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Newly Available: Father Hugo’s A Sign of Contradiction

Fr. John Hugo at Maryfarm
Marquette University Archives

A Sign of Contradiction by Fr. John J. Hugo (author) and Rosemary Hugo (foreward) published by Catholic Castle.com:  http://catholiccastle.com/CatholicPages/FatherHugo.php

This foreword is written and copyrighted © by Rosemary Hugo Fielding

This excerpt from the new Foreward to Fr. John J. Hugo’s,A Sign of Contradictionis published here because of the profound effect that Fr. Hugo and the retreat he gave had on the life and spirituality of Dorothy Day and of Mark Zwick, founder of the Houston Catholic Worker.

The main purpose of this foreword is to clarify a few misapprehensions that have arisen in recent times concerning the author of A Sign of Contradiction, Fr. John J. Hugo (1911-1985).  In order to place these clarifications in context, this foreword provides a brief account of the book’s origin and purpose.

Published in 1947, A Sign of Contradictiontells us what the Christian life should be and what it should not be. It does so by recounting the history of a seven-day silent retreat that Fr. Onesimus Lacouture, S.J., had been preaching during the 1930’s to priests in Canada and the United States. Though developed from the Spiritual Exercisesof St. Ignatius Loyola, the retreats had aroused such fierce opposition from various quarters of the Church that in late 1939 the Jesuit superior forbade Fr. Lacouture to give them.  In this book, Fr. Hugo was defending these silent retreats, which he also had preached, but in the 1940’s and to the laity.  (Fr. Hugo, a priest of the Pittsburgh diocese, had first made the retreat in the summer of 1939 in Baltimore under Fr. Lacouture’s direction.) The most famous promoter of the retreats was Dorothy Day, co-founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker.

The above summary, however, does not do justice to the scope of the book. It contains: a biography of the French Canadian Jesuit, Fr. Lacouture; an account of Fr. Hugo’s own experiences of the retreat; spiritual direction; a survey of different schools of spirituality; Catholic scriptural interpretation; explanations of Catholic theology; a prophetic critique of many aspects of Catholic life, including the priesthood, parishes, seminaries, religious convents, the hierarchy, the lives of the laity, schools, universities, theologians, retreats and other apostolic endeavors.  It is, finally, a withering criticism of the Catholic hierarchy and clergy for their failure to evangelize the laity and lead them to any degree of spiritual maturity. This failure is largely attributed to the worldliness of the clergy, to arrogant clericalism, and to the clergy’s ignorance of or disdain for classic Catholic spiritual direction (or mystical theology).

Castle of Grace LLCdecided in 2017 to try to republish this book because we thought that both the laity and clergy would perhaps welcome such powerful voices of spiritual direction—those of Frs. Lacouture and Hugo—during this time of seemingly unprecedented trouble in the Roman Catholic Church.   In addition, because I have written articles about Fr. Hugo’s retreat and because I am Fr. Hugo’s niece, I have received over the years several appeals that our family would make Fr. Hugo’s books available again.  I wished to comply with their wishes, but for various reasons, I was not able to do so.  Only this past year did recent developments in my life make republishing possible. My husband’s and my LLC also created a website, Catholic Castle, through which A Sign of Contradiction could be promoted. I thought that A Sign of Contradiction should be reprinted (after over 70 years) because it seems germane to our time. One reason for this belief is that Father Hugo so insightfully criticized the worldliness and dereliction of duty of priests and bishops, foreseeing that these characteristics could only lead to future degradation in the Church.1 2

The book revolves around one fact:  Fr. Lacouture’s retreats were stopped by the Jesuit superior.  Before the retreats were forbidden, Fr. Lacouture between 1931 and 1939 had preached 132 retreats to 5,400 priests.  One Canadian bishop at the time had stated that the retreats were “the most supernatural and most efficacious awakening of Christian and priestly life ever recorded in the religious history of Canada.”3Yet, Fr. Lacouture was silenced and punished for these retreats.  A Sign of Contradiction is the analysis of why and how the retreats were stopped. It is a story that makes the Jesuit order look bad because Fr. Hugo has both the facts and the mind to argue the case effectively against it. (Fr. Hugo’s later books reveal that others in the Church’s hierarchy were also involved in suppressing the retreat.)

Fr. John J. Hugo
Marquette University Archives

Who was Fr. Hugo?  When he died in 1985, he was not famous.  The one exception to this relative obscurity was his appearance in one significant 1952 autobiography, The Long Loneliness.  The late Dorothy Day, now designated a “Servant of God” by the Catholic Church, commended Father Hugo in this autobiography, in other books and in many of her columns in the Catholic Worker.  She praised and gratefully recognized Fr. Hugo for giving the Lacouture-Hugo retreats, and because her fame has grown over the decades, Fr. Hugo is now receiving some recognition.  If not for this connection to Dorothy Day, it would seem that Father Hugo’s worth would have been known only to the hundreds of  unknown others who had made the retreat or had been served by his pastoring or had read his books (if they could find them).

In “The Hidden Life of Father John Hugo: An Introduction” in Weapons of the Spirit: Living a Holy Life in Unholy Times, Selected Writings of Father John Hugo (1997), the editors David Scott and Mike Aquilina write that Fr. Hugo’s life “seems to have been written with invisible ink.” But they go on to say that “his teaching somehow reached and influenced some of the most influential figures and movements in the twentieth-century American Church.”  Their first example: Dorothy Day.  Apart from her, it is hard to see how the other figures or movements to which they refer would have raised Fr. Hugo to any level of fame or even widespread recognition.   Though he had written several booklets and books on this retreat, all but one were either self-published or published by the Catholic Worker, and, with very little distribution, brought him virtually no notice (and probably no money at all). Thus, when Fr. Hugo died, A Sign of Contradiction, printed by his sister on a small printing press in her basement, had been long out of print.

Fr. Hugo was not a self-promoter.  He actually did not care about recognition.  Father Hugo cared about one thing: sharing with ordinary Catholics the Gospel and the riches of the “panorama of the Christian life” that Our Lord Jesus Christ opened up for His redeemed, a life Fr. Hugo found beautiful, sublime and joyful, and yet which he also found strangely missing from much, if not most, of the Church he served.

Though not famous, Fr. Hugo would become a fairly well-known priest in his own diocese because he was a pastor, a teacher and a writer, because his retreat had caused both celebration and controversy in earlier years, and because he had worked, in later years, on some important diocesan committees headed by Bishop John Wright and had contributed to the writing of an important catechism, The Teaching of Christ, A Catholic Catechism for Adults (1976). And here I will interject one brief explanation to the aforementioned “controversy” because it is the reason Fr. Hugo wrote this book. In this book, Fr. Hugo defends those who preached the retreat (Fr. Lacouture, other priests and himself) and the retreat itself against serious accusations of erroneous teaching, charges that he later wrote “stunned” him because they were so “false and unjust.”    He was assailed and traduced by some pretty high-profile American theologians.  He pulls no punches in arguing against them. During this time, he also faced hostility from some priests, opposition from some of the hierarchy, and discipline from a bishop—and all because he gave Fr. Lacouture’s retreat and wrote about it.  So to a small circle of Catholic clerics and academics, and to a larger group who heard rumors and hearsay, Fr. Hugo might be said to be “infamous.” 4

Inaccurate statements were circulated from the moment Fr. Hugo started to give the retreat and started to publish his books. Over several years, he expended significant time to defending himself against what he saw as false representations of the retreat and the priests who gave it.  (Being a parish priest, he had to write on his days off.)  These serious matters are addressed in A Sign of Contradiction.

But at this time other more recent misunderstandings also need to be addressed. I correct some misrepresentations of Fr. Hugo that I have seen in print because now that doctorate students, publishers and writers are re-examining Fr. Hugo and his work, usually with some reference to his influence on Dorothy Day, he seems to be subject to some degree of revisionist treatment. I do so both as someone who knew him personally and as someone who knows his retreat, his writing and a good deal of his history.  Fr. Hugo was my father’s brother. I did not know Fr. Hugo merely as my uncle, however.  I also came to know him as a retreat master and writer of spiritual books: when I was 26 years old, having been away from Christianity for over ten years and at the time calling an Indian guru of the Sant Mat (Sihk/Hindu) religion “my living master,” I made my uncle’s retreat.  I was the first of his nieces or nephews to do so.  For some reason I felt impelled to make the retreat even though I planned on ignoring the Christianity in it!  Only God knows why the retreat was able to break down the many formidable barriers that had been erected in my soul against Christianity and to show me the very beauty, sublimity and joy that Fr. Hugo had first known as he listened to Fr. Lacouture in 1939.  With God’s grace, my uncle changed my life.  I gave my life to Jesus Christ at that first retreat, and, though my resolve has been tested by trials and tribulations, I have not taken it back. Over a decade, I made it four more times. The retreat is powerful.

I went on to write several articles about the retreat, published in Our Sunday Visitor,The Pittsburgh Catholic, Culture Wars, The Houston Catholic Worker and New Covenant—and I know from correspondence that those articles inspired others to make the retreat.   I also wrote a booklet on the retreat and its history, The Passion of Father John Hugo: The Famous Retreat,that was given away at his successors’ retreats.  I typed the manuscript for Scott’s and Aquilina’s Weapons of the Spirit.  I was given my uncle’s library of books, several hundreds of them, and those books, as do all such collections of books, tell me much about him.

Fr. Hugo may be subject to historical revisionism because he does not fit into a neat category of either liberal or conservative.  He himself was aware of this, and he said throughout his life that Christianity, although often categorized as either conservative or liberal, was better categorized as radical or superficial.  He was of the radical type.  As a result, he could be called “liberal” due to some of his stances and “conservative” due to others.  A few examples: he was both anti-war and anti-abortion; he decried changing to feminine terms in referring to God and some other kinds of feminist activism, but he championed women religious (and all laity) who sought more respect and autonomy from the hierarchy; he had believed Vatican II to be a necessary council but he later lamented that it had failed in its main objective, evangelization; he supported some changes in the liturgy, but was unhappy with some others; he obeyed his bishop even when he felt the bishop was unfair,5 but denounced the lack of due process in the Church that he had experienced firsthand. I either heard Fr. Hugo talk about these things on the retreat or read about them in his books


                  1Fr. Hugo wrote: “If the Jesuits had given ear to their brother Onesimus, they might well have averted the disasters and scandals that have sullied and plagued them, as well as other religious communities and diocesan clergy, for the last twenty or more years.” Fr. Hugo also writes that Fr. Lacouture “prophesied” that these things would happen (Your Ways Are Not My Ways Volume I).

                                    2Also in 2018, I received word from the proprietor of Loreto Publications that he too had decided that same year to publish A Sign of Contradiction, a copy of which I had sent him thirteen years ago. I had done so because of the topics of some of the other books he was publishing. These books concerned ideas that Fr. Hugo had advocated or admired, e.g. anti-war, economic distributism, Catholic agrarianism, and holiness in the lives of the laity.  Having met Doug Bersaw (the publisher) in 2005, I thought he would appreciate knowing about Fr. Hugo, the retreat and its history. That Loreto Publications decided only in 2018 to republish the book, after so many years and coincidentally during the same time that I was looking into self-publishing it, makes me think that perhaps it is time for Fr. Hugo’s voice to be heard again.

                  3FromYour Ways Are Not My Ways Volume I  by Fr. John J. Hugo.  Fr. Hugo cited this quotation of Msgr. Philippe Desranleau, Bishop of Sherbrooke, Quebec, from Un mouvement spiritual au Quebecby Abbe Anselme Longre (Montreal: Fides, 1976).

                  4Renowned Jesuit scripture scholar, the late Fr. John L. McKenzie made the Lacouture/Hugo retreatsometime in the 1980’s.  I was introduced to him at the retreat.  In 1987 or thereabouts he wrote a review of Your Ways Are Not My Ways, Volume I, Fr. Hugo’s 1986 book on the retreat. The review was never published, but I have a copy of it. He wrote: “Permit me to say that during nearly thirty years as a priest of the Society of Jesus, I presented the Spiritual Exercises (the eight-day version) twenty-seven times, the last time to a Jesuit ordination class, always given by invitation…From that experience 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.”  He also calls the treatment of Lacouture and Hugo by Church authorities a “Church horror story.”

              5Following are two examples of this. The first: In 1951 or shortly thereafter, his bishop asked him to destroy or discard all the remaining copies of A Sign of Contradictionthat Fr. Hugo was planning to distribute.  He and his sister Cecilia (who had helped him to typeset the book) went to a garbage dump and threw them away, keeping only a few for himself.  When my aunt asked him, “John, how can you stand to do this?” he replied, “Cecilia, when I put my hands into the hands of my bishop, I promised obedience.”  The second: In 1951 Fr. Hugo requested from his bishop permission to go to the funeral of Fr. Lacouture and was denied it.  The only American who attended his funeral was Dorothy Day.

Houston Catholic Worker, January-March 2019, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1.