Douglas Hyde, politician, author of "God's Bandit".
Well known member of the English communist party, convert to Catholicism, who devoted himself to the cause of human rights; a man of letters and a journalist. His relation to Ignazio Silone and to Don Orione.
There was quite a stir in England, when in 1948, Douglas Hyde publicly resigned from the communist Daily Worker, of which he was editor, and openly demonstrating his conversion started to write for the Catholic Herald. Not long afterwards, in 1951, he published "I Believed" a work that became a best-seller and in which he told the story of his journey from Methodism, through communism, and finally landing at Roman Catholicism.
The neophyte, Douglas Hyde, discovered the image and work of Blessed Luigi Orione in London. It was a fascinating encounter. A result was one of the earliest and best biographies of the Blessed tortonese: God's Bandit. The first edition was published in England (Peter Davies, London, 1957); subsequently, it was translated into Italian, French, German and Polish. The title was suggested by Ignazio Silone, the author, whom Hyde met in 1955, as he travelled to Italy to gather news, information and personal testimonies of people of had known Don Orione at first hand. In fact, in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, we find "The author wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to Ignazio Silone for help and encouragement given and for suggesting the title of the book" (P. 5).
It is interesting to note how the people who most contributed to making Don Orione known in the world of culture and society were two men who had militated in the ranks of communism: Douglas Hyde, the English Communist Party activist and, Ignazio Silone who, later, published his important autobiography, Safety Exit (Vallecchi, Florence, 1965), which included a chapter entitled "Encounter with a strange priest".
The two men of letters had many feelings and social and cultural interests in common. They also shared a great regard for the "saint of charity and apostle of the poor". However, their admiration was not of the sociological or philanthropic kind. Rather, Douglas Hyde, during a lengthy conversation with Ignazio Silone, who related to him all the he knew of Don Orione (Don Orione helped him when he was a boy), heard him saying: "Please, please, whatever you do, when you write about him, do not make Don Orione just a sort of Catholic Beveridge. To do so would be to diminish his size. Yes, he was concerned with charity as so many others have been, and with social justice. But his exceptional strength lay in the fact that in all that he did he relied utterly and completely upon God" (God's Bandit, Prologue, xv).
Douglas Hyde was born on the 8th April 1912 in Bristol. His family was well off and non-conformist: he was brought up a Methodist. In his youth he gave himself wholeheartedly to the social and labour issues of the day. In 1928, when he was only 17, he was already an active member of the Communist Party. He studied and divulged the theoretical thinking of Marxism and Leninism and was appointed editor of the communist daily, the Daily Worker. In 1948 he became deeply disappointed and disgusted by the turn of the screw brought on by Stalin in Eastern Europe. The crisis of ideals, painful and controversial, flowed into leaving communism and adhering to the Catholic faith. There is a detailed account of the conversion in DEVOS M. Du marxisme au Christ, Douglas Hyde in Convertis du XXme siècle. I, Paris, 1960, p. 22-59.
Having left the communist Daily Worker for the Catholic Herald, he established himself as an accomplished journalist and also as an incisive catholic apologist. A man of diverse interests, he cultivated the arts, literature and music. He continued his concern for human rights and Marxist-Christian dialogue. Always attentive to people's sufferings, in the 60s he spent much time for the cause of political prisoners, above all in the Philippines and in Sri Lanka. Amnesty International (set up in 1961) found a spirited supporter in him.
Small in stature, piercing eyes, intelligent, strong emotions, greatly intuitive, lively character, dynamic, impulsive, polished, but not changed, by grace.
He spent the last decades in retirement, in his Wimbledon home, fighting off the various ailments and problems of old age. But courage and optimism never failed him
"I did not live two lives", he said shortly before his death. "There is an underlying thread which is the most remarkable thing for me". Douglas Hyde died on 19th September 1996.
The relationship of Douglas Hyde with the Little Work of Don Orione goes back to the early days of his "conversion". He was invited by Father Paolo Bidone, together with other men of letters, such as Douglas Woodruff, Hilaire Belloc and Reginald Jebb, to the meetings of the Friends of the charitable work in London. A strong and warm friendship ensued.
He gave many lectures and learned talks on Don Orione and his work. The best and best known was the talk he gave on March 21st 1953 at the Challoner Club, a London Catholic social venue. Addressing a weighty and qualified audience of public authorities and Friends of Don Orione, he traced a daring comparison between Lenin and Don Orione. "Two men, two revolutions in the first half of the century - remarked Douglas Hyde. Don Orione, Don Bosco's follower, begins among the poor in an unassuming, quiet, but sure and progressive way. He welcomes them, he helps them and, in them, he brings the image of the Creator back to life again. His marching order is 'charity', expounded in the small newspaper 'La Scintilla? (The Spark), which came out in 1895 and lit up many healing fires, first at Noto and then in hundred other places. "La Scintilla", another paper, this time, Lenin's, first published in 1901, six years after Don Orione's, lit up a devouring and destroying fire. A noisy, tragic, oppressive and persecuting revolution. Will it last? Maybe another ten, twenty years… certainly no more than thirty" - said Douglas Hyde. "But the humble son of the sulli, who lived in poverty and loved it, made of the poor his life programme, erecting magnificent institutions. With charity, the secret of victory will never cease". (Newsletter of the Little Work, 1953, No. 5, p. 75).
Charity or justice? The title of the concluding chapter of his life of Don Orione (pp. 201-211) is also the question that guided the course of a life both restless and exuberant. Here, perhaps, in the existential answer to the question, is also the reason for his conversion, his social commitment, his respect and passion for Don Orione, "saint of the Church and of social wellbeing". "Social justice, which is imposed from above, even though it be the will of the people, is not in itself enough. To it, must be added Christian charity, in full measure and running over" (God's Bandit, Prologue, XVI)