Who was Fr. John J. Hugo? What was the “famous retreat” he preached in the early 1940s, the so-called Lacouture retreat, that had such a profound influence on Dorothy Day? Why did the retreat quickly land Lacouture, Hugo, and others in ecclesiastical “hot water,” suppressing Hugo’s preaching of the retreat for more than fifteen years and leading to his internal exile in the Pittsburgh diocese? Why did Hugo’s themes (particularly his emphasis on self-sacrifice, the primacy of the supernatural, the importance of human intention in achieving holiness, and on poverty and pacifism) meet with such strong resistance in the theological circles of his day? Finally, how might a study of Hugo shed critical light on the “public theology” that holds sway in American Catholic theology today?
These are the questions Benjamin T. Peters sets out to answer in this scholarly treatise (there are no fewer than 840 footnotes in 254 pages of text). In so doing, Peters argues that Hugo was never a spiritual rigorist à la Cornelis Jansen (1585–1638), but rather represented a rich Ignatian mystical tradition à la Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ (1675–1751). Hugo’s method of ressourcement (returning to the sources) also put him in tandem with the path-breaking work of such twentieth-century European theological eminences as Maurice Blondel (1861–1949) and Henri de Lubac (1896–1991). Finally, as proof of a pudding is in the eating, the author and publisher provide facsimiles of hundreds of pages of Dorothy Day’s own handwritten 1942 retreat notes (transcripted on facing pages) to underscore the contribution and depth of Hugo’s method, and, as a consequence, his effect on Day.
John J. Hugo (1911–85) was a newly minted priest when he first attended a 1938 priests’ retreat given by Fr. Onesimus Lacouture, SJ (1881–1951). A French-Canadian, Lacouture had fashioned a week-long silent retreat for priests based primarily on the first stage of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Exercises. (Lacouture hoped to incorporate later aspects of the Exercises in subsequent retreats, but was never able to do so.) Hugo was so taken with the retreat’s potential and its emphasis on the call to holiness for all the baptized (what the Second Vatican Council would later term the “universal call to holiness”) that he set out to craft and deliver the retreat for lay audiences.
Dorothy Day (1897–1980) had been alerted to the Lacouture retreat by Maisie Ward in 1939, and was subsequently provided a set of retreat notes by her friend Sr. Peter Claver Fahy (whose name, unfortunately, is misspelled several times in the text, as is that of St. Francis de Sales). At the time, Day commented that she was not much impressed with the notes because “the written word did not have the life and vitality of the spoken word, and perhaps it was the personality of the retreat master [Lacouture] that made the teaching so powerful.” (In later years, meeting Lacouture himself, she reported that she found him charming, and told of their mutual laughter when she described the extremes to which some Catholic Workers had gone in carrying out the retreat’s emphasis on self-denial.)
Tom Sullivan, a mainstay at the New York Catholic Worker in the decade following World War II, told me a story about Day and how she had sought to free a young retreatant from her scrupulous tendencies. It happened on the Worker paper’s press day one Lent. Dorothy, Sullivan, and a young woman editor were having lunch at a diner. Dorothy ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie, at which point the young woman’s face fell. When the pie arrived, Dorothy downed it with what Sullivan described as almost spiteful relish, further scandalizing the young woman. For Sullivan, the episode was a lesson from a spiritual master, not only about the dangers of rigorism, but of spiritual pride.