|Fr Hugh Thwaites SJ
H/T Fr Tim Finigan
When I think of Fr Hugh Thwaites, the word that comes most readily to mind is 'simple'. Not in the sense of stupidity, not at all, but in the sense of uncomplicated directness. In this he was a true son of St Ignatius; for Fr Hugh, there never seemed to be any shades of grey. Instead he worked out in his own mind what needed to be done, and simply did it without regret, without considering how that might affect his own dignity or position. His decisions were easily made and steadfastly adhered to. His opinions likewise were simply arrived at and adhered to with ardour.
He was, I think, the most humble man I have ever known, and inspired by that I am going, for once, to fess up myself. Once, on board a ship bound overnight for France, I and a priest friend, having parted for the night from Fr Hugh and another priest friend, they being bound for another cabin corridors away, spent a pleasant hour or so in our bunks cheerfully lampooning the characteristics of Fr Hugh. In the morning, the friend who had shared with Fr Hugh was tight-lipped and furious with us. By some strange quirk of the ship's construction, the corridors that had taken them off into the bowels of the ship had returned them to the cabin that was back-to-back with ours, separated by only the very thinnest of walls. In other words, everything had been heard by him and Fr Hugh himself. My friend reassured me 'and he has the very keenest hearing. I have never been so embarrassed'. Well, I was horrified, as you would imagine. But Fr Hugh never failed throughout our trip (we were actually going on retreat together) to treat me with the greatest kindness as ever. He gave no sign of resentment, and eventually I thought that the only thing to do was to go to confession to him and acknowledge it there. Even then there was no reproach or even allusion to the incident, but, on afterwards me talking to him about my difficulties with mental prayer, he simply said 'oh gosh; I'm no good at praying at all.'
About his Ignatian directness; I remember on that same retreat (he was conducting it for a group of English priests in a French monastery) he, smiling gently as ever, said 'I'm going to talk about hell now; I always think I should talk about hell on a retreat.' We all smiled to each other tolerantly and relaxed back. I shall never forget his opening words; 'Most priests go to hell'. Well you don't forget words like that. And in the same gentle smiling way he went through the scriptures and the lives of the saints underlining the reality and the appalling nature of hell. Our tolerant smiles tightened, then froze, and then went into rictuses of horror, because we were (and are) all believing and traditionally-minded Catholics who naturally profess the existence of hell—we would just rather think about something else. He knew that we really needed to confront the reality of the consequences of a sinful life.
I didn't agree with him about everything. I remember being quite shocked at his policy of instructing converts (of whom he had many quiversful). 'I simply tell them how to pray the Rosary', he said. 'It's got everything they need to know in it.' I still prudently doubt the wisdom of this. But then wisdom was not really one of his specialities. He had something much better; holiness, and I think that that was the thing that attracted people.
I can think of three English Jesuits that I have admired (I have only known a few Jesuits); Fr Hugh, the late Fr Paul Crane, and the living Fr John Edwards. All three have, or had, a quirkiness which one might better define as a single-mindedness of purpose that sees a goal and simply goes for it, ignoring the details if they seem to distract from the end. Fr Hugh's inadequate instruction and his work in Brixton, Fr Paul Crane's highly independent apostolate of Christian Order and at Claver House, Fr Edwards' cavalier approach to the rubrics with his mini-Masses. In some ways, this seems to be so typically Jesuit in a way admirable, and in another way, not. I have in the past likened the Jesuits (at their best) to the buttresses of a great Cathedral. If you are inside the building, the buttresses seem to be outside, doing their own thing. If you are outside, you can see that actually they are keeping the whole thing standing up. Which is why the Jesuits have been feared and mistrusted both inside and outside the Church down through the ages. And the Jesuits' great perception, inherited from St Francis Xavier, that the souls in Brixton or Uganda or China are of equal value to the souls in Sunningdale or Ascot in the eyes of our Lord, is something that the Church needs to keep reminding herself.
There are so many of us who owe Fr Hugh so much. I will never forget him and the lessons I learnt from him. Especially:
1) That hell is real, and a greater possibility for us who are pastors of the Lord's flock.
2) That all souls are created in the image and likeness of God, and have equal value.
3) That prayer is much more than the acquisition of a technique; it is not something one has to be 'good at'; it is something one simply must do.
4) The importance of the rosary
5) The importance of acquiring the virtue of humility.
I feel I want to close with the customary 'May his soul rest in peace'. But, like Cæsar Baronius after the death of St Philip Neri, there is something that sticks in my throat about it in this instance. I have already begun to ask his prayers, and have already begun to receive an answer in one case……