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Cyril Hally: a dramatic voice at crucial moments

This month, the Australian Catholic University confers an honorary doctorate on Columban Fr Cyril Hally, an Aussie 'star' if ever there was one.

by Val Noone

In sunny weather, during the school holidays of May 1972, in what was to the last year of the 23-year long Liberal Party rule in Australia, 110 priests gathered at the great St Joseph's College, Hunter's Hill, not far from Sydney Harbour, for a conference. By today's standards not a remarkable event, you might say. But indeed it was unusual then because it was convened by the priests on an independent basis, that is, on their own initiative and not at the direction of the bishops, only the third such conference in Australian history.

In the middle of a heated forum on applying the gospel to today's world, some of the young rebels among the priests were calling for rapid and drastic change on the part of the hierarchy, reversal of the Papal ban on contraception, more liturgical renewal, increased lay participation in church life, less cosy relations with the Liberal Party and even support for Vietnam War draft resisters. Some experienced voices were raised warning about dangerous revolutionary tendencies.

From the middle of the hall, a senior-sounding voice with a New Zealand accent sought leave to intervene. He startled the gathering by opening with the comment, "Well, one third of the world has already had a revolution", followed by a few words on the significance for world history of the Chinese revolution of 1949; and he went on to argue for reading the signs of the times in such a way as to support the young reformers and radicals.

Supporting the young rebels
That dramatic speaker was Cyril Hally, a priest of the missionary Columban society, then in his early fifties, short, smiling, wry and until that moment not known to most of those present. He had been in Europe for many years, teaching at the Columban seminary in Dalgan Park, Ireland and then researching and studying at the famous progressive centre of Catholic studies, the Pro Mundi Vita Institute in Louvain, Belgium.

That intervention reveals a number of characteristics of Cyril Hally who this month is be awarded an honorary doctorate by the Australian Catholic University in Sydney. Let us focus on two.

First, he has a sharp mind which he combines with a passion for applying the Christian teachings to the modern world; second, China always looms large in his thinking.

His vast knowledge is based on unusually wide reading. He has no formal postgraduate degree but has spent years keeping abreast with, and introducing students to, current literature especially in anthropology, sociology and missiology. And how enthusiastically he talks about these topics. Getting a word in edgeways is always a challenge.

Anyone who has ever heard Cyril speak on the church and its mission has learned the importance of the word "enculturation". He is committed to the Catholic tradition and argues that one of its historic strengths from New Testament times onwards has been its ability to adapt to the culture of the host society. And today Cyril is calling for further adaptation and enculturation.

Some years ago I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days researching in Cyril's collection in the Columban library at Turramurra. Its strength is its coverage of the missions of the Catholic Church in Asia and the Pacific. Incidentally, I hope that in the amalgamations currently under way between the Columbans and the Sydney Catholic Theological College, the index to periodicals built up under Cyril's direction finds a suitable home.

China missionary manque
The importance of China in Cyril's life goes back to boyhood. Inspired by such factors as the Far East missionary magazine, he hoped to become a missionary to China and that is why he joined the Columbans. The mission to China was their founding goal. But Cyril never got to be a missionary in China. Two reasons for that major block in his life's ambitions come to mind. Firstly, the order sent him to do other work in New Zealand, Japan and Australia, especially teaching their own students but including also pastoral work among Asian students. In addition, in 1949 China had a revolution led by the Communist Party and clamped down harshly on missionaries, imprisoning many Catholics, bishops, priests, nuns and laity.

So when Cyril spoke at Hunter's Hill in 1972 about the significance of China having a revolution, his was a nuanced view. He was not a defender of the Communist Party of China. Indeed he was, and is, opposed to many policies and philosophies of that leadership. But he was in favour of the Church coming to terms with the changing world, and in that context he is a discriminating anti-communist.

This point leads us to consider Cyril's role in the big controversy in Australian Catholicism whose fiftieth anniversary is being commemorated this April, namely the argument over the church's role in the split in the Australian Labor Party of 1955 which led to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party under the influence of the late Bob Santamaria.

Cyril tells many stories of that time but for now let us mention just a couple. For instance, he raised questions with the hierarchy about the way that the Santamaria organisation was recruiting Asian students into their movement (which in 1956 became known as the National Civic Council) and encouraging them to do intelligence-gathering tasks for the anti-communist crusade without due regard to their homeland responsibilities. This led to Cyril being sacked from a chaplaincy post among the Asian students.

And along with Roger Pryke, Rosemary Goldie and others, Cyril tried to alert some of the Catholic groups in Asia to the theological and political implications of working with the Australian Catholic anti-communist movement.

Compassionate missionary in our own society
Blocked from being a missionary in China, Cyril turned his considerable efforts to making the Australian and New Zealand Catholic church more missionary bodies, truer to their biblical foundations and alert to the needs of the contemporary world.

These days he has chosen to work especially with the ecumenical peace group, Pax Christi. In that group he has been conspicuous over the issues of Bougainville and Timor, and most recently in opposing Australian military involvement in the American war in Iraq.

Cyril's compassion for those in need has a number of sources, especially his belief in the Christian gospel. However, he himself has also remarked on how his early experiences prepared him for some of his later commitments.

Cyril's mother, a professional musician, died when he was only five. He was sent to boarding school and from there entered the seminary. And his father died of cancer on the eve of Cyril's ordination to the priesthood. He jokes with psychiatrists that despite these hardships, he defied many of their theories by remaining sane.

The above paragraphs are but a sample of some of the many important contributions Cyril Hally has made. In giving him an honorary doctorate, Australian Catholic University is rendering long-overdue recognition of the important contribution to Catholic life by a talented scholar, activist, spiritual guide and missionary.

Val Noone, a Melbourne-based writer and historian, is editor of Tain, the magazine of the Australian Irish Network.

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