Retired Archbishop of New Orleans nears 90 with no signs of slowing down

Retired Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans is seen in this undated photo. He will turn 90 in December, but still keeps a rigorous cycling and swimming schedule in addition to his duties as spiritual director of 30 seminarians, priests and religious. The retired archbishop also visits homeless men and women with AIDS every Friday at an archdiocesan shelter. (SNC photo by Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)

By Peter Finney Jr.

NEW ORLEANS — Retired Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans turns 90 in December, but the bike rack on his car at Notre Dame Seminary proclaims, in a suitably understated way, that God does not haven’t finished with him yet.

He still rides his bike to Audubon Park in New Orleans every Sunday – “It’s the safest day to ride in town!” – swims every day during the summer in the Séminaire Notre-Dame swimming pool, provides ongoing spiritual direction for seminarians, priests and religious – “I had to cap it at 30” – and comes every Friday after midday sitting and praying with residents of Project Lazarus, the archdiocesan shelter and ministry to homeless men and women with AIDS.

He has just finished another book – “Priests in love with God and eager to witness to the Gospel” – and lives another chapter each day with his joyful testimony.

He is known as the Archbishop of Katrina for leading the archdiocese during Hurricane Katrina 17 years ago.

Archbishop Hughes remembers being inside the Chapel of Worship at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Baton Rouge. It had finally become apparent that the 17th Street Canal flood walls had collapsed and Lake Pontchartrain was angry and winning.

“I was just overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start or what to say or do,” Archbishop Hughes said. “I put it all on the Lord, and, of course, the Lord remained silent.”

And then, at the end of the hour, he said that it struck me that the Lord said nothing, “but he is present, and he expresses by his presence – a support”.

“So what I say or do may be secondary to God’s presence for people. It brought me inner peace,” he told the Clarion Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper of New Orleans.

In his life as a priest, spiritual director, seminary rector, and bishop, Bishop Hughes was masterful in helping others calm the troubled waters that stirred within themselves. The pitched battles that characterize our social interactions these days – as a nation and as a church – cry out for healing.

These nerve-wracking divisions over social policy and the evident lack of fair play in public discourse will not be resolved overnight. In his years of spiritual mentorship, Archbishop Hughes says healing must begin with a personal commitment to examine our own lives.

“Step #1 which is very helpful to take is to be faithful to a quiet space and time each day to be present with God,” Archbishop Hughes said. “If we don’t take a step back from the whirlwind of messages and emotions that surround us, we won’t gain enough distance to see reality more objectively and disentangle the true from the false or half-truth. And, we are not going to experience the peace within ourselves that the world so desperately needs from us.

“If we want to be able to make a positive contribution, we must first be faithful to a regular time to place ourselves before God and ask him for the grace to see us, to see others, to see the world and all that is happening , and even see the demonic, as he is, and, with his eyes, learn what he wants me to personally try to do that in some way reverses and thwarts evil with good.

Since being succeeded by Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond in 2009, Archbishop Hughes has spent the past 13 years following his own guidance – providing presence ministry to the Lazarus Project. When the AIDS Ministry was founded by the Archdiocese in 1985, it functioned essentially as a hospice where women and men were cared for until they died with dignity. Today, with proper medication, AIDS can be managed.

In his retirement, Archbishop Hughes felt called to provide the ministry of presence he experienced with God in this chapel of worship after Katrina.

“I have no responsibility; I just make myself available for personal conversations and visits,” he said. “Sometimes a group of residents will come; sometimes it’s just a series of one-on-one conversations. We will sit in the common room on the first floor of the old presbytery. I try to build a bridge with them. I listen. And, whatever they share, I bring to prayer at the end.

The residents are vulnerable and they do not hesitate to recognize it. A man told the archbishop that he had started to read the scriptures regularly again.

“He said, ‘When I’m here I’m safe, but when I’m out I’m surrounded by temptations. I prayed not to give in to the devil, but saw in the scriptures yesterday that some demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting. ”

And then he said, “I’m going to try a little fasting now.”

“It’s interesting how working with people who are ready to be vulnerable can be inspiring,” Archbishop Hughes said.

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