Obituary: Father Gerard W Hughes, Jesuit priest

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Born: 22 March, 1924 in Skelmorlie, Ayrshire. Died: 4 November, 2014 at Boscombe Jesuit Centre, aged 90.

The renowned Jesuit priest Gerard Hughes was an inspirational leader who was revered throughout the Catholic Church and also respected by those from other denominations and faiths.

He had an honesty about his manner and a genuine understanding and compassion towards everyone. He stood for, and practised, tolerance but admitted he was one of the many, “bewildered, confused or disillusioned Christians who have a love-hate relationship with the church to which they belong, or once belonged.”

Hughes was personable and kindly: his friendships crossed the religious and political divide. Two particular friends were the Very Rev George MacLeod of the Iona Community and the communist Clydesider Jimmy Reid.

Hughes’s most influential book, God of Surprises, was published in 1985 and is one of the most widely read religious books.

Last month at a Synod on the family in the Vatican, Pope Francis said: “God is the God of law and the God of surprises. We do not always understand that God is the God of surprises: God is always new.” The words and phrases echo Hughes’s teachings.

Gerard William Hughes – known affectionately as Gerry W – was born in Skelmorlie, Ayrshire, the fourth of six children in a devoutly Catholic family. When he was five, his parents moved to a tenement building in Glasgow and Hughes initially attended the Jesuit Saint Aloysius’ College then Mount Saint Mary’s – a boarding school in Sheffield.

He studied at Oxford, London and Frankfurt but it was Frankfurt that made a deep impression on Hughes: the city was still recovering from the ravages of war and he realised the need for social justice.

He was ordained in 1958 and taught at two renowned Jesuit colleges: Stonyhurst, in Lancashire, and Beaumont College, Windsor. Although he was based at the Jesuit house in Harborne, Birmingham he travelled widely and was a popular figure at retreats and seminars.

In Scotland he is best remembered for his inspiring years as Catholic chaplain at Glasgow University (1967-1975). At Turnbull Hall, the Catholic chaplaincy attached to the university, Hughes proved an influential leader and encouraged discussion and prayer amongst the students. He was a hugely popular figure with the students and his discussion groups were always stimulating.

Never afraid of controversy, Hughes came in for criticism from some of his superiors when he admitted he could not accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae. There was a similar reaction when Hughes welcomed non-Catholics and allowed them to receive the Mass. For these two offences he was dismissed by the Archbishop of Glasgow but was soon reinstated.

Perhaps he felt a change of job and city was required. Hughes walked from Weybridge to Rome – a journey that was captured in his book In Search of a Way.

Hughes was neither conventional nor convinced by dogma. He was a strong advocate for peace and joined many marches and demonstrations with CND and Pax Christi – the international Catholic peace movement. He led many peace retreats throughout Scotland and engaged vigorously with the moral and spiritual situation when nuclear weapons were stationed at the Holy Loch.

His last book, Cry of Wonder, published last month, contrasted the advances in technology with society’s lack of faith. “We have lost the link between the words we use and what we actually do. It’s a most vicious illness: it faces us with annihilation.”

Father Hughes celebrated his ninetieth birthday in Oxford at Campion Hall – a hall of residence. His many friends celebrated with a glorious cake with just one lit candle. It was a very special occasion and, befitting such an eminent priest, there was 30 minutes of silent prayer.

Father Hughes always wanted to go further, explore his faith and make his beliefs available to all. He took immense pride in his nephew (also Gerry Hughes) when he became the first deaf person to circumnavigate the globe.