Michael Hurley, Ecumenical Pioneer

Irish Jesuit Michael Hurley dedicated his life to healing the divisions among Christians. He challenged the Catholic Church of his day to move beyond fear and to be an active player in the work of restoring church unity. Unity is for mission and for love; lacking unity, the church has nothing to say to a broken world.

The division of Christians is for me probably the greatest scandal of the church’s history. I am convinced that it is, much more than the vices or mistakes of our societies, the greatest obstacle to evangelization.

Jean M. R. Tillard1

It is the considered unanimous view of all the churches involved in the ecumenical movement that Christian disunity is a contradiction of the church’s very nature, preventing the church from being the church, reducing it steadily to the position in which it is more an obstacle than an instrument of the Spirit, more an enemy than an ally of the Gospel.

Michael Hurley2

In July 1995, two theologians, both ecumenical pioneers, received honorary doctorates from Trinity College Dublin, Hans Küng and Michael Hurley, SJ. Both were Catholic priests, both were born in the same decade — Küng in 1928 and Hurley in 1923, Küng in Switzerland and Hurley in Ireland. Hans Küng became a household name, as it were, throughout the Christian world and Michael Hurley was well known only in Ireland. Arguably, however, Hurley achieved great things ecumenically in Ireland, no less than Küng did globally.

If in the words that open this essay veteran ecumenist Jean Tillard (1927-2000), the late Canadian Dominican, invites us to recognize Christian division as the greatest scandal of the church’s history, Michael Hurley (1923-2011) demonstrates a life committed to healing that division. He was certainly the pioneer of ecumenism in Ireland, the founder and first director of the Irish School of Ecumenics, now affiliated with Trinity College Dublin.

Following his undergraduate studies in classics at University College Dublin and the study of Scholastic philosophy in the Jesuit program of formation, Hurley proceeded to Louvain in Belgium for his theology. He found there a genuinely ecumenical approach to theology, not least in bibliographical references in the various theology courses to Protestant and Orthodox authors. This was especially the case with one of his professors, George Dejaifve, SJ, who was very sympathetic to the growing ecumenical movement.

In 1954, Hurley was ordained a priest by Léon-Joseph Suenens, later to be the cardinal-archbishop of Malines and one of the leaders of the Second Vatican Council. His ecumenical appetite had been whetted and he went on to study for a doctorate in theology, awarded by Rome’s Gregorian University in 1961. During his time at the Gregorian, he attended a lecture by the famous Anglican ecumenist Bishop George Bell. Bell had been for many years one of the leading advocates of the ecumenical movement which, of course, had been greatly energized after the inception of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. Hurley’s doctoral thesis was on “Sola Scriptura and John Wyclif.”3

Hurley returned to Ireland to teach at the Jesuit theology faculty of Milltown Park, Dublin. In 1959, the faculty made the decision to hold public lectures in theology, something rather unusual at the time. Hurley suggested as one of the topics “Christian unity.” Since no one on the faculty appeared to have any expertise in this area, it fell to him. From that time, he says, “I was never allowed to look back.”4 The lecture was delivered on March 9, 1960, and the title was “The Ecumenical Movement.”5

His first “outside” ecumenical invitation came from the Anglican professor Frederick Ercolo Vokes of Trinity College Dublin. Vokes’ interests were mainly in the New Testament and the patristic period, and he was one of the earliest scholars writing in English to renew interest in the Didache.6 Professor Vokes was also president of the Trinity College branch of the Student Christian Movement, always with a strong ecumenical interest, and it was in that role that he invited Michael Hurley in 1962 to address the branch on the topic “The Vatican Council and the Ecumenical Situation Today.” However, there was a problem. Trinity College Dublin was “forbidden territory for Catholics,” and so Vokes arranged for him to address the branch off campus in a nearby hotel.7

From that time on, Hurley became a major player — arguably the major player — on the ecumenical scene in Ireland. He took part in a variety of conferences and plans, published papers on ecumenical theology, and began to receive recognition in the wider church. His participation and his increasing ecumenical collegiality paved the way for his very concise summary of ecumenical theology, Theology of Ecumenism, published in 1968.8 The volume may be slim (a mere 96 pages), but the theology it provides is most impressive, not only for the time in which it was written but also for today. In the second part of 1968, he prepared his edition of John Wesley’s Letter to a Roman Catholic, that eighteenth-century unexpected eirenic overture to Catholics by the “founder” of Methodism.

The Irish School of Ecumenics

Writing in 2008, Michael Hurley makes the point emphatically that the reality of Vatican II and rapidly changing circumstances brought about by television and other social media paved the way for the Irish School of Ecumenics.9 True enough, but the fact is that without the initiative, energy, and commitment of Hurley himself, it never would have happened. The Irish School of Ecumenics has been described by David F. Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, as “one of the most imaginative and important academic institutional developments in Ireland in the past half-century.”10

In Ireland at the time, this inter-denominational school was quite unique. Its formal inauguration took place on November 9, 1970, and the inaugural lecture was given by the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake.11 It was a thrilling moment for ecumenism in an Ireland torn by sectarian strife. Looking back at the history of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Hurley wrote in 2008: “At the beginning, we had nothing but goodwill and hope; with these we have risen, if not to glory, at least to be a ‘living and life-giving’ academic body; we are at least a partial success.”12

This seems to me a typically humble sentiment. Much is dependent, of course, on how one judges success. The Irish School of Ecumenics has been and is much more than a partial success. It has firmly and courageously maintained the ecumenical front at a most difficult time in Irish history, and the research topics of its alumni as well as their geographical origins show that its ecumenical seeds are producing a rich harvest.

Hurley challenged the sectarianism, injustice, and violence of his day . . . and wanted to give a practical example of what a more united church, a more just society, and a more peaceful world could be like.

Longstanding Anglican ecumenist Mary Tanner has said of Hurley: “[His] work for reconciliation has been a beacon in the context of Northern Ireland.”13 Tanner’s words make reference to Hurley’s participation in the Columbanus Community of Reconciliation in Belfast in Northern Ireland, in which he lived and witnessed in a very practical way to the ecumenical cause from 1983-1993.

The idea for the Columbanus Community of Reconciliation came to Hurley in 1981. “Its aim was rather to challenge the sectarianism, injustice, and violence prevalent in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in our world, to do so in deed not just in word, to give a practical example of integrated living, of what a more united church, a more just society, and a more peaceful world could be like, to give encouragement to those committed to an improvement in interchurch relations.”14 The residential community prayed regularly together, celebrated the Eucharist daily but without eucharistic sharing, and the members often worked in the local community. They were a living sign in Belfast that Catholics and Protestants could live together, pray together, without rancor even as they had their differences of belief and practice. The community unfortunately closed in 2002, due to declining residential membership and financial support. It was also about this time that Hurley was diagnosed with cancer. He was to live for almost another decade.

In retirement, Hurley gave retreats and continued to preach, especially in an ecumenical context. In 1998, he published a collection of his articles over the decades entitled Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring?15 Close to the beginning of that work, he indicates his intention: “Its aim is to make some modest contribution towards ensuring that the third millennium does in fact bring an ecumenical second spring. . . .”16

A former student and good friend of Hurley, Fintan Lyons, wrote this of him: “His greatest achievement at the public level was his founding of the Irish School of Ecumenics and perhaps the greatest tribute to him is that the growth and development of this institution in the present has occurred while its founder remains in the shadowy past, hardly to be mentioned.”17 This is probably what ecumenical leaders and theologians should expect, that is to say, that as the movement toward greater Christian unity moves forward, they fade into the background, “hardly to be mentioned.” The legacy of ecumenists’ work and commitment will go on until the goal is reached, however inchoate that goal may be at this time and whenever in the future.

Theology of Ecumenism

In a very fine little book entitled Theology of Ecumenism published in 1969, just four years after the close of Vatican II in 196518, Hurley presents his understanding of ecumenism in the light of the council’s Decree on Ecumenism and in the light of texts and documents that had emerged in the course of the century, especially from the World Council of Churches.

Hurley wrote the following in the introduction: “Once upon a time, Roman Catholics thought of ecumenism as something external and indeed alien to Catholicism, about which we ought of course to be well-informed — in order the better to resist and refute it — and towards which we might perhaps be sympathetic but with which we emphatically had nothing whatsoever to do: ecumenism was for ‘them’ not for us.”19

He rightly notes, and it seems as true now in many ways as it did in 1969, that our ways of thinking and acting vis-à-vis other Christians are marked by, or perhaps better marred by, our instinct for self-preservation and indeed, our aggressiveness. As a result, “we cling more fiercely than ever to our old identities, to the myth of our incommunicable otherness.”20 To counter these understandable fears, he counsels personal involvement. “Action does lead to understanding, and to go with a friend to an ecumenical conference will do much more for us than reading any number of books, this one included.”21

While fear of the Christian other is acknowledged by Hurley as a real barrier to Christian unity, he believes that disillusionment is a much more formidable issue. Disillusionment, perhaps especially among the young, may arise from seeing the ecumenical movement “as a dying institution’s indecent grasping after lost power and prestige,” or perhaps also from a suspicion of clericalism, triumphalism, and verbalism.22 Hurley’s analysis, brief as it is, seems to speak as much to the present situation as it did at the time of his writing.

In order to counteract the impediments to ecumenism, Hurley strongly recommends what he describes as the “ecumenizing” of theological education. His reasoning is clear. If those who are preparing to minister in the church do not possess a solid grasp of the principles of ecumenism and are not committed to the cause, then those whom they are destined to serve in the various Christian traditions can hardly be expected to develop ecumenical mindedness.

Hurley insists on the mission dimension of the Christian church. “The fundamental principle of ecumenism is that the nature of the church is to be a missionary church, that Christianity is essentially missionary, that its unity is for mission and its disunity therefore a scandal and a stumbling block.”23 Here Hurley is pointing to the documents of Vatican II, and especially the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church which states that “the pilgrim church is missionary by her very nature.”24 The church as missionary follows from the mission of the Son, sent by the Father so that, in the Johannine phrase, “the world may believe.”

“The church, therefore, is sent to be the sacrament, the efficacious sign, of the unity of mankind and of the salvation of the world.”25 Disunity among Christians works against the very raison d’être of the church. “To the degree in which the church is disunited, it loses its secret mysterious power of speaking to the hearts of men, of challenging their selfishness, of enlarging their vision, of liberating and enhancing their energies for the service of God and the world.”26

Hurley does not mince his words. He has the firm and clear conviction that the church cannot be missionary without the simultaneous commitment to Christian unity, and if this is not in place then the church will die. He writes: “There are unfortunately many Christians who still remain deaf to this message of the Spirit, who do not yet realize that the churches must dialogue or the church will die: die as event, as the sacramental presence of the event of salvation.” And he reiterates his equally passionate conviction that this commitment must be fueled by not only prayer, the great contribution of the Abbé Couturier, but also by theological education.27

Hurley was consistently emphatic about the latter. This is no Pelagian approach to ecumenism for Hurley because he insists no less emphatically on the intrinsic connection between liturgy and mission. Although he does not quite develop it in this fashion, he seems to imply that the liturgical assembly, as the body of Christ, deepened and strengthened as the body of Christ through the Eucharist, must be as Christ was, that is to say, in mission.28

Hurley is acutely aware also of the non-theological, or the non-doctrinal impediments to church unity. He cites the sentiments of a nineteenth-century Roman Catholic bishop in Ireland, Bishop James of Kildare and Leighlin: “The existing diversity of opinions arises, in most cases, from certain forms of words which admit of satisfactory explanation, or from ignorance and misconceptions which ancient prejudice and ill will produce and strengthen, but which could be removed; they are pride and points of honor which keep us divided on many subjects, not a love of Christian humility, charity, and truth.”29 He notes that prior to the establishment of the World Council of Churches, the Second World Conference on Faith and Order at Edinburgh in 1937 made the same point quite sharply speaking of obstacles to Christian unity which have to do with barriers of nationality, race, class, and general culture.

In 1952, he notes again that the Third World Conference on Faith and Order at Lund witnessed the following comments by one of the speakers: “Students of religion have long known that culture, social structure and habits, climate, economic conditions, forms of government, national loyalties, and the like affect all religions except their own.”30 Hurley italicizes the last three words and with good reason. It is a sociological fact that many institutions have as a top priority their own self-perpetuation. In and out of this ingrained habit of self-preservation arises the faculty of perceiving problems in others, but not in oneself.

This, too, is as true today as it was when Hurley was writing. The ecumenical movement cannot succeed — however its goal is finally articulated — if the Christian churches and traditions do not recognize their own indigenous need for change and development, not least in these non-doctrinal spheres. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism acknowledges this in paragraphs 9, 14, and 19. Hurley, however, finds it regrettable that the decree did not give more emphasis to these non-doctrinal factors. Turning to the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century, as well as to our contemporary places of tension that have more to do with non-doctrinal factors than with theological divisions, Hurley writes as follows: “The whole religious situation in Greece, Scotland, Ireland, and many other places seriously challenges this interpretation (of non-doctrinal factors being secondary in importance).”31 In respect to Greece, he points to the situation of the monastic communities of Mount Athos as an illustration of the too close identification of the Orthodox Church with nationalism and anti-Romanism, something Hurley himself experienced in later life when on pilgrimage there.

In respect to Ireland, while he was writing before the explosion of violence and terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, he had a clear realization of these non-doctrinal factors and, indeed, of their volatility. He writes: “Despite our desires and efforts to escape from the bondage of the past, centuries of unfortunate historical associations still prevent the achievement of religious unity, still mark inter-church relations with fear and bitterness and bigotry, with a pride and prejudice, and arrogance and antipathy which can be satisfactorily understood only in terms of ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago.’”32

Ecumenism needs to be done and needs to be seen to be done not only in terms of mission, but as love, love for the other whatever tradition the other stands for. He cited some words from John Wesley’s Letter to a Roman Catholic: “I think you deserve the tenderest regard I can show. . . . If we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike. Ecumenism is love because love is the only possible solvent of our disunity such as it is. Only love is capable of casting out fear and bitterness and bigotry, of overcoming arrogance and antipathy, of neutralizing the assets of rancor and resentment, of transcending the various non-doctrinal issues which prevent us from obeying God’s will for the missionary unity of his people.”33

Hurley goes on to comment on a very famous phrase and change that occurred in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, paragraph 8: “The unique church of Christ . . . subsists in the Catholic Church.” He recognizes that the verb “subsists” replaces the verb “is,” found in the original draft of the document. This seemingly small and insignificant verbal change is, in point of fact, of great theological importance. Here is its importance as stated by Hurley: “The Roman Catholic Church is no longer claimed to be absolutely identical with the church of the creed.”34

That being the case, its recognition and acceptance means that Christians in different ecclesial traditions are closer to each other than many might imagine. It also demands that “we must stress what we have in common rather than what separates us, that we all belong, though in varying degrees, to the one true church.”35

The church, deepened and strengthened as the body of Christ through the Eucharist, must be as Christ was — in mission.

Hurley provides further commentary on this point that speaks to the sensibilities of Catholics. He points out that even among Catholics differentiations about being in full communion are both implicit and explicit: “We know that full initiation into the church calls for baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist; that in consequence those who have not yet received the latter two sacraments do not yet belong fully to the church, are not yet in full communion with it. We also know that the Roman Catholic who is in a state of mortal sin has to be reconciled to the church as well as to God; that, in consequence, he lacks not only full invisible communion with God but also full visible communion with the church, so that we forbid him, as in general we forbid Protestants, access to the Eucharist; that he, too, like Protestants stands in need of formal reconciliation; that he does indeed belong to the church but only imperfectly and partially.”36

The point is worth dwelling on, even as it sounds like something very minor. Hurley puts it very succinctly: “The effective, valid baptism, whenever and by whomsoever administered, is to incorporate the recipient into the church, not into the Presbyterian or Methodist or Anglican Church, but into the church of the creed, into the one true church.”37

In brief, Christians have so very much in common. In this regard, Hurley cites the church historian and Newman biographer Meriol Trevor, a convert from agnosticism to Catholicism: “As an ex-agnostic, I must express my permanent surprise that people who have been Christians all their lives can get so excited over their differences, which are so very small (yes, small) beside the enormous difference between believing in Christ and not believing in him.”38 In practical terms, this demands of Christians an avoidance and renunciation of proselytism.

That principle may be found in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, paragraph 4: “In spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices, everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s own right and a violation of the rights of others.”

Proselytism is quite different from evangelization, which is simply the church-as-mission proclaiming its message. Christians who wish to take the initiative and to change their ecclesial allegiance must be free to do so. At the same time, there must be no element of coercion or dishonorable persuasion.

To say the least, this way of understanding requires a much more careful and sensitive form of expression, especially among Roman Catholics. Catholics have a long-established tendency of describing other Christians as “entering into the church,” or some such phrase. This way of expression needs correction especially because other Christians who become Roman Catholics are already baptized, and as baptized persons are already and really church. When such persons decide to become Roman Catholics, what is happening is that “they are reconciled rather and brought into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.” They are not entering the church, but being brought into full communion with the church.39 Hurley concludes in this fashion: for such persons, “our aim, however, will be to help them, not to help ourselves. Our aim will be their spiritual good, not our own numerical advancement; and their spiritual good will not always and necessarily involve changing their church allegiance.”40

In the final chapter of his Theology of Ecumenism, Hurley stresses the importance of hope, active hope in the pursuit of Christian unity: “A pessimistic attitude to ecumenism is so widespread among Christians that it might well be considered the greatest obstacle to the cause of reconciling the churches and the clearest sign of the evil and sinfulness of our disunity. In various ways, this pessimism provides an excuse for the indifferent, a difficulty for the interested, and a temptation for the committed. . . . Even the committed ecumenist finds it hard at times to escape from this black mood of pessimism.”41 If this was true 50 years ago, it is certainly no less true now.


In the “Introduction” to the Festschrift in honor of Michael Hurley, the editor, church historian Oliver Rafferty, SJ, commented on Hurley’s ecumenical witness: “It has been at times a thankless task, and clearly there were moments when Father Hurley’s must have seemed like a voice crying in the wilderness. However, his dogged persistence and perseverance have produced results which are a tribute to his singleness of purpose and his ecumenical vocation.”42

Dogged persistence and perseverance are necessary marks of the ecumenist. Progress is never easily measured, and seldom easily experienced by those engaged in the cause of Christian unity. The progress made in the cause of Christian unity in Ireland in the twentieth century and indeed into our present century would simply not have been possible without the personal commitment of Michael Hurley.

“There is no shortage of ecumenical achievements for want of which the memory and work of Father Michael Hurley will fade from the corporate memory of the Christian community in Ireland.”43 Adrian Empey, Anglican priest-historian, states the obvious in these words.

Italian theologian and now Archbishop Bruno Forte once encouraged Christians in saying: “Live with a passion for the unity of the body of Christ, committing yourself to the search for full communion with all believers in him, and accept religious diversity with respect, promoting dialogue and collaboration with all believers in God, whatever faith they belong to!”44 Michael Hurley’s life and witness inspire other Christians in this third millennium of Christianity to live with a passion for the unity of the body of Christ.


1 Jean M. R. Tillard, OP, I Believe, Despite Everything (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003), 15.

2 Michael Hurley, “The Future,” in Michael Hurley, SJ, ed., Irish Anglicanism 1869-1969 (Dublin: Figgis, 1970), 211.

3 This dissertation was co-published by the Gregorian University and by Fordham University Press in 1960 as Scriptura Sola, Wyclif and His Critics, 1960.

4 Michael Hurley, Healing and Hope (Dublin: The Columba Press, 2003), 32.

5 This was published as Towards Christian Unity: An Introduction to the Ecumenical Movement (Dublin: Veritas, 1961).

6 Frederick Ercolo Vokes, The Riddle of the Didache (London: SPCK, 1938).

7 Michael Hurley, Healing and Hope, 40-41.

8 Michael Hurley, “The Beginnings (1960-1970),” in Michael Hurley, SJ, ed., The Irish School of Ecumenics 1970-2007 (Dublin: The Columba Press, 2008), 29.

9 Ibid., 27-28.

10 David F. Ford, “Foreword,” in Michael Hurley, SJ, ed., The Irish School of Ecumenics, 16.

11 Eugene Carson Blake (1906-1985) was general secretary of the WCC from 1966-1974.

12 Michael Hurley, “Preface,” in Michael Hurley, SJ, ed., The Irish School of Ecumenics, 8.

13 Mary Tanner, “Towards Visible Unity,” in Oliver Rafferty, SJ, ed., Reconciliation, Essays in Honour of Michael Hurley (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1993), 20, slightly adapted.

14 Michael Hurley, Healing and Hope, 71.

15 Michael Hurley, Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring?(Dublin: Veritas, 1998).

16 Ibid., 6.

17 Fintan Lyons, “Healing and Hope: Remembering Michael Hurley,” One in Christ 45 (2011), 261.

18 Michael Hurley, Theology of Ecumenism (Notre Dame: Fides, 1969).

19 Ibid., 9.

20 Ibid., 10.

21 Ibid., 11.

22 Ibid., 12.

23 Ibid., 22.

24 Paragraph 2.

25 Michael Hurley, Theology of Ecumenism, 23.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 24.

28 Ibid., 25-28.

29 Ibid., 29.

30 Ibid., 31.

31 Ibid., 31-32.

32 Ibid., 33. See also in this regard the fine work of Irish Methodist theologian William J. Abraham, Shaking Hands with the Devil (Dallas: Highland Loch Press, 2013).

33 Michael Hurley, Theology of Ecumenism, 34.

34 Ibid., 40.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid., 41.

37 Ibid.

38 The Church Times, March 12, 1965, cited in Hurley, Theology of Ecumenism, 42-43. For some brief context for this quite extraordinary church historian, Meriol Trevor, see Owen F. Cummings, Prophets, Guardians and Saints (New York-Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007), v-viii.

39 Michael Hurley, Theology of Ecumenism, 50-51.

40 Ibid., 52.

41 Ibid., 86-87.

42 Oliver Rafferty, “Introduction,” in Oliver Rafferty, ed., Reconciliation: Essays in Honor of Michael Hurley (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1993), 16.

43 Adrian Empey, in his Foreword to Michael Hurley, Healing and Hope, 14.

44 Bruno Forte, The Essence of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 92.


About Owen F. Cummings

Owen F. Cummings is the Regents’ Professor of Theology at Mount Angel Seminary St. Benedict, OR. He is a longtime contributor to Emmanuel.