Subfonds 37 - Fr John Hyde SJ

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Fr John Hyde SJ


  • 1909-1985 (Creation)

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(19 November 1909-31 May 1985)

Biographical history

Born: 19 November 1909, Ballycotton, County Cork
Entered: 01 September 1927, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 31 July 1941
Professed: 02 February 1945
Died: 31 May 1985, Our Lady's Hospice Harold's Cross, Dublin

Part of the Milltown Park, Dublin community at the time of death

Early education at St Colman’s College, Fermoy, County Cork

◆ Irish Province News

Irish Province News 60th Year No 4 1985


Fr John Hyde (1909-1927-1985)
(† 11th May 1985)

Five minutes alone with John Hyde was more than sufficient to convince anyone that here was a very remarkable man.
No matter what the occasion or topic of conversation, vibrations of peace and depth accompanied his economy in words, his concentration on what was said qualified a head-down self- effacement that had become second nature to him, and a curious sense of his having a firm hold on spiritual priorities was unconsciously communicated in a simple way. It is not easy to write with confidence about a man like that, difficult to avoid the tendency to confuse first impressions with fact and difficult to steer clear of conclusions based on oft-repeated anecdotes that lent them- selves to good-humoured inflation. John seldom spoke about himself and left no trace in his room of anything directly autobiographical although inferences can indeed be drawn from many folders of notes on spirituality, local history and theology. Yet, granted the right atmosphere and the appropriate question that he could see did not stem from mere curiosity, John would be self revealing where he felt his own experiences would be the source of encouragement to another. What follows is coloured by a few self-revelations of that kind. It is based on the memories of many who gained much from living with him in community over the years; it is also dependent on the recollections of very many non-Jesuit friends particularly in the Midlands who knew him in a way that was not possible for his confrères.
John Hyde was born in the bilingual community of Ballycotton, attended the local National School (in bare feet some of the time) and in his teens was privately tutored in French by two retired ladies in the district who recognised his promise and his eagerness to learn. This promise was confirmed during his years “on scholarship” in St Colman's College, Fermoy, where his early interest in the priesthood led him, by way of a College retreat by Fr Timothy Halpin, towards the Society, The move to the noviciate in Tullabeg in 1927 was in fact a reasoned preference for a disciplined community way of life over the fairly predictable career that would have begun had he accepted the free place in the Irish College in Rome offered him by the Bishop of Ross. While Tullabeg represented a cultural shift for John, Rathfarnham and UCD was a greater one which he found socially difficult but spiritually and academically agreeable. At this time he read widely in the history of the Society and continued a noviciate habit of close contact with the lives of Jesuit saints. Philosophy, Tullabeg 1933-1936: he was glad to be back in the country but felt sad at being separated by Province custom from the local people whose difficult lot at that time he appreciated through his own Ballycotton roots. The scholastic codices he used at this period bear witness to his meticulous efforts to understand and also to his predilection for Irish since many of his own notes in whatever language are written in gaelic script.
Regency in Belvedere and in Galway was traumatic. I remember him just shaking his head and waving his hands without comment in typical fashion when I asked him about the experience of standing before a class of irrepressibles who, as we can readily imagine, would often take advantage of his natural shyness and imitability. He admitted to being particularly lonely in the Society at that time and this loneliness remained during the Milltown theology years when, in moments of depression, and disturbed by the effects of his lack of interest in current affairs, he wondered whether his Jesuit option had been wise. He met the challenge by strengthening his belief in two principles that later would occur frequently in his lectures and conferences – that God is always faithful and that no one is asked to undertake unbearable burdens. Ordination in 1941 was followed by a fourth year during which he recalled efforts to translate abstract doctrine into homely metaphors in order to assist one or other of his contemporaries in the pre-Ad Grad repetitions; thus were laid the foundations of that metaphor-laden pedagogy of later years which benefitted his so many as he would, for example, expressively compare original sin with a puncture in a tyre and describe the Lutheran position on human nature after Eden in terms of the irremediable effect of a fall into a bottomless pit instead of the reparable injury resulting from a fall from a tree to the ground that characterised orthodox doctrine. Soon after the Tertianship Long Retreat in Rathfarnham, the Milltown years of of preferred study and inactivity exacted their toll as John contracted pleurisy and tuberculosis and spent some months in two Dublin nursing homes. The earlier depression increased during long hours gazing at walls and ceilings, as he felt his life to have been a failure and his studies useless. Providentially, and at least initially at his sister's request, he was moved to Tullabeg to recuperate. The depression gradually lifted over two years during which the philosophers recognise how helpful he could be and to confirm for themselves the reputation for asceticism and insight that had in fact preceded his arrival among them. As his strength returned, he entered at depth into the study of Aquinas which he would develop through his life. Also through the confessional and parlour apostolates, he took his first steps in the contacts with the sick and elderly which were to become such a prominent feature of his life. Both activities restored his self-confidence and confirmed his trust in the 'the divine plan that governs all by governing each'; he never looked back.
Appointed to the academic staff in 1946, John's talents for pedagogy at this particular level and his reputation for consistency developed enormously over sixteen years of quiet, unassuming application. To the uninitiated, his codex pages could be enigmatic, their elliptical, staccato format and expressly Aristotelian-Thomist inspiration difficult to follow without long reflection on the sources, but to those attending lectures with patience, these pages were prized, stimulating understanding for all and inspiring the more speculative minds to further originality of expression. In the countryside, his reputation grew as he became a familiar sight in Tullamore, Clara, Pullough and Ballycumber, cycling in all weathers to respond to some call for his presence and blessing. His familiar figure represented for the Midland people an ideal charismatic holiness which his interest in their individual difficulties abundantly confirmed. Others might say what he did, other priests might come to anoint or absolve, but none could measure up in their rural eyes to what they found in John at a time when lasting consolations were rare enough and Bord na Móna not yet fully established as a secure source of income. He was very much at ease with them in their humble circumstances, frequently brought cakes or sweets for the children began to that we, the philosophers, gathered up for him as he cycled away after our villa day alfresco meal, and relished the tea and home-made bread they laid before him, following, in some cases, his guided tour of the farmyard and his . solemn blessing of the household.
The move to Milltown in 1962 saddened him even though he could clearly see the hand of God in the decision. He found it extremely difficult at that time to sympathise with the scholastics' preference for urban life and the cultural possibilities it would afford; for him, philosophical reflection and a fully committed religious life demanded, at least in formation years, something like the quasi-monastic enclosure of a place like Tullabeg. While respecting the judgement of “those who know about these things”, he felt that both studies and prayer would suffer. Later in Milltown, the establishment of the present Institute and the increasing extra-mural concerns of all the students were also great puzzles to him and on many guarded occasions he lamented what he considered to be an inevitable drop in academic standards. Environment and concentration were of paramount importance to him; prevailing ephemeral interests were distractions best avoided until such time as religious and academic foundations were well and truly laid. Certainly, too, he was saddened by his own enforced separation from the rural scene and from the people who meant so much to him. On one occasion he admitted that God also wished then to remove him also from the Jesuit community dimension that he found supportive in the Bog-years: from now on he would find common interests at community recreation so much rarer and so his lapses into silence became habitual.
Yet he applied himself to theology with enthusiasm even though he sincerely felt himself unequipped to teach it. This last admission would surprise anyone present in his classes but the 'I'd like to run away' comment, made several times to me at least, was sufficient indication that his awareness of his own inability to communicate effectively with modern trends and sophisticated minds ran deep. He worked at a steady pace, relying on critically chosen authors and reviews, checking the accuracy of references with a keen suspicion of generalisations, and was always unmoved by trends that for lesser minds would prompt radical revision. While he was always uneasy about his own ability for accurate communication of what he himself knew to be true, and very much aware of many fields for related investigation, the gates to which he never had time or energy to open, his contribution to our understanding of scripture-based meaning and development cannot be overestimated. It is hoped that a fairly comprehensive assessment of that contribution may be made elsewhere, but at least here it is worth noting that the major concern in his teaching was to bridge the gap between an over-speculative systematic theology and our own religious experience, in line with the early Lonergan stress on self-appropriation which had delighted him in his later years in Tullabeg. That particular con cern is clear on almost every codex-page he produced.
While in Milltown, concern for the sick and elderly continued undiminished through an enormous correspondence, visits to hospitals and to Mountjoy jail, parlour contacts and his return visits to the Bog in summer, at Christmas and at Easter. Up to a year before his death he was out on the bicycle if weather permitted, or, whatever the weather, if an urgent request came to him to visit some direct or indirect acquaintance who had been transferred from the Midlands to a Dublin hospital. He was particularly sensitive to the loneliness felt by country people suddenly removed from their own environment to Dublin; visiting them became a primary concern and I have heard first-hand accounts of after noon trips to the hospitals at Cappagh, Peamount, Blanchardstowni, Loughlinstown and Rathcoole. On a few occasions “the machine let me down” and once, in a winter storm, he walked back from Tallaght satisfying himself when he got home with tea and bread in an empty refectory after supper. This last incident could be paralleled by many other occasions both in the Bog and in Milltown when his own well-being took second place to the demands of his preferred apostolate; it was quite common for him to put the thought of supper out of his mind because of a parlour call or an urgent visit by sudden request. Superiors had to be watchful but so often John, even during his last months, indeliberately escaped their vigilance.
Invalid contacts in Tullabeg brought him to Knock in the mid-sixties and he established a relationship with invalids at the shrine that lasted until he died, Instrumental in the development of a Pious Union of Handmaids (which includes a special status for invalids) as the first stage towards the establishment of a Secular Institute, John worked steadily on their Constitutions, regularly wrote to the member-invalids in various parts of the country, visited some of them in their homes (taking advantage the free travel pass) and directed their annual retreat in Knock each August.
This year I was privileged to follow in his footsteps and could sense the depth of the invalids' grief at the fact that he was no longer with them as before. Yet his spirit remains as they prize memories of his quiet concern, his reading-visits to those who were blind and the customary blessing with a relic of John Sullivan which he constantly carried in his hatband. As with Midland recollections, the accounts of cures effected through his prayers, of extraordinary foresight with regard to eventual recovery, of flourishing families and farms due to his spiritual advice, and of problems solved merely by his presence and concern, are manifold.
Not until his death could we realise his life-long hobby-interest in the local histories of Ballycotton and Offaly. He has left copybooks, odd pages and letters, sheets of statistics and meticulously traced maps which bear witness to hours spent in the National Library, the Public Records Office, the Royal Irish Academy and similar places.
Lists of local populations with names, dates, land valuations and property mingled in his room with genealogies, land-charts and press-cuttings sent him by like-minded enthusiasts. His correspondence on the subject, frequently in reply to requests from people descended, as I understand it, from Ballycotton emigrants, extended to America and Australia; he was in regular contact with local archaeological societies, in 1982 he gave a lecture to the Cloyne Literary and Historical Society that was much appreciated, and pursued right up to the end. This work will not be lost to sight; photo copies will be sent to the appropriate societies.
From his notes and copybooks, it is also clear that his love for the Old Testament Canticles was not a transient one: the publication of his own translation in Irish of The Song of
Songs (Laoi na of Laoithe; it has been incorporated in An Bíobla Naofa) and a typical staccato style commentary, is but the outward evidence of an interest in a readily understandable
conception of divine love that informed his unique approach to the theological tracts on grace and charity - a prime example of his efforts to bridge that aforementioned gap between
systematics and experience.
His scattered preparatory notes on various retreats for religious, his simple but forceful articles in An Timire, his conferences on prayer (it disturbed him to find these typed and distributed), some domestic exhortations and his circular letters to invalids are a mine of practical spirituality, simply expressed, that many feel would repay editing and composite publication. The very idea the extent of would have appalled him for he was genuinely convinced that he had little to offer to a modern, outwardly sophisticated readership, and was self persuaded that his own lack of style and polish in English composition would be the an obstacle. In spiritual matters, could not but keep things simple and frequently professed incompetence in the field of the discernment of spirits; he would never have envisaged himself engaged in directed retreats - 'I wouldn't know what to say' - the admission was sincere. With individuals who came to him for spiritual advice, he consistently turned to scriptural principles leaving inferences to be drawn by his confidant; for those with little practice in spiritual thought, he provided one or two provocative parables from everyday life, but even then would never presume to make the directly personal application himself. His relationship with sisters is not easy to interpret. Undoubtedly he was a favourite retreat-giver in the old style, certainly he helped many individually in their convents and in parlours, but it was clear to us that he felt very uneasy with the post-Vatican aggiornamento that closer relationships with male communities understandably brought sisters into. His attitude was by no means anti-feminist - quite the opposite, as I could see from the Knock situation. I can only ascribe it to a combination of natural shyness and lack of common ground for conversation on the one hand and on the other, a personal desire to be at ease in the refectory (this applied particularly to his later Tullabeg visits) with those whom he knew well, an attitude that will be readily appreciated by those who have themselves spent the morning or afternoon hours in concentrated study.
Self-effacement was characteristic of the man, so clear in each of his apostolates and accentuated over the years in the Society where he eventually became content with his position outside the cultural mainstream. He could never have more than a passing interest in current events, in radio or newspapers, never watched television, and was in touch with developments only through side-references in review articles and very occasional press headlines noticed during his usual dinner-hour peek at the obituaries in the recreation room. Consequently he was happy to be unobtrusive and remain silent in small-talk recreations and sophisticated company. He suspected his unconcern and social awkwardness, as he saw it, would be disconcerting and, unless directly addressed by one of the company, he preferred to withdraw without fuss to the peace and that meant so much to him. His oft-noted absence at Province funerals and functions was quite typical - “these things are not for me” became a principle of ever-increasing application. Some found him a difficult person to live with because of his self-depreciating manner which, however, was certainly not feigned. It was not just shyness. He seemed to think that his own simplicity of outlook and sincere lack of interest in ephemera automatically placed him on a very low rung of the social ladder and he never had any incentive to climb. He willingly stepped back to give way to anyone - this was what God had decreed for him, and he accepted it. In the refectory he was seldom able to join three others already seated even though he would genuinely welcome them if they joined him, and the familiar sight of John standing back until all others were served just underlined his consistency. Yet in conversation, particularly with one or two, he could sparkle if the topic were congenial - local history or some curiosity of the Irish language or news from the Midlands, but anything polemical was avoided: if pressed to take sides on any issue, he would invariably appeal to some general principle and leave it at that. On administrative issues, he would express no opinion. Many post-Vatican moves, inspired by authority whose judgement he always respected, were a puzzle to him, and many were distinctly at variance with his own religious ideals, but he was con tent to accept in silence so much of which he knew he could never be a part. At the same time he was never on the side of the prophets of gloom: here his theological perspectives came to his aid as he insisted daily on an eventual realisation of the divine plan and on the reality of Providence at work in the world.
In theology or spirituality, John seemed to have a built-in radar for that 'phoniness' that sometimes made people uneasy. Many times in his room I have sensed its beeps either in relation to something I said or in his expressed views on some books or articles that had quiet caught the popular theological eye. He very much lamented the general trend towards concentration on man rather than on God as a theological starting point and felt much in tune with Hans Urs von Balthasar who, from a position of greater learning, confirmed his attitude and underlined the soundness of the general approach of Thomas Aquinas, whose work and personality were so dear to John. Simplicity of faith, whatever the later reasoning, was a factor that John could sense so well and his lectures or conferences implicitly emphasised its importance in pastoral or academic activity. Another point of absorbing interest was his quiet insistence that in general we do not have sufficient faith in what God wants to do for each of us - John 15:5 was one of his favourite texts; and his nose for the pelagianism subtly interwoven in the pages of popularising theologians was quite remarkable. His own faith in the prayer of petition (“like a shop with well-filled shelves: it's all there but we must ask”) surely accounts for some of the unusual events that so many Midlanders have attributed to his concern and prayers.
With so few of his personal notes available, it is not possible to do more than draw inferences regarding his own spiritual life. Certainly reverence was a key feature. Memories of John kneeling rigidly in the chapel, head down and oblivious to all around him, come easily to mind as does the recollection of him offering Mass in a subdued emotionless voice (he never concelebrated, through rather than from principle) and the studied concentration that would accompany the simple blessing of a rosary. His pre-lecture retreat prayer that all our actions be directed solely (with a deliberate emphasis on the word) to the praise and service of God seems to have been a reflection of his life. In his last month he did mention that his priestly intention had always been that he might be able to imitate “the Master” as closely as possible within the limitations imposed by his retiring dispositions and by the academic calling which he fully accepted but would all too willingly have passed to others better able to do it than himself. He gave himself credit for nothing: the Isaian potter moulding his clay to suit his plans was an image of God that was dear to him - probably John mentioned it in every retreat he gave. At every stage of his life, “I did the best that I could do” - the divine plan daily worked out in this unusually faithful and selfless way of service for others. His own interests were secondary. Many recall how he would gladly interrupt any work to answer a call to the parlour, giving as much time to that as his visitor needed. If we went to him in his room,we knew indeed that we and not he would have to terminate the interview, and this was particularly difficult to do in his last year, since, with his powers of solitary study for long periods on the wane, he seemed more and more to welcome individual company..
A final pointer to another characteristic known only to those who knew him fairly well whether in community or on his pastoral rounds - his sense of humour. Many stories have been told of cryptically witty remarks he made, sum ming up a situation or a character in a way that would have occurred to no one else and displaying his own satisfying cleverness in a broad tight-lipped smile. He thoroughly enjoyed the bantering conversation of a refectory foursome even though his own contributions would be infrequent - and these would invariably raise a laugh. Some years ago, Fred Crowe, visiting Milltown, looked forward to chatting with John because of all he had heard about him. Asked after two days during which they had not met if he would recognise John, Fred replied that he thought he would, “He's the man in the refectory who sits with his head down seemingly uninvolved with all that was being said by the other three ... until after a while he looks up, says something very briefly, and the three burst into loud laughter ... the memory is typical. It confirms what we all knew - that his reclusiveness was not the whole story but had to be qualified by a subtle mischievousness which, perhaps, is a key to an understanding of the loneliness that he sometimes keenly felt. It is well worth noting that in Midland homes and with the Knock invalids he is remembered so well for his general cheerfulness and contagious happiness.
So much more could be and will be said about Fr John. He mystified some people, was much admired by others. He cannot be stereotyped in anything he ever did. All of us were affected by him in some way or other and we know that we will never meet anyone quite like hiin again. After a very fruitful life he slipped away as quickly and unobtrusively as he would have wished. The memories and his influence remain.
B. McNamara

As the end approached, the attractiveness of goodness warmed me to Fr John Hyde. Although he suffered a great deal, he never complained. He often ended a description of his day with the phrase, “I've no complaints”, and one was left with the impression that he spoke from a deep sense of acceptance.
While he would have preferred to die at home, he accepted the decision that he would die in Our Lady's Hospice. When the time came to go, twenty-four hours before he died, he took only what he could carry in his small leather case and neither hat nor coat. The journey in the house car was clearly, in his mind, his last. He didn't speak of the future but rather of the present and the present was grand.
Those who attended him at the Hospice, doctors, nurses and sisters, felt cheated that he died so quickly after his arrival. "We would have liked to have nursed him for a little longer", one of them said to me. They too had been touched. In life John taught that the christian life is but a preparation for death. In death John demonstrated that he practised what he preached. May he rest in peace.

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