Homily for the Requiem of Fr Gerry W Hughes SJ
You can listen to or read the homily below.
Where to start? I think Gerry would like us to begin with our own experience, right in the here and now, because at the centre of his life was his conviction that “God is in the facts, whatever my experience may be, so the facts must be kind.”
And the facts of this moment of mourning are kind. We are each of here today because our lives have been touched by God through Gerry W Hughes. That much we have in common; but the particular ways in which our experience of God has been influenced by our contact with Gerry are as many as the number of us all.
Perhaps we are family members, as fond and as proud of Gerry as he was fond and proud of his family.
Perhaps we are here because one or more of Gerry’s books, from “In Search of a Way” via “God of Surprises” to “Cry of Wonder”, provided the key to allow us to open ourselves to God.
Perhaps we made a retreat, with his guidance and with his accompaniment as a fellow pilgrim, or in a conversation or a letter we were listened to and invited to recognise where God was present in our lives.
Perhaps we were schoolboys at Stonyhurst, or members of the University Chaplaincy at Turnbull Hall in Glasgow.
Perhaps we learned to help others in the ministries of the Spiritual Exercises in one of the courses which he helped to establish in many parts of the world.
Perhaps we worked with him at St Beuno’s, or Llysfasi, or in Manresa Link in Birmingham, or in his deepening engagement with movements for peace and reconciliation, including Pax Christi and Greenham Common, (just to name two certainly represented here today)
Perhaps we are friends, or we lived with him in one of the communities of Jesuits and others to which he made distinctive, committed, and not always comfortable contributions.
Perhaps none of these brief categories captures for you why you are here: that makes good sense, because another of Gerry’s convictions was that God and God’s loving actions in the world always and inevitably escape our categories. Certainly such short descriptions can’t begin to match the significance he had in our lives and in the lives of those we represent – all those across the world whom God touched through Gerry’s life and work.
But I am certain that Gerry would want us to be aware of our being here in this particular time and place as an encounter with the God who is the Lord and lover of life, the God who leads us and guides us, the God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, the God revealed in Jesus as the compassionate God of those who are poor and are hungry and who weep.
As some us will be aware, Gerry recounted the start of his ‘personal journey of exploration into the mystery of God and of human life’ as occurring at about the age of two-and-a-half, with him sitting-up in bed and saying out loud “GOD” in order to see what would happen. His initial disappointment was maybe the spur to his continuing searching: certainly his life was characterised by his always moving on, always searching for the “more”.
“We are the pilgrims, master:/we shall go/always a little further”: I don’t know what Gerry thought of those lines from the poetry of James Elroy Flecker, but they seem to me to capture something of the divine restlessness that was his: “we shall go/always a little further”. Ignatian spirituality as lived in Jesuit life holds to the ideal of the Magis – a loving willingness to take on whatever contributes to the greater glory of God. This ideal as lived by Gerry shaped his life as a pilgrimage.
“Our [religious] house is the road” said Jeronimo Nadal, one of the first Jesuits, and this was true for Gerry, not only in the walking retreats in Wales and the Saturday student expeditions from Turnbull Hall in Glasgow, not only in his two great pilgrimages from London to Rome and from his birthplace in Ayrshire in Scotland to Jerusalem, but in the whole shape of his living. “Always a little further” could for some be a consequence of flight or avoidance, but Gerry’s pilgrimage was an onward journey into the “more” of the God whom he knew was there in the world and in the depths of his heart, his companion on the road, waiting to be recognised.
To be alongside him in stages of that lifelong pilgrimage could be rather like being alongside him on Ben Lomond on one of those Saturday student walks from the Glasgow chaplaincy: exhilaration and encouragement could be mixed-in with measures of exasperation and sometimes near-exhaustion (emotional or physical) on the part of those sharing the journey but finding the pace set by Gerry to be often demanding and occasionally verging on the relentless. Having been there on Ben Lomond as well at Stonyhurst, and in community with him in Glasgow and Oxford, I find the idea of Gerry “resting in peace” an unlikely prospect: peace, yes, but Gerry resting?...
It was certainly a source of regret for him that so many people, offered the chance of walking further in the company of God, chose to remain where they were. For if Gerry was a pilgrim, he was also a prophet. As the Jesuit Provincial put it in the last few days: “He was an uneasy prophet who sought God in the turmoil, rather than in the tranquillity of the status quo.”
But the regret and the prophetic challenges were rooted in a keen awareness of the burdens that people carried, and in particular the burdens created by false religiosities and false images of God. A man who shared his family’s history of major depression, he was sensitive to the vulnerable. As Brendan Walsh puts it in his obituary of Gerry in The Tablet: “he understood and could relate to the unbudgeable feeling of being deeply flawed because it was part of his own make-up.” The prophet in Gerry led him to challenge false and crippling understandings of God, but also to question too-simple understandings of our human experience of suffering and struggle: countless people have found in his books words that speak truthfully to their real experience, and have discovered as a result the liberating presence of the compassionate God to whom Gerry wished to point them.
Gerry’s schooling, at Jesuit schools in Glasgow and at Mount St Mary’s near Sheffield, was followed immediately by his joining the Jesuit novitiate in 1942. His studies took him to Heythrop in Oxfordshire, to Campion Hall in Oxford, and to theology studies at Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt (a crucial opening-up of his perspectives). By the time he was ordained in 1958 he had already done some teaching at Stonyhurst, and in all he taught there for nine years.
If in the spirit of where we began I am to be true to my own experience, I should add that it was towards the end of his time at Stonyhurst that Gerry said to my rather confused 17-year-old schoolboy self: “I think you’re thinking of becoming a Jesuit.”
Readers of his books will know that he gave much attention to those who were struggling with what they were being expected to take on as Catholic teaching, and this ministry to the questioning characterised his next mission from the Society, that of being Chaplain to Glasgow University. It will come as no surprise that the powers-that-be in the archdiocese of Glasgow had similar difficulties to the-powers-that-be at Stonyhurst in coping with what Gerry saw as essential to his ministry and what he saw as inessentials or downright obstructions to the Good News of God’s loving presence in the lives of all. The pilgrim and the prophet were both in evidence as Gerry found his way into a new pastoral setting.
His engagement with those working for the people of Glasgow reached across what could have remained divides of religion and politics. To do any sort of justice to his eight years there would require more time than we have available. Gerry in his most recent book points us to his encounters and friendships with public figures such as George MacLeod, founder of the Iona community and sometime Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and Jimmy Reid, the communist shop-steward leader of the Clyde shipyards “work-in”. We can take these two men as emblematic of the range of Gerry’s involvement with those who worked for change: alongside them we need to see the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of young people who were influenced by their contact with him at Turnbull Hall.
Having been twice sacked by the Archbishop of Glasgow, and twice reinstated, Gerry moved in 1975 into what became the dominant ministry of the rest of his life, that of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. In fact it is truer to say that the Exercises had always been at the heart of his ministry, because of the foundational insights of Ignatius – that God was to be found in all things, and that individuals could come to discern the presence and workings of God through becoming aware of their own experience.
For the 39 years that remained to him, Gerry worked more or less full-time in the ministry of the Exercises and Ignatian spirituality. Early-on in this period he was one of the small team which transformed the work of St Beuno’s in North Wales, and he joined readily with others in this country who were leading the revival of the individually-guided experience of the Exercises.
Perhaps his most important contribution to this area of ministry was his involvement in the launching of various courses to train and form people from a variety of church backgrounds to accompany and direct others in prayer and in retreats. As others have pointed out, he was one of those who never regarded the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian spirituality as in any way the exclusive property of the Jesuits, and these courses as they have developed have enabled the riches of the Exercises to break out of any too-narrow denominational boundaries. Gerry’s own work in this regard took him to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore, as well as to Sweden and Finland, while his years based in Birmingham saw him help to found Manresa Link, an ecumenical association promoting the work of the Exercises both by arranging retreats and by training retreat-givers and prayer-guides.
And of course he wrote: challenging, liberating, questioning books that did not flinch from examining those aspects of our experience as individual persons and as church that leave us feeling “deeply flawed”. That unflinching honesty enabled us, his readers, to find that the story of God’s self-giving love takes up and includes our story also, to learn that our brokenness and chaos are encompassed by God’s healing and transforming presence at the heart of our real lives – that “God is in the facts and the facts are kind.”
The story of Gerry’s prophetic pilgrimage could go on, and would still inevitably miss-out on what is significant to some of us here today. Finding a way of living with his diminishing energies was hard for him: typically during his time in Edinburgh (his next community base after Birmingham) it involved more attempts to go “always a little further” that included brief spells on Lindisfarne and at Nazareth House, before settling into a final period of writing as part of the community at Campion Hall Oxford. As the then superior of the community, my being able to welcome Gerry to Campion Hall brought a certain sense of “fit” given where my own Jesuit story had begun. And with the other members of the community I was able to share Gerry’s fond concern and then unabashed pride as his nephew (also Gerry Hughes) completed the first solo circumnavigation of the world by a deaf yachtsman. Being able to keep track of this voyage via Facebook gave “our Gerry” great delight, as did his presence a few months ago when his nephew’s achievement was recognised by the award of an honorary doctorate by the University of Glasgow.
It was during this stay at Campion Hall that Gerry wrote “Cry of Wonder”, his last book. In it he acknowledges the help of Sr Maggie McCarthy and the many others who brought it to publication when he could no longer work on the final editing: it was published only a couple of weeks before he died.
And it was towards the end of his stay, in March of this year, that he celebrated his 90th Birthday with a lunch and birthday party hosted by James Hanvey, the Master of Campion Hall: a birthday party full of celebration and happy reminiscence on the part of Gerry’s guests as well as on Gerry’s part, and the only birthday party any of us had ever attended that included 30 minutes of silent shared prayer.
Like those at that 90th Birthday Party, we are here because in one way or another we have been touched by Gerry: listened to, encouraged, healed, challenged, understood, accompanied, and sometimes infuriated by this pilgrim who wanted to go – and who wanted us to go – ‘always a little further’; by this prophet who found - and who wanted us to find - in the brokenness and chaos of our experience the “God [who] is in the facts, whatever [our] experience may be, so the facts must be kind.” We are here because the facts have been kind, we are here because we are grateful.
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Gerry moved in May to the Corpus Christi Jesuit Community in Boscombe (near Bournemouth), where he could receive the professional care he came to require. If Gerry the pilgrim had come to rest, Gerry the prophet retained his capacity, even in those final months, to speak – ‘declare’ was his favoured word - God’s truth.
And not long before he moved into his dying (which he accomplished surrounded by friends and fellow-Jesuits) God’s truth in his life was summed up when he said very clearly: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Amen.”
Homily given by Brendan Callaghan SJ