Arthur Walter Hughes, M. Afr.
An East End Boy who Became the First Papal Nuncio to Egypt
Arthur Hughes, born to a working class couple in London, England, on August 25th, 1902, became a missionary priest in Uganda and died aged 46, as Papal Internuncio to Egypt. He was respected for his powerful intellect, but loved by Christians, Muslims and Jews for his warmth and openness to all.
Childhood and Education 1902 - 1927
Arthur Hughes was not from a church-going family. He left elementary school at 14 but continued his personal education using local libraries; this reading led him to join the Roman Catholic Church. While working at The People newspaper Hughes sensed a priestly vocation. Cardinal Bourne of Westminster ordered a delay of two years for discernment, then sent Hughes to the White Fathers of Africa, where Father Travers enrolled him at the junior seminary near Southampton to learn the French and Latin needed for further study in North Africa.
Anecdotes abound of the young Arthur's memory, wit and asceticism. The community included boys from France as well as England, and Hughes could soon speak at length in French, accepting a challenge to talk about cheese and holding forth for an hour. One lunch time, the French cook accidentally dressed the salad with paraffin. Superior, priests and students pushed it aside – to see Arthur chewing away, content to eat the uneatable.
Hughes was precise in following his calling but never took himself too seriously. His attention to detail enabled him to discuss theology with his professors in Latin more fluent than their own. Arthur suffered a health crisis at theology college in Carthage. Following the doctor's orders assiduously (including eating a dozen eggs a day) he regained his health. His sense of humour aroused the superiors' concern, punning in three languages and misquoting Holy Scripture, but it was recognised as the fruit of joy rather than levity, so did not prevent his being ordained priest on June 28th, 1927.
'Exile' in England 1927 – 1933
Arthur Hughes felt his appointment to England as an 'exile' from Africa. He taught for two years back at the junior seminary, by now exclusively English–speaking, where he was known as a mine of information on cricket, if hopeless with bat or ball. He moved on to the parish and student hostel in West London, undertaking speaking engagements in parishes and for organisations such as the League of Nations Association. Meticulous research and phenomenal memory enabled him to speak on slavery for an hour without notes to an audience including the Colonial Secretary. Here he followed the example of Cardinal Lavigerie, founder of the White Fathers, who campaigned against slavery and had addressed the Anti Slavery Campaign in London in 1888.
Uganda 1933 – 1942
On arriving in Uganda in 1933, Hughes endeared himself to Bishop Michaud by greeting him in the Luganda language, which he had studied before leaving London. His experience of teaching and of working with government in England was put to good use. Michaud set Hughes in charge of Catholic education, including relations with the Protectorate Government.
His administrative skills soon became clear. He had charge of seven types of school, from tiny bush schools to the teacher training college at Makerere, which with junior and senior seminaries made up his 'nine choirs of angels'. Funds were tight for church and government, but Hughes' human sympathy for his official counterparts and ready repartee eased negotiations. He took a Protestant education officer to a school chapel to pray together for his sick wife. Challenged, as a representative of 'the richest organisation in the world', to justify a request for increased funds, Hughes replied that the Catholic Church was founded on a rock and had been on the rocks ever since. He won his extra money. A convinced ecumenist, Hughes avoided unnecessary rivalries and collaborated with other religious bodies to obtain better funding for all.
Official duties were balanced by work with Scouts and other groups. However the outbreak of war led to greater responsibilities. The Italian missionaries, as enemy aliens, had to leave their posts in Northern Uganda. Hughes was sent to administer the Gulu vicariate for the duration of hostilities. Offices and schools were requisitioned by the army, but Hughes managed the necessary redeployment without loss or incident. It was noted that not one of the girls from the boarding school was abducted or ran away. He visited all the missions and won the affection of the people after preaching from memory a sermon he had had translated into all four local languages. When he left in 1942 the buildings and the work of the vicariate had doubled in size.
Egypt 1943 – 1947
Italy, meanwhile, had been driven out of Ethiopia, and with the Emperor in close alliance with Britain, the Italian missionaries were in disarray, having been identified with the occupying force. Hughes was sent to resolve the situation. Then the British Authorities in war-time Cairo felt uneasy with an Italian Apostolic Delegate. Arthur Hughes took over his office. Determined not to be 'dust on the hem of Egypt', he saw himself, not as a dignitary, but a priest with a mission to the church, the government, and the people.
Hughes made clear his universal mission from the start by asserting his independence from the British authorities who had sought his appointment. He paraphrased Pope Benedict XV when declining an introduction to the King: “I don't think I should meet Farouk under British auspices. I’m not here as a representative of the King of England but the Prince of Peace."
In the aftermath of the First World War, which had deeply affected him, Benedict wrote his encyclical, Maximum Illud. Hespecifically referred tomissionaries' nationalism undermining their authority as ministers of the Gospel; they should be envoys of Christ, not of their home nations.Hughes' experiences in Uganda and Ethiopia heightened his sensitivity to this danger. He was a representative of the Prince of Peace. This led him to learn and use Arabic when speaking to Egyptians, from the peasant even to the English-speaking king; no dusty diplomat or pompous prelate here.
The Catholic Church in Egypt included Coptic and Armenian communities – in all six rites were present. Hughes sought not to assimilate or 'Latinise', but to unite them in their diversity and build them up, soothing suspicion between them. His success meant that the Coptic Catholic Patriarch would preside at his episcopal ordination in 1945, while the Greek Catholics contributed his episcopal ring, the Copts his pectoral cross.
Hughes worked for unity, not only between different Catholic Rites, but with the much larger Coptic and Greek Orthodox Churches as well. He sought invitations to their festivals and prayed with them; no-one had done this before . He also established good relationships with Muslim and Jewish leaders in Cairo.
At the highest level level he effected the restoration of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate; but he also visited the Christian villages in the Delta and Upper Egypt. Seeing their poverty, he established a programme building schools, chapels and dispensaries in every village, to 'save 10,000 little fellahs' from poverty, as he urged his supporters. One school bears his name to this day. A measure of his success in grounding his missionary work in Egyptian culture was that some years after his death the Catholic schools stayed open throughout the Suez crisis, for they were seen as Egyptian, not British institutions.
The Apostolic Delegate's ministry, as interpreted by Arthur Hughes, included the British and their Allies, but importantly, all the foreigners in Egypt:German and Italian prisoners of war were equally members of his flock. His brief also included Palestine, then under British mandate, where the White Fathers ran a seminary at Saint Anne's in Jerusalem for Palestinian Greek rite Catholics.
Hughes trod the political tightrope, lobbying both Egyptian and British authorities on behalf of his varied flock. King Farouk enjoyed his company and set aside his sensualist ways whenever Hughes was present. Diplomatically, Arthur intervened for internees, visiting camps, even creating a seminary for German P.O.W.s. He ministered to British troops as well, his borrowed staff car emphatically flying the Vatican flag. This did not prevent his friendly relations with military chaplains of all denominations, while he made sure to greet their wives at official functions. But, after dining with the Chief of Staff, he delighted the Maltese servants by going to thank them for the meal they had prepared.
After the war, Egypt wished to exchange ambassadors with the Vatican, the first Muslim country to do so; Arthur Hughes was Farouk's choice for the post. He was installed as Internuncio and Archbishop in 1947. He still lived in community, shunning the luxury his position might command, working as hard as ever. At all times he had to be alert for spies: as the diplomatic bag to the Vatican was tampered with nothing confidential was sent that way; Hughes would post it himself at local letter boxes. En route to Jerusalem on one occasion he allowed the spies out for his correspondence to steal an impressive but innocuous briefcase while he carried the secret documents out of the station. Another visit to Jerusalem in 1948 coincided with a bomb outrage.
Work and stress eroded a fragile constitution. Hughes left Egypt on the S.S. Providence in June 1949. Early each morning, “a missionary again,” he said Mass with crew members. In London, he stayed with his parents, rising early for Mass at the local church, then lighting a fire and making them breakfast. Legend tells of a visitor, scandalised to find him drying the dishes for his mother. On a visit to a White Fathers house he fell asleep in his clothes for thirty hours from sheer exhaustion. The doctor's appointment they insisted on was never kept, for he suffered two massive heart attacks and died in his brother's arms on 12th July.
Arthur Hughes was buried at the seminary in Hampshire, 'where he spent the earliest years of his priesthood, close to the grave of the beloved Fr Travers who had guided him to the altar .' Among the tributes were wreaths from the Royal Air Force and King Farouk.
A more telling tribute is that despite the often difficult situation of Christians in a tense Middle East, the Catholic schools and hospitals remain open to all-comers; they belong to the Egyptian Church and people, not any foreign power. The Catholic Church in Egypt is still small, still worships under diverse rites, and still strives to serve the whole nation as far as it can, bearing witness to love “without directly speaking about Christ and without having to hold a Bible in one’s hand” in the words of one of today's bishops, Antonios Aziz Mina of Guizeh.
Egypt still maintains diplomatic links with the Vatican: Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the present Nuncio to Egypt and the Arab League, is another English Missionary of Africa. He attended the same school in Hampshire, and continues Arthur Hughes' mission of friendship to countries whose Christianity dates to Apostolic times.
Although in Hughes' time missionaries were sent 'at the discretion of the Holy See' , there was a danger, clear in hindsight, of their becoming identified with their home nations' interests, either in their own eyes, or as seems to have occurred in Uganda, in the eyes of enemy powers. It is to Hughes' great credit that, with humour, tact and perseverance, he avoided this counterwitness, by establishing and maintaining his independence from British authority in Egypt. He was able to serve those considered his enemies – because he did not consider them enemies. He was better able to serve the British there, because he was a representative of the Prince of Peace, not the King of England; he was there to build up the local church, not the British sphere of influence, and for the duration of hostilities, the local church included British, Germans and Italians, as well as Egyptians.
Hughes in many ways anticipated the decree Ad Gentes of the Second Vatican Council, which gives as a mark of the church that she spends herself for the poor, citing the verse chosen by Hughes as his episcopal motto: 2 Corinthians, 12:15 (he used the second part): 'licet plus vos diligens minus diligar' – '[I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls]If I love you the more, am I to be loved the less?' A true missionary, Arthur Hughes spent himself, for he loved greatly, and so was loved all the more by those whose lives he touched.
Maurice Billingsley, who studied with the Missionaries of Africa at school and senior seminary, teaches disaffected young people and is now taking an M.A. in Theology at the Franciscan International Study Centre, Canterbury, England.
These pictures of the Arthur Hughes school in Egypt were kindly sent by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, Pelican and Papal Nuncio to Egypt, and successor to Arthur Hughes.
Return to Top
Ayrout, H. Panégyrique prononcé par le Réverend Père H. Ayrout S.J. en L'Eglise S. Joseph au Caire le 19 Juillet 1949 Fr Ayrout was an Egyptian Jesuit who worked with Hughes, developing poor Christian villages in Egypt. Translated by the present writer, 2007.
A.C.N. News. June 30, 2008. Showing love in the face of violence in Egypt. http://www.aidtothechurchinneed.org/home.cfm?5C510B0304001E347B7C6 1040301020800050402030360061111091801080864626F756C720504
Benedict XV, Pope: 'Maximum Illud', Encyclical 'On the Missions', 1919, London Catholic Truth Society, 1920, printed 1936.
Cavalli, Dimitri. 'The Good Samaritan: Jewish Praise For Pope Pius XII' in Inside the Vatican, Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, New Hope, KY. Found in http://www.catholicculture.org/library/view.cfm?recnum=3431. © 2007
- Cavalli seeks to vindicate Pius XII record in WW II. He mentions Hughes in connection with his meeting with an official of the Jewish Agency in Turkey.
Finn, Peter. History Priory Bishop's Waltham. Winchester, Hedera Books, 1999.
- Finn compiled the history of the White Fathers' junior seminary in Hampshire, where Hughes studied and taught. He had access to oral tradition no longer available.
- Hastings, Adrian. 'A History of English Christianity, 1920–1985', London, Collins, 1986.
- mentions Hinsley's difficulties over praying with other Christians, p395.
Holmes–Siedle, James: 'Memories of a year at the Priory, (1926–1927)' in The Pelican, Summer, 1962
- Bishop Holmes–Siedle studied under Fr Arthur Hughes.
Howell, Arthur E. Archbishop Arthur Walter Hughes of the White Fathers, Apostolic Internuncio to Egypt. London, Samuel Walker. n.d. but between 1949 and 1952.
- A contemporary of Hughes who drew on material from the White Fathers, memories of Egypt from John Ramsay-Fairfax, and an unidentified contemporary newspaper.
Kittler, Glen D. The White Fathers. Harper and Brothers, 1957
- An American who travelled through Africa researching his portrait of the Society; he too tapped oral tradition no longer available.
McGuire, Manus and Goodstadt Michael, 'The Late Archbishop Hughes', in The Columban, Christmas,1952.
- these schoolboys based their work primarily on Howell, but also recent oral tradition.
Petit Echo, 1949 p193-196.
- The White Fathers' in-house newsletter recorded Hughes' life and death. Translated from the French by the present writer.
Pius XI, Pope, 'Rerum Ecclesiae', 1926; London, Catholic Truth Society, reprinted 1936.
Stark, Freya, Dust in the Lion's Paw. 1961 reprinted, Century, London. 1995.
- Stark's account of working in British intelligence and diplomacy in wartime in the Middle East refers to Hughes' appointment as a minor victory for her service.
- the website for friends of the White Fathers, or Missionaries of Africa, in the UK and Ireland. Maguire and Goodstadt as well as Holmes–Siedle reproduced here.
The Tablet, 6/9/1955. 'Christianity in the United Arab Republic', From a Correspondent. P181.
- Catholic communities and their schools' during the Suez crisis.
The Times, Wednesday, July 13, 1949; p. 7; Obituary:Archbishop Hughes – Apostolic Internuncio to Egypt.
- Useful picture of Hughes from a secular source.
Vatican II, Documents of: 'Ad Gentes', in Walter M Abbott SJ and Joseph Gallagher, 'The Documents of Vatican II', London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1967, pp 584–630.
- The Church's mission to all peoples as set out by the council fathers.
Walsh, Peter. “A Cardinal's Campaign”. In White Fathers White Sisters, No 395. August/September 2007, Pp. 4–8.
- Magazine for supporters of the Missionaries of Africa; an issue devoted to slavery in history and present day; article on Lavigerie's contribution to abolishing slavery.
No other relevant material was found using various search engines.
Many thanks to Fr Christopher Wallbank, M.Afr., who kindly provided copies of primary sources.
In London, Cardinal Hinsley of Westminster, himself a former papal diplomat in Africa, was rebuked by his fellow bishops for “praying with heretics” when asked by the Anglican Archbishop of Chichester to lead the Lord's Prayer at the Albert Hall after the Blitz of the 10th May, 1942.
Pius XI, Rerum Ecclesiae 1926; London, Catholic Truth Society, reprinted 1936.p27.