Exploring a God of infinite possibilities

POST BY JHellings

The Tablet’s Literary Editor, Brendan Walsh, met Fr Gerard W. Hughes SJ shortly before his death at the end of last year.

In all his work, Gerard (“Gerry”) W Hughes SJ tried to heal what he saw as the damaging “split” in our spirituality. “God is in every human being, in every movement of our devious minds and hearts and in every human tragedy, drawing us out of death into life.”

Hughes was born in Skelmorlie, Ayrshire, the fourth of six children. On his mother’s side his grandparents came from Northern Ireland, on his father’s side from Galway. Each night the family said the rosary together before going to bed. Hughes’s father suffered from depression; he lost two sisters to suicide; and Gerry too, suffered from bouts of severe depression, and feared that he might one day commit suicide. He understood and could relate to the unbudgeable feeling of being deeply flawed, because it was part of his own make up.

At the age of five, his parents moved to a tenement building in Hill Street, Glasgow. His father died two years later; his mother returned to teaching music to support her young family. Hughes attended the nearby Jesuit College of Saint Aloysius. Hughes recalled later that at school he was taught nothing that ever made God seem attractive; he was led to expect only “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears”. 

At 13 he was sent to Mount Saint Mary’s, the Jesuit boarding school near Sheffield; from there he went straight to the Jesuit noviceship. He spent his final three years of training studying theology at Sankt Georgen, the Jesuit house in Frankfurt, where he was ordained priest in 1958. Reading Teilhard de Chardin’s Le Milieu Divin was to finally demolish his belief in the supernatural and the natural as two separate and distinct layers of reality. “God is in everything”, Hughes realised, “in all our decisions, actions, reactions to events, whatever they are, we are encountering God.”

After nine years as a schoolmaster at Stonyhurst, he spent eight more satisfying years as chaplain at Glasgow University, in spite of brushes with the hierarchy over Humanae Vitae and his willingness to admit to non-Catholic students to communion. At a time when many were leaving the priesthood, not a few Jesuits among them, Hughes felt instead a renewed sense - which never left him - that in belonging to the Catholic priesthood and the Jesuit order he was in the right place.

Hughes was struck by a quotation from Jerome Nadal, a contemporary of St Ignatius of Loyola, who, when asked who the Spiritual Exercises were for, had replied, “For Catholics, for Protestants and for pagans”. Hughes worked with Michael Ivens and others to develop St Beuno’s in north Wales as a centre for the creative renewal of Ignatian spirituality. Hughes was briefly considered for the role of Gabriel in The Mission, his audition taking the form of an hour’s role play with a withdrawn and monosyllabic Robert de Niro. In the end the director gave the part to a professional actor, Jeremy Irons.

God in Surprises, written for “bewildered, confused or disillusioned Christians, who have a love-hate relationship with the Church to which they belong, or once belonged” was published in 1985. It became an immediate bestseller, and remains Hughes’s most successful book. Cry of Wonder, which rehearses and refines many of the themes of his work, was published in the week of his death. In later years he was based at Jesuit houses in Birmingham, Edinburgh, and Campion Hall, Oxford, before spending his last months at the Jesuit community care home in Boscombe, Bournemouth.

Cry of Wonder by Gerard W Hughes SJFor Hughes, the only authentic Christian spirituality had to be true to the God of justice, truth and peace, and he became increasingly closely involved with the work of Pax Christi and Christian CND. Recalling one of his first memories - standing in the back seat of his father’s car, shoving against the front in order to help the car up a steep hill – he admitted wryly that it summed up much of his life: “an innate impatience and naïve belief that I, other people, structures within the Church and within society, can be changed if I shove hard enough.”

Whether teaching RE to schoolboys at Stonyhurst, saying Mass for prisoners in the Maze, or living with the Aboriginal community at Balgo in the Australian desert, Gerry Hughes was always listening, always learning – every encounter was an opportunity to be led to a place where he might have a better view of God.

In his moving spiritual memoir God, Where Are You? (1997) he remembered being put to bed at the age of three by his sister, Marie. He sat on the bed facing the window and, curious to know what would happen, said “God”. It was the start of a conversation that would last all his life. In his childhood and his long Jesuit training God had seemed predictable and unchanging. The older he got, the nearer he came to death, the deeper he was led into a sense of wonder and delight in God, the more God became a God of infinite possibilities, always new, “a beckoning God who leads us on a treasure hunt”.

This tribute to Gerry W Hughes SJ was first published in The Tablet and is reproduced with the publisher’s permission.

To order Gerry W Hughes’ books, contact The Way:  theway.org.uk