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Fr. John Hugo, Spiritual Director to Dorothy Day, calls us to follow Jesus

Fr. John Hugo at Maryfarm
Marquette University Archives

This is the eighth article in a series on the philosophers, saints and spiritual guides who inspired Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in founding and living out the vision of the Catholic Worker. This issue features Fr. John Hugo, who developed the famous retreat that became also the Catholic Worker retreat.

Fr. John J. Hugo, a secular priest of the Pittsburgh Diocese, directed the eight-day “famous” silent retreats which Dorothy Day made throughout her life. He also was a life-long friend, advisor and spiritual guide through his many letters and visits to Dorothy.

“Father Hugo had been not only Dorothy’s spiritual director but in a sense was the spiritual director of the Catholic Worker movement” during the early years, wrote Jim Forrest in Love is the Measure. “All through World War II, he had been able to lead retreats, to publish and to in every way maintain his close ties with the Catholic Worker–remarkable considering how out of step he was with many Catholic bishops and theologians at the time.”

The retreat which Dorothy first made under Father Hugo in 1940 “became one of the principal sources of Dorothy’s spiritual energy for the remainder of her life,” wrote William Miller in All is Grace. “She took it many times during the years after 1940, and most often as directed by Father Hugo.” She made her last retreat under Father Hugo in Pittsburgh in 1976.

When Father Hugo was ordained on June 14, 1936, he was already known among his classmates and teachers at St. Vincent Abbey seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, as a brilliant and remarkable scholar. In 1938 he made a silent retreat under the Canadian Jesuit Father Onesimus Lacouture. (This retreat is now named “Encounter with Silence”). He later wrote that Father Lacouture’s retreat had saved him from retaining all his life “the mental outlook of the old, unregenerate Adam…. It was a little late–I had been a priest two years before I realized what it meant to be a Christian. But better late than never.” (The Cross of Contradiction)

From that first retreat, Father Hugo determined to “spend the rest of my days as a priest diffusing the magnificent vision of the Christian life that I had been contemplating during those glorious eight days.” (Your Ways are not My Ways, Vol. 1)

He did so resoundingly. He gave the retreat many times (which he directed during his vacation time), it being his main focus at the beginning and end of his priestly vocation. The message of the retreat was simply the Gospel’s call to die to self and to live to Christ. Through his years as a parish priest, he taught its message in his homilies, books, articles and pamphlets and most importantly, in the way he lived.

The message is heard with special power during the retreat because the eight days of silence prepare the soul to listen when Jesus Christ calls us beyond mere human respectability to holiness. The disciple’s choice is not between sin and goodness. As Christians we must choose to go beyond even natural goodness or virtue, to supernatural goodness or holiness. The Beatitudes best exemplify this choice. Our natural, “pagan” reasoning cannot justify suffering or call poverty, persecution and lamentation a blessing. Only supernatural faith in Christ’s own poverty, suffering, death and resurrection can accept and live this truth.

“To us the retreat was the good news,” Dorothy wrote of the first retreats in The Long Loneliness. She must make the retreat, she said, because “I too am hungry and thirsty for the bread of the strong.”

Of Father Hugo himself, Dorothy wrote in The Long Loneliness that he “was a brilliant teacher and one could see he was taking great joy in his work.” In the Catholic Worker in 1978, she wrote, “I must not forget the influence of Fr. Hugo in my life. He gave retreats in the early days of the Worker…. He was young and preached so thrillingly a doctrine of ‘putting off’ the world and ‘putting on’ Christ, and upheld the pacifist cause so ardently, that for years he was shifted from parish to parish in his diocese. A truly consistent person, he kept his calm over the years, and is giving Scriptural retreats again….”

Though Father Hugo undoubtedly had an important role to play in the Catholic Worker movement, his most profound contribution to the Church may be the remarkable spiritual transformation he “fathered” in many individuals as well as Dorothy. Dorothy was not the only one who upon hearing him teach received for the first time “a new sensitivity to what she took as the piercing truth of the Gospels.” (Dorothy Day by William Miller) Many others would agree with her that the retreat was “like hearing the Gospel for the first time.”

As a simple parish priest who never made the headlines or whose writing never gained attention from the religious press, he fulfilled what Dorothy herself saw as a pre-eminent need: “feeding the sheep.” One of Dorothy’s handwritten notes from the retreat bemoans the fact that most Catholics are not hearing the power of the Gospels. “I think to myself with a touch of bitterness, the ordinary man does not hear the word of God. The poor do not have the Gospel preached to them. Never have I heard it as I hear it now, each year in retreat, and with the sureness that it is indeed the Gospel…. The shepherds are not feeding their sheep.” (Dorothy Day by William Miller)

Father Hugo, however, was dedicated to preaching the Gospel, “in season or out of season,” as a street-preacher, a prison chaplain and pastor of a large parish, a retreat director for adults and youth, and a writer. His passion was to convert the already Christianized with the radical message of the Gospel.

His written outlay in itself is prodigious, verging on heroic. While serving as an assistant or full-time pastor, in his spare time and with no encouragement or financing except from friends and family, he oversaw his own publishing, sometimes even his own printing, of book after book.

He tried vigorously to feed the shepherds as well. As Dorothy wrote in that same note, the shepherds themselves “have not been fed.” He chastised the priesthood, calling them back to holiness. Some listened, many turned and attacked him, calling him a “rigorist.”

He was always overjoyed when a priest made the retreat, hoping that he, too, would begin to teach it. He wrote and published homily keys for other priests. He and other priests of the diocese who made the retreat gave the courageous example of pastors who forbade gambling to be used as fund raisers. Without bingo or raffles, he managed to build a church!

Under the authorization of Pope Pius XII, he was in the vanguard in liturgical changes which allowed more congregational participation in the liturgy. In 1959, four years before the start of Vatican II, his parish had a fully participated liturgy. A student of Virgil Michel and other liturgists, he emphasized in his pastoral work and in his retreats that each person must offer up himself with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and then return to the world to live that sacrifice in serving others out of love of God. He was later appointed the chairman of the Liturgical Commission of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and then as a collaborator for the adult catechism, The Teaching of Christ.

Always, in all his work, he showed a deep love of Scripture. It was this love of Scripture and of “God’s ways” not “our ways,” that draws such a response from all who know his work, whether Dorothy Day, Scott Hahn (the Evangelical Presbyterian convert to Catholicism and Scripture scholar), or Cardinal Wright.

“No one is a failure who lives for God,” he wrote. “Everyone is a failure who lives for any other end.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 2, March-April 1996.