the Catholic Church. I had to look at the doctrine and ask: ‘What does the Church actually believe?’ The more I read the more I realised ‘this is magic’. They articulated things I believed.”

After seminary in 1986, and ordination in 1994, he went to a mission station an hour and a half’s drive from Durban. About 70 to 80 per cent of Natal’s 250,000 Catholics are Zulu, and this gave him a chance to “battle with” the Zulu language.

“Some words can be difficult,” he explains. “ ‘Funeral’ and ‘ordination’ sound very similar so I’m always hesitant to use one or the other.”

Seminary allowed Fr Tully to meet a variety of people that would not normally be allowed in Apartheid South Africa. Although the churches weren’t integrated, due to their parishes not being integrated, the seminary he went to had been mixed for many years.

“The Church allowed black students to go into white areas. They weren’t strictly speaking allowed to do it but they were pushing the boundaries.

“The Catholic Church had incredible influence and I don’t think they [the authorities] could take on the whole Church. When Archbishop Hurley took the government to court they backed down. They realised: ‘We have to be careful here, this isn’t some local person we can kill and oppress.’ ”

I ask him how Christians could live with the philosophical idea behind Apartheid, which was so patently un-Christian.
“The Dutch Reformed Church were the instigators of Apartheid,” Fr Stephen points out. “They called it a holy thing to do. And I can remember going to study in the Transvaal and I heard for the first time Afrikaaner people trying to convince me that black people were animals. I didn’t know what to say. We had servants but we always treated them as good as we could. But for other people, my own age group, not all Afrikaaners but this particular set, they were biblically sons of Ham.

“You must realise they are the fringe, but the fringe can often influence the masses. And the masses don’t think things through as much, they go with the flow. The press was not free, and the roads were designed to bypass the townships so there would be areas you’d never be able to get to. Many South Africans were just living their lives.

“My exposure to black people had changed since I went into seminary. A lot of South Africans were scared, and they left. In downtown Durban many whites left, but many people had a sense of incredible hope that this man Mandela was different. He didn’t speak as a radical. He said he wanted to work together.

“That generation had the advantage of being educated in mission schools before the government fiddled with their curriculum. The eras of Mandela and Mbeki are different to those today.”

I mention Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe who was educated by Jesuits.
“Yes,” Fr Tully smiles ruefully. “Yes. well, but he was doing good work for a while. I think he’s gone senile. But the churches in South Africa, and across Africa, put a whole lot of goodness into the continent, and not just the billions upon billions of pounds.”

It’s worth noting that Fr Tully’s diocese has the worst HIV rate in the world, and yet the Church’s stance, he says, is right, despite the criticism it attracts in the West.

“In Kwazulu-Natal you can get condoms everywhere, you really can. There are free condoms all over the place. But has it helped? No. I mean that is not the root of the problem, which is that people don’t have healthy relationships. People are not getting married. They’re having multiple partners. What’s surprising is that it’s not that people don’t know about Aids, it’s just they don’t care. This is where the Church is right about family life and good healthy relationships.”

Added to these problems there are the refugees, who number some two million. In 2008 the strains snapped, leading to a pogrom of foreigners. The cathedral was instrumental in saving some 500 refugees, who “left with masses of blankets and clothes” thanks to the kindness of the local faithful. He is especially concerned because rumours of a new pogrom to follow the World Cup are rife, and he says “everyone is in place” for such an event. That is why the Denis Hurley centre is so important, even if Africa’s problems seem so insurmountable.

“When I got there at first we had a feeding scheme with a twist – it wasn’t just a soup kitchen, it was a place where they were being pastoral to people, getting to know them and trying to talk them into taking opportunities.

“You can’t help everybody, but those we can’t help we can put in contact with people who can. We are a network. If someone came into my office today I’d say: ‘We’ll give you a shelter for two nights.’ But then we’d tell them to come back so we can assess their place and help them to the next level. Other faiths and churches have their projects and we feed into them and they feed into us.”

But he is hopeful about Africa’s future, and says that “we must be careful that we don’t lose too much hope too quickly”. The World Cup, after all, helped to unite people of all races, so that when South Africa scored “there was spontaneous joy, whether you were white, black, Indian or coloured. It didn’t matter what you were, who you were, you screamed like an idiot. It did a lot for the people because it showed our potential.”

He adds: “If we could have the sense of camaraderie coming together over a football match, what can we do to liven up our own families? Being Catholic is incredible. Never mind the World Cup, we come to Mass to receive the cup that saved the world.”

For more information or to donate visit www.denishurleycentre.co.za, email denishurleycentre@gmail.com or call 0027 31 301 2240