Books > On the Left Bank of the Tiber

10 July 2014 | by Gerald O’Collins

On the Left Bank of the Tiber

A smiling face in front of an austere building – the cover symbolises the contents. Fr Gerald O’Collins, well known to readers of The Tablet, following A Midlife Journey published in 2012, now offers a friendly account of his life in Rome as lecturer, professor and eventually dean of the theology faculty at the Pontifical Gregorian University, run by the Jesuits. Fr Gerry, as he is commonly known, lectured in fundamental theology, specialising in questions regarding the Resurrection of Jesus. His theology deals with the self-revelation of God, but there is little self-revelation here; we are offered memoirs, rather than autobiography.

O’Collins provides sketches of some Jesuits at the Gregorian, the advent of lay students both men and women, the arrival of women lecturers – a great change from the early 1960s when I studied there. Yet he never tells us how he arrived there as a lecturer in 1974. Did he volunteer, or was he sent? Jesuit provincials did not always like to release their men. He had wished to go as a missionary to India, but the Tiber was to be his Ganges. O’Collins’ life is centred on the Gregorian, but there are other dimensions to it: pastoral engagements at the various colleges for clerical students; lectures for bishops in Rome for synods or for updating sessions; and involvement with the Anglican Centre, which brought friendship with Archbishop George and Eileen Carey. He writes of visitors to Rome, of Italy and the Italians, with numerous anecdotes and jokes – one can almost hear him chuckling. His spiritual director advised him to be involved with youth, so he became English tutor to a group of Italian high-school girls and boys, travelling out once a week to Castel Gandolfo to read with them articles from The Economist. This resulted in a book called Friends in Faith, reflections on the articles of the Creed. For Fr Gerry has always been eminently pastoral, “unofficial chaplain” to his Italian friends, officiating at weddings, baptising babies and burying the dead.

Although the title specifies the Left Bank of the Tiber, the book deals at length with the other, Vatican, side. O’Collins shares memories of the Year of the Three Popes (1978). He describes Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) as “one of the most fruitful and enduring documents”, suggesting that because of the debate aroused by Humanae Vitae, it was presented as an apostolic exhortation rather than an encyclical. The former term was, however, invented for papal documents written following a synod of bishops. He praises John Paul I for his directness and simplicity. He tells how he suggested to John Paul II that he should speak more simply during the General Audiences – at the time the Pope was focusing on the Theology of the Body – only to receive the reply that this was the sole way a Pope could write a book. He does not point out that Benedict XVI had no such inhibitions.

O’Collins speaks highly of John Paul II, but he criticises his tendency towards centralisation, his treatment of the Jesuits and his opposition to the theology of liberation. The question of the Jesuits involves him more personally. When Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General, was incapacitated, John Paul II appointed as his own personal delegate Paolo Dezza to prepare for a general congregation and the election of a new general. It was a vote of no confidence in the American vicar general appointed by Arrupe to carry out this task. Strangely, there is no mention of Giuseppe Pittau, brought from Japan to be the assistant to Dezza, though Pittau is mentioned as rector of the Gregorian and later as archbishop secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education. Special attention is given to the death of Pope John Paul II and his funeral, events on which O’Collins was invited to comment for television. Well informed, with a friendly manner, he is a natural media person.

O’Collins’ relations with “the Vatican” – that is the Roman Curia – seem to have been frosty. He was asked to do some work once for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), was paid a small sum for his trouble, and never asked again. He guessed that the CDF had not received the answer it expected. The criticisms of the CDF lead into a detailed account of its examination of Jacques Dupuis’ book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. I have always felt that Dupuis had been badly treated, and thought it petty that he had been prevented from giving his last course of lectures before retiring. I learn from this book that it was not the CDF who forbade him to lecture, but his Superior General who suggested he should refrain from teaching in order to prepare his response for the CDF. In a similar vein I wish to clarify that the CDF did not prevent the publication of my appreciation of Dupuis’ book in Pro Dialogo, the review of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, of which I was then secretary. By the time we were ready to publish the text, Fr Dupuis was under investigation, and it was deemed prudent to delay publication until the matter was settled.

Retired from the Gregorian in 2006, O’Collins continues to research and write. In a postscript he recalls a colleague walking into his room and saying “Pope Benedict has resigned”. It would be interesting to know what he thinks of Benedict’s Jesuit successor.



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