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The Catholic Worker Retreat of Father John Hugo changed my Life

Father John Hugo

When I made the retreat, I was not a practicing Catholic. I had left the Church as a teen, and had been associated for the previous two years with an eastern mystic sect. With no intentions of returning to my faith, I came to the retreat for silence. I left fully committed to Christ. Father Hugo was a masterful teacher. He appealed to the mind, to the spirit and to the will. “John Hugo was an integral part of whatever the retreat meant for me,” said one retreatant, Frank Huber, who had feared before the retreat that Christianity, to which he had recently returned, would mean he would have to “castrate” his brain. “He has one of the most powerful personalities that I have ever encountered in my life.” For me the teachings of the retreat have been like a rudder of truth that have guided me through many bewildering currents in the Church today.

Retreatants first met this man the Sunday night that the retreat began. On my first retreat, about twenty of us waited in the convent library that warm April evening for our initial conference with him. The door opened. John Hugo shuffled in, draped in a long, gray cassock. His stocking feet, thrust into well-worn Birkenstock sandals, moved slowly across the floor. He was stooped a little. He had a wide, leonine head on narrow shoulders, swarthy skin, full lips, a mass of gray hair. His wide brown eyes were direct, piercing and humorous.

The man whom Dorothy Day called a “brilliant teacher” carried himself in humility. “When I first met him,” recalls one retreatant, “I thought he was the janitor.” At that time, he suffered from a heart condition that made physically weak. He walked so slowly that when he carried himself the long way to the front of the church, the walk took on the drama of watching an amateur crossing a high wire.

Slowly as he walked, his voice betrayed no such frailty. It resonated compellingly. Compact, brilliant, startling, his thoughts were expressed. When he made a point, he sometimes carried himself out of the chair. Then he would slowly sink back into it and say, “Well, let us think on these things.”

The first lesson of the retreat, that of the “two ways,” confronted us where we felt most comfortable–in our good, virtuous lives. Moderate, law-abiding, middle class respectability looks like Christianity, but Father Hugo called it something different–“good paganism.” Paganism is not sinful; it simply lives for pleasure and comfort and not by faith. Without grace we are all pagans. “Scratch a Christian,” he’d say, “and there’s a pagan underneath.”

In Christ’s Beatitudes we explored God’s reversal of respectability and other purely human values. “The Beatitudes are the values of God,” Father Hugo said. “We say, ‘Blessed are the rich. Blessed are the strong.'” To the world, the Beatitudes are either hogwash–“Blessed are the poor. Are you kidding?”–or beautiful, poetic sayings never to be applied in our practical, workaday world. But Jesus says this is the way we are to live.

I underwent a profound mental adjustment and hungered to hear more about this purpose of life. How do I live a supernatural life and do what is impossible in the natural: pray deeply, love my enemy, turn the other cheek, be joyful in all circumstances, including poverty?

Like many of my peers of the 1960’s and 1970’s, I had once tried to live simply. But many in our generation eventually metamorphosed into another version of self-justified Babbitry, the Yuppie. In the end it was just too hard to turn our back on affluence. The retreat showed me that only with grace can I persevere in simplicity. Only when it hurts to give away possessions, to give my time generously, do I open up a little more to God’s freedom and love.

The retreat examined this connection between sacrifice and agape love by expounding on two images Jesus used, “sowing” and “pruning.” Both are practicable ways to follow Jesus’s command to lose our lives. The divine way led to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. “The cross is thought to be one of the less pleasing parts of Christianity,” Father Hugo said. “But the cross is the most positive part of Christianity. Because Jesus died out of love.” In sowing and pruning, we do the same.

Sowing is rooted in the idea of detachment from the love of worldly goods: the decision to let loose the goods of this world in order to clasp the love of God. The retreat treated Jesus’s parable of the farmer to show this. We are like the farmer sowing wheat. The wheat is good, just as many of our possessions and activities are good. But the farmer still must throw away the wheat in order to gain a harvest, and the seed must die to bear fruit. Just like Jesus, we must “throw away” the good things of our lives in order to gain something better: divine life. “It is the law of life,” Father Hugo said. “To gain life, you must first lose it.”

Father Hugo taught that the holy sacrifice of the Mass is central to our work of sowing. The only true response to it is to lose our own lives. If we don’t offer our lives along with Christ’s sacramental sacrifice, Monsignor Meenan said, “the liturgy for us is, well, kind of phony.”

A discussion of the retreat is incomplete without some explanation of the opposition to it. That opposition signals both the power of the retreat–and the Gospel–to challenge lukewarm Christian faith and the way in which some in the institutional church responded to that challenge. When Father Hugo rebounded from the retreat as a young priest in 1938 (two years out of seminary), he joyfully offered an apostolate to his Church–to evangelize the laity. Instead, he found that many colleagues and superiors rebuked him.

He and the other priest who gave the retreat were called “Hugonuts.” In Canada, they were called Lacouturmites.” At times they were called “Holy Rollers” because of their insistence on the Scriptures’ daily application to the Christian life. “It was a painful time,” recalled Monsignor Meenan. “Suddenly you realize you are a member of a small minority; you’re isolated and friends distance themselves. We were looked at as kind of extreme. There was witch-hunting in the hierarchy; our careers were damaged.” The extremism charge centered on their teaching the laity “holiness.” Many objected not so much to the worthy goal of holiness, but to the way the retreat did not simply mouth the word, but taught very concretely the practice of holiness.

Because Fr. Lacouture did not publish any material on the retreat, the charges and suspicions were often based on a retreatant’s misinterpretation of it, either in word or action.

Perhaps what most upset the critics of the retreat were the responses to it, for they were often concrete and discomfiting actions. Priests began to throw away their cigarettes, to stop drinking and to give away their golf clubs–and to teach detachment. When religious live a rather worldly life, they rebuff these and other challenges to live simply and the charge to teach the laity to give up their worldliness.

Renowned Jesuit Scripture scholar, the late John L. McKenzie, who made the retreat in 1987, said this about the controversy: “I affirm flatly that the criticisms leveled against Lacouture and Hugo arose from an incredibly vast ignorance of the New Testament, the classic spiritual writers, ancient, medieval and modern, an ignorance which is frightening when it is manifested by bishops, higher level Jesuit superiors and professors of theology at the Catholic University.”

The phantom heresy was banished when Bishop John Wright of Pittsburgh began to quote from Father Hugo’s writings and then nominated him to collaborate on the writing of a new adult catechism (The Teachings of Christ). Later, he commissioned him to write a book on St. Augustine and praised his scholarship in a preface to that book.

The doctrines of the Second Vatican Council gave further support to the retreat when the Council affirmed that the laity and not just religious were called to holiness. Vatican II emphasized that the liturgy is “centered and rooted in the paschal mystery of the Lord’s resurrection.” Fr. Hugo had contributed just that teaching to Fr. Lacouture’s retreat.

(For the current schedule of these retreats, click here.)

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