Hurley, Michael Anthony (1923–2011), ecumenist and theologian, was born on 10 May 1923 in Ardmore, Co. Waterford, the eldest of four children (two boys and two girls) of Michael Hurley, a small businessman, and his wife Johanna (née Foley), who kept a guest house. He won a scholarship to board at the Cistercian Trappist Mount Melleray Abbey (1935–40), and on 10 September 1940 entered the Jesuit novitiate at Emo Park, Co. Laois, drawn to the order's intellectual reputation. He studied classics at UCD (1942–5), graduating BA, and philosophy at Tullabeg, Co. Offaly (1945–8), before teaching Latin and Irish at Mungret College, Limerick (1948–51). At Mungret, he established a reputation for radical, independent thinking. He set up a study circle that examined Marxist texts, and published an assessment of The Communist manifesto in the Irish Monthly (1948). A brief student hunger strike at the college (in protest at poor food) was blamed on Hurley by his provincial, and when he was observed by Garda special branch entering the communist book shop in Pearse Street, Dublin, in clerical garb, gardaí visited Mungret to notify his superiors.
He studied theology at Louvain (1951–5), and was much influenced by the ecumenist Professor Georges Dejaifve. Interested in workers' councils, Hurley spent summers volunteering with the Young Christian Workers in the Charleroi coal mines in Belgium (1951) and in a steel factory in the south of France (1952). He was ordained at Louvain on 15 August 1954. His postgraduate work at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome (1956–8) (where his rector was the ecumenical Charles Boyer, SJ) resulted in a doctorate in theology (1961), published as Scriptura sola: Wyclif and his critics (1960), in which Hurley posited a traditionalist view of the teachings and biblical exegesis of the dissident English priest John Wyclif (d. 1384).
Returning to Ireland, Hurley was appointed professor of dogmatic theology to the Jesuit faculty of theology at Milltown Park, Dublin (1958–70). He was instrumental in establishing an annual series of public lectures (1960–81) which anticipated many of the themes addressed by the second Vatican council (1962–5), and propagated its teaching. His lecture on 'The ecumenical movement' (9 March 1960), benefiting from the guidance he received from Raymond Jenkins (1898–1998), later Church of Ireland archdeacon of Dublin (1961–74) (who introduced Hurley to George Tyrrell (qv) and anglican theologians), was published as Towards Christian unity (1961) and praised by Fr Denis Faul (qv). Although Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv) of Dublin and Hurley's Jesuit superiors opposed his accepting an invitation to lecture the TCD Student Christian Movement (May 1962), Hurley gave the lecture off campus; it was later published in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record (1962). He also lectured methodist theological students at Edgehill Theological College, Belfast (1963), and addressed lay groups such as Muintir na Tíre and Tuairim at ecumenical forums from the early 1960s. Delivering the annual Aquinas lecture at QUB in March 1964, Hurley suggested the Vatican council pursue church reform to 'restore once again that diversity of rite and usage and human tradition which is the authentic and due manifestation of true Christian unity' (Ir. Times, 9 March 1964). In May 1966 the Irish Times intended to reprint his article on mixed marriages from the Irish Furrow, but this was halted at the last minute by McQuaid. Hurley's April 1968 Milltown lecture addressing original sin suffered a similar fate, and McQuaid sought to expel him from the Dublin archdiocese. Only the intercession of Fr Cecil McGarry (rector of Milltown (1965–8) and Irish provincial (1968–75)) allowed Hurley to remain.
A committed ecumenist, Hurley sought to confront the latent sectarianism found among both Irish catholics and protestants. His engagement with the wider international Christian communion, whose variety within and across denominations fascinated him, was marked by his coverage of the 1963 Paris meeting of the World Council of Churches for the Irish Press, attendance at the general council of the world alliance of presbyterian reformed churches in Frankfurt (1964) and at the World Methodist Council in London (1966), and lecture on the catholic doctrine of baptism to presbyterian students at Assembly's College, Belfast (February 1968). He was a member of the organising committees that established the Glenstal (June 1964) and Greenhills (January 1966) unofficial ecumenical conferences, ensuring that presbyterian and methodist representatives were invited to the former, and edited collected papers from these conferences in Church and eucharist (1966) and Ecumenical studies: baptism and marriage (1968).
Hurley's contacts with methodists led to his appointment (1968–76) to the joint commission between the Roman catholic church and World Methodist Council. He was attracted to the ecumenical nature of the spirituality of John Wesley (qv), and edited Wesley's Letter to a Roman catholic (1968) (originally published in 1749 in Dublin), which required adroit navigation on either side of the denominational divide. Hurley's Theology of ecumenism (1969) concisely summarised the relevant theology, urging participative ecumenism and the ecumenising of clerical theological education, which provoked further opposition from McQuaid. To mark the centenary of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, Hurley edited Irish anglicanism 1869–1969 (1970), comprising essays by Augustine Martin (qv) and John Whyte (qv) among others. In its conclusion, Hurley argued that 'Christian disunity is a contradiction of the church's very nature' (p. 211). At its launch, the book was presented to anglican primate George Otto Simms (qv) during an ecumenical service that was broadcast live on RTÉ (15 April 1970). Reviewing in the Furrow (October 1970), Monsignor Tomás Ó Fiaich (qv) commended the volume's 'spirit of mutual respect and genuine reflection'.
In October 1970 Hurley founded the interdenominational Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE). An independent institution, unattached to a theological college or university department, it had patrons from the anglican, catholic, methodist and presbyterian churches in Ireland. Based in Pembroke Park, Dublin, it was named Bea House after the Jesuit cardinal who had piloted Vatican II's decree on ecumenism (1964), and adopted the motto floreat ut pereat (may it flourish in order to perish). The results of the school's consultation and research on mixed marriages (September 1974), addressing Pope Paul VI's motu propiro, Matrimonia mixta (1970), were edited by Hurley as Beyond tolerance: the challenge of mixed marriage (1974). This angered Archbishop Dermot Ryan (qv) of Dublin (1972–84), who complained to Hurley that the ISE 'was a protestant rather than an ecumenical institute' (Hurley (2003), 86). A well-regarded consultation marking the thirtieth anniversary in 1978 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights indicated the ISE's increasingly expansive and pluralist approach. It promoted ecumenism in pursuit of social justice, human rights and reconciliation, focused on training and education to spur inter-church dialogue, and communicated international ecumenical developments to an often insular Irish ecclesiastical world. In 1980 Hurley resigned as ISE director, primarily to improve the school's relations with the catholic hierarchy.
A sabbatical (1980–81), spent travelling in Africa, the Middle East, China and Europe, led to a profound period of spiritual reflection. Hurley was perturbed at the continued resistance to both practical and theological ecumenism by evangelical protestants and the Roman catholic hierarchy, and at how Orthodox Christianity, which he experienced first hand at Mount Athos, viewed western Christians as heretics; he saw this schism reflected in the concomitant stance of conservative catholic theologians towards reformed Christianity. After visiting a variety of Christian communities, Hurley decided to found an interdenominational religious residential community. Developing the idea with the support of Joseph Dargan, SJ, his Irish provincial, he consulted widely among friends and religious communities of varying denominations, and conceived of a liturgical community of prayer combining facets of a Benedictine monastery and Jesuit house, engaging in apostolic outreach. The Columbanus Community of Reconciliation was inaugurated on 23 November 1983, the feast of its patron saint, as a residential Christian community on the Antrim Road, Belfast, to challenge sectarianism, injustice and violence; Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich agreed to be a patron. Hurley led the community until 1991, before withdrawing in 1993 aged 70; he remained a trustee until 2002. Despite deteriorating community relations in Northern Ireland, it made some discernible progress in ecumenical initiatives and dialogue.
Hurley was coordinator for ecumenism with the Irish Jesuit province (1995–2004), and led retreats as director of spiritual exercises (2004–11). His relentless promotion of educational integration and meaningful interfaith dialogue marked the limits of functional ecumenicalism. Anointed the 'father of Irish ecumenism' (Furrow, April 1996) by Seán Mac Réamoinn (qv), Hurley was awarded honorary LLDs by QUB (1993) and TCD (1995), and honoured by a Festschrift, Reconciliation (1993; ed. Oliver Rafferty), emanating from a conference held that year in Belfast. In his memoir Healing and hope (1993), he noted that he would probably have embraced presbyterianism but for his upbringing, and that 'while the change of terminology, and of theology, from unity to reconciliation, is a sign of maturity, resistance to it is also a sign that we are still wandering in the desert' (Hurley (2003), 122). The same memoir lists his extensive bibliography. A selection of his writings and reminiscences, Christian unity (1998), was followed by his editing of a history of the The Irish School of Ecumenics 1970–2007 (2008). At its launch, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin apologised to Hurley for his treatment in the 1970s by the Dublin archdiocese.
Having endured cancer for a number of years, Hurley died on 15 April 2011 at St Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin, after a heart attack. His brother James Hurley, SJ, was principal celebrant at his funeral (19 April) at St Francis Xavier church, Gardiner Street, Dublin; mass was sung by the choir of the anglican St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin. Hurley's sister Mary was, as Mother Imelda, an abbess of the Cistercian St Mary's Abbey, Glencairn, Co. Waterford. The annual Michael Hurley memorial lecture commenced at Milltown in 2012.