The late Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley was well known for his keen sense of social justice as he helped to establish numerous social service programs in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska to aid the poor, homeless and hungry.
But, as he saw it, social justice must begin in the heart. Before the church and society can effectively undertake homeless shelters, food pantries and assisted living homes, love for the downtrodden must flow from big-hearted families and tight-knit neighborhoods.
Three years before his death on Jan. 10, Archbishop Hurley granted an extended interview with the Catholic Anchor covering his life and ministry across many decades. A previously unpublished portion of that Oct. 24, 2012 conversation touched on the archbishop’s untiring commitment to social justice.
Sitting in his Anchorage home during the interview he explained where his sense of social justice came from. He recalled once speaking to a man who said the homeless should go out, get jobs and take care of themselves.
“I said, ‘Well I’ll take you down to meet some of them and you tell me who you would like to hire.’ He wouldn’t want to hire any of them,” Archbishop Hurley related. “Many are alcoholics and just couldn’t be trusted with any job.”
Nevertheless, the humanity of these people must be defended, archbishop maintained.
“We have a responsibility for our neighbors and we need to be one with them,” he said. “We need to take care of each other in our neighborhoods — that is all part of social justice.”
He emphasized that it is imperative that we know our neighbors beyond stereotypes.
“What do you do when a certain friend has a tragedy?” he asked. “You go to that person. If you don’t know them, you don’t get there.”
The habit of getting to know and care for neighbors is best nurtured at a young age, Archbishop Hurley said.
“It should be part of our teaching, part of what it means to be a Catholic,” he said.
Archbishop Hurley said his parents had a strong sense of obligation to care for others, and it rubbed off.
“My brother and I had to go to a wake,” he said, recalling a childhood memory. “Back then the wake was still in the home. Well a fellow down the street fell off his home and died, so they had a wake in the home. My mother said we had to go down there to Mr. Brady’s wake in our Sunday best suit. She said, ‘When you go in, you kneel at the coffin and say a prayer for Mr. Brady. Then get up and go to his wife and tell her how sorry you are, and then cry.’ My brother and I went but we couldn’t bring ourselves to cry.”
“But the idea is that we really have to show up for people,” he added. “We have to love our neighbor. And if we grow up with it, it’s easy. Whenever you see people in need, you want to do something. That’s the way I was raised. We did it with our neighbors and friends and kids in school.”
Ultimately, care for the poor is an expression of love for God, Archbishop Hurley noted.
“As Saint John writes in his Gospel, ‘If you can’t love your neighbor who you can see, how can you love God who you can’t see?’” he said. “All those people are like Christ — that’s where social justice comes from.”
“If you want to see how deeply Catholic a person is, look at how they care for other people,” he added.
The challenge is to give people opportunities to express this solidarity with others, Archbishop Hurley said.
“This desire is in everybody,” he said. “There is a natural feeling in people and we have to bring it out.”