Louisiana News: 60 Years A Priest: An Interview with Archbishop Alfred Hughes 

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In this photo provided by the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Benedict XVI presents New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes with a chalice as a gift for his sacrifice and service during Hurricane Katrina during his visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Wednesday, April 16, 2008. At back center is Chicago Cardinal Francis George. (AP Photo/Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Matthew Barrick)

The Archbishop Talks About His Life At The Seminary, His Encounters with Popes, and How His Father Influenced His Faith

Joy is a net of love by which we catch souls.”—St. Teresa of Calcutta

There is a joy which is not given to the ungodly, but to those who love Thee for Thine own sake, whose joy Thou Thyself art.”—St. Augustine

The first thing I noticed about Archbishop Alfred Hughes was his joy. And how often he seemed to crack a quick-witted joke or laugh at someone else’s with mouth open and eyes beaming. This delight, along with the fact that he’d been archbishop for two Louisiana cities and made it to 85, 60 of them as a priest, made me curious. How could I get that joy, and how could I glean wisdom from his life?

Which is where this interview comes in. The archbishop was most gracious to allow me an hour of time in his office in late November to talk about topics such as his time and role at Notre Dame Seminary, his encounters with St. John Paul II, and his prayer life.

Alfred Clifton Hughes was born on Dec. 2, 1932 and grew up in West Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston. His grandfather and great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from County Mayo, Ireland, in 1880. Hughes is the third of four children. His younger brother is a Jesuit priest—Rev. Kenneth Hughes, SJ. The Archbishop was ordained on December 15, 1957, and obtained a doctorate in spiritual theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1961. He then became a spiritual director and professor at his alma mater, St. John’s Seminary in 1962. In 1981, Hughes was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Boston, and in 1993 became the Bishop of Baton Rouge. In 2002 Hughes became the 13th Archbishop of New Orleans, serving until 2008, when he was succeeded by the current Archbishop, the Most Reverend Gregory Aymond.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes: Your recorder presumes that everything is going to be worth recording.

Jason Songe: (laughs) Exactly, right? I found a copy of your father’s WW2 draft registration card online. (Hands copy to the archbishop) Have you seen that before?

AH: No. (pauses) Well, no one had a greater impact on my life after The Lord than my Dad.

JS: Is it safe to say you had a close relationship with your father?

AH: Yeah. Really close. I had great respect for him. He went through a lot in his life that I only came to appreciate afterwards because he shielded me a bit from…he lost his job in the Depression and was out of work for two years–around the time that I was born, and then he worked for the WPA, which Franklin Roosevelt introduced to put people back to work. For $21 a week doing anything he was asked to do. He had a family of six. People didn’t have a lot in those days. But I did not know all the struggles he was having because he was so present to us when he came home from work. He didn’t burden us. We went to public schools, and on Saturday we went to Catechism class. Religious education. On Friday night, he’d sit down with each of us and spot-check us to make sure we had studied our Catechism. It was the old Baltimore Catechism with questions and answers. There were about ten to twelve questions. He would ask us about two or three, and then if we knew our answers, he would set aside the Catechism and begin to ask us what our answers meant. He would then share what the teaching meant to him, drawing examples from home, from work, from living in the neighborhood.

JS: That must have been a great grace.

AH: I didn’t appreciate it at the time. It was an extraordinary way of letting us know that there’s not supposed to be any gap between God’s revelation and living our everyday lives.

JS: What kind of person must he have been to take the time to teach your family himself? And also, how strong in his faith must he have been to produce two sons that went on to the priesthood?

AH: His own witness was not explicit. It was more implicit. My mother was a more devotional person. My Dad was more contemplative. I remember one morning in high school I got up early because I had an exam that I wasn’t well prepared for, and I went out into the living room because my brother lived in the same room and I didn’t want to put a light on. I stumbled over my Dad praying in the living room, and I discovered for the first time….he would get up early before everyone else and pray. He was praying in the dark. I regret that I never asked him how he prayed, but I think there had to be a contemplative dimension to his prayer because it was evident in the wisdom that guided him in life which, at unsuspecting moments, he would share in response to something that was happening.

JS: That leads me into a question: what kind of prayer are you using at the moment?

AH: It is a quiet, receptive prayer. I find it impacting the way I pray the Liturgy of The Hours and pray the Eucharist. I try to be quiet and remind myself who God is, and that He’s not only created me but sustains me in existence. My greatest goal is to be open to Him in what he wants me to be and do. It’s becoming aware of what I’m not yet and my need for redemption and his grace in the ways in which I’m slow to respond or resist Him.

JS: They say that as we get closer to God, we become more aware of our deficiencies.

AH: I don’t know how close I am but I am more and more aware of what I am not yet and what I’m being called to be.

JS: Since you were talking about your Dad getting up early, is that where you garnered your idea to rise early?

AH: I get up at 4. And that really came from priestly life because it’s the only time I can count on for not being interrupted in prayer. I used to get up at 5, when I had a more active priestly life and more activities at night. One of the graces of this stage of life is I don’t have the same kind of commitments at night, so I can go to bed earlier and get up earlier.

JS: In your book “Spiritual Masters: Living A Life of Prayer in The Catholic Tradition,” you devote a chapter to St. Teresa of Avila and a chapter to St. John of The Cross. St. Teresa says that trials are gifts and that God gives more trials to the ones He loves the most. St. John of The Cross said God wants to use suffering to purify us. Do you know of ways or practices through which we can more readily accept our own crosses and sufferings in life?

AH: There’s no question about the fact that suffering is the greatest stumbling block for people in life and in their relationship to God. It turns some people into pagans. Or at least secularists. I don’t want to suffer. You don’t want to suffer. Humans find suffering repugnant. If you look at the commercials we’re exposed to on a daily basis, more than 50 percent of them are promoting ways of relieving suffering. I think St. Francis de Sales offers the most practical and wisest counsel when he says that the virtues we most want to cultivate are the virtues important for the vocation and life we’re called to and secondly, those that are most opposed to the vices that are most keeping us from God in our lives. The best sacrifices we can make are the ones that nurse those virtues important to our vocation and most opposed to our vices. If I find myself as a student reluctant to study, developing good study habits is the kind of sacrifice that promotes the virtue that’s related to my responsibility. If I’m called to preach, investing in prayer and preparation for preaching is the most important sacrifice I can make. If I consciously develop those virtues that are related to my responsibilities and addressing what holds me back, I’m gonna actively be entering into some sacrifice, and that’s gonna help me accept and transform positively involuntarily sacrifice, involuntary suffering.

JS: It puts the onus on us to not only be a good person but to be a good person for what God is calling me to be in life.

AH: If I embrace an asceticism that undermines my fulfillment and my responsibilities, that’s not a sacrifice to make. If I’m fasting so much that I don’t have the energy to do what I’m supposed to do, and I begin to become grouchy, obviously that’s a sign that I’m choosing the wrong kind of sacrifice. If the sacrifice I’m choosing makes me a more joyful person, a more loving person, helps me to fulfill my responsibilities in a positive spirit—that’s life giving. And then that helps me when suffering comes my way that’s involuntary to incorporate that more easily into my life because I’ve developed an approach that makes me less fearful of sacrifice and suffering. Fear of suffering is a great obstacle to being a happy person in life. God wants us to be happy. Asceticism is not supposed to make us sad. It’s supposed to free us to be able to understand and do what God wants. He wants our happiness. He wants us to bring happiness to others.

JS: I’ve always liked the idea that through our suffering we can be closer to Jesus, in understanding more of what He went through, and we can offer up our suffering to Him in conjunction with His Passion.

AH: Absolutely. And that’s especially true of involuntary suffering—suffering that you have not chosen. In the fulfillment of our call there’s inevitably going to be involuntary suffering. A diminished fear of suffering because of our active choice of sacrifice and service to the virtue that we need to develop helps us to have a different attitude to involuntary suffering. And we seize that opportunity to unite ourselves to the way in which Christ refused to be victim and became victor in His suffering. That helps us to move from just seeing ourselves as victimized to be triumphant.

JS: Changing gears a bit, I wanted to ask you about living at the seminary.

AH: And all the involuntary suffering?

JS:(laughs) Exactly. You’re making the segway for me. I appreciate that. What do you receive from being with the seminarians each day?

AH: First of all, I’m delighted to have the privilege of living here. I find it stimulating. I’m a great believer in a holistic life, in being stimulated physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and to be with young men and not so young men saying yes to the Lord—that’s exhilarating and encouraging for me. To be invited into a teaching role, it keeps me intellectually challenged, and to be with a faculty that is competent and committed to the Lord and to the Church and collaborative is stimulating. To be able to have meals with all of you and to get to know you better–I find it a great grace. I thought I was coming in here to be something of a spiritual father, and I discovered that I’m perceived more as a spiritual grandfather.


AH: The more I thought about that, the greater that is. A lot of young people today have difficulty relating to their fathers. They have a better relationship with their grandparents. Parents are authority figures. Grandparents are wisdom figures. And that opens up a new kind of relationship.

JS: My grandfather would play with me in a different way than my Dad would. It was less of a disciplinary love. I can attest to what you say because it’s certainly a grace for us and me to have you at prayer and Mass. Your presence undergirds everything. It’s a strength that you provide with your presence. It’s important for us when we’re going through daily struggles.

AH: The alternative would be for me to be alone someplace, not experiencing the stimulation, and beginning to atrophy emotionally, spiritually, etc. Living in this kind of community and family really addresses the most important way to continue to develop and grow interiorly.

JS: Switching gears again…I think it’d be rare for anyone to meet a person who would later be canonized by the Church. It may be even more rare to see this person who you’ve spoken to canonized in your lifetime. Can you talk about the blessing of having known St. John Paul II and maybe one experience with him that stands above the rest?

AH: My first interaction with John Paul was as an auxiliary bishop in Boston accompanying the Archbishop of Boston on an ad limina visit to Rome. There were a number of these visits over the years. The ad limina visits with Pope John Paul II were rather remarkable because we’d go over as a region. There’d be 20 or 25 bishops there for the week and we never knew when we’d have our individual meeting with the Pope but in the course of the week, we had to prepare a report on our ministry as bishop and that would cover 22 areas of our ministry. For our personal meeting with him, he would ask that we would prepare a two to three-page summary of the principle challenges we were experiencing and what we were trying to do to address them. It helped the Holy Father to become aware of the issues around the world, but it also led to substantive conversation with him. I experienced him as my spiritual father and my mentor in the episcopacy. And to experience his reflection on what was going on and his encouragement was very reassuring. Very strengthening. And inspiring.

JS: I can imagine that experience would be intimidating, maybe at the beginning…

AH: Yeah.

JS…but to get through it and to get on the other side of it, and then have the Pope possibly tell you that you’re doing a good job or don’t worry about this issue, it will change, it will get better, things like this—that must have been great.

AH: It was strengthening and reassuring. John Paul would also provide a lunch with about seven or eight of us at a time. There’d be three of these and you’d be invited to one of them. And this is for off-the-record conversation. You could share and ask questions with the understanding that we wouldn’t be quoting comments he was making. That promoted a greater human relationship and closeness. I also had the occasion to serve on the Vox Clara, a committee pf The Congregation For Divine Worship And The Discipline of The Sacraments. For translation of the Roman missal and the sacramental liturgy. There were a few occasions when our committee met with the Pope. Years earlier, when I was appointed Bishop of Baton Rouge, it was the time of the World Youth Day in Denver. And there’s a picture(points to picture on his wall) of him talking to me about wanting me to go to Baton Rouge.

JS: And the picture was taken right when you were talking about that?

AH: Yes

JS: Oh wow.

AH: In Denver. It was after Mass, which we concelebrated with him on his day off, the day he was going up into the mountains. He hiked outside of Denver. After Mass I had a chance to talk with him about going to Baton Rouge.

JS: He’s almost got a face on him that says, “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.”

AH:(laughs) You can see the worry in my face. (laughs)

JS:(laughs) There is a little bit, like, “I don’t know.” He’s like, “It’ll be ok.”

AH: I was concerned about coming from the north to the south and whether he understood what that meant.

JS: Sure.

AH: In terms of acceptance and so forth.

JS: I want to talk to you about St. Louis Cathedral, which, in the last fifteen years, has become where you’ve done most of your preaching and teaching. Though it’s nothing new, it’s still interesting that the cathedral is beset on two sides by iniquity, so to speak. You’ve got the tarot card readers on one side and Bourbon Street on the other. I’ve always wondered how much the priests at the cathedral are aware of that contrast.

AH: It is a paradox to have the cathedral in the midst of so much that’s antithetical to true worship. And true moral life. I try to see the cathedral as an icon of Heaven in the midst of the challenges of this world. But also on the human level, to make the cathedral the heart and soul of the community—through concerts and intereligious and ecumenical services. While also being an icon of God’s presence. I saw the dual presence of the divinity and humanity of Christ being reenacted in a perfect way in what we’re trying to do with the cathedral.

JS: I’d like to now talk to you about pro-life issues, which you’ve been very supportive and vocal for in your years. In your book “Toward A Civilization of Life & Love,” which was published in 2004, you noted the underground buying, selling, and traffic of fetal body parts for medical research. You were talking about something that was only in the last few years revealed publicly through the videos published by David Daleiden and The Center For Medical Progress. These videos exposed Planned Parenthood.

AH: I didn’t know the connection specifically with Planned Parenthood but I knew it was going on. The issue of our time is respecting life. Human life and renewed life in Christ Jesus. When we develop a cavalier attitude toward innocent human life, it inevitably leads to the coarseness that permeates our whole country. We’ve lost a sense of respect for the sacredness and the dignity of human persons. And cheapened the most sacred dimensions of human life. There’s a profound relationship between how we treat unborn life and how we treat one another in family, in the community, and in society itself. The coarseness, the loss of a sense of respect all flows from embracing violence to the unborn. It is the human life, civil right issue of our day. The Roe Vs. Wade decision has been an extraordinarily significant catalyst to a whole series of issues that have undermined our culture. Now, that decision with the Supreme Court did not come out of a vacuum. There was previously, in the Griswold Vs. Connecticut case in 1965, a decision about artificial contraception. That was the first time that the so-called principle of privacy was enunciated. The separation of public and private morality, with a precedent set in Griswold Vs. Connecticut and then continued in Roe Vs. Wade, undermined public morality completely. So, there’s been a whole series of not only legal and court decisions, but also cultural developments, that undergird those decisions. They really suggest a secular society and faith, if it’s present, is just personal. We’ve come to the point now where public expression of personal faith is being outlawed.

JS: That would lead me into my last question. You say in your book, “After the right to life, freedom of conscience is the most important human right.” You also say, “Our country guarantees us the freedom of religious expression,” but as we’ve seen with The Little Sisters of The Poor and their battle against contraception, this freedom may have waned since you wrote your book in 2004. Do you feel that way?

AH: Absolutely. Religious freedom is an extraordinarily challenging issue today—internationally, with all the persecution that’s going on. The overt persecution of Christians in Africa and Egypt and the not-so-overt but real persecution that goes on in terms of limiting the exercise of religion in the public sphere and bringing it into social service, education, and health care. There’s a bill before Congress now called the Conscience Protection Act and we need that legislation so that we won’t be at the whim of changing administrations.

About the Author: Jason Songe

Jason is a seminarian in Pre-Theology 1.


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