A MIDLIFE JOURNEY
by Gerald O'Collins SJ
(Connor Court Publishing, 2012, 437pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-1-92142-158-7. Available from Freedom Publishing)
What an interesting book. I found it compelling reading.
This is the autobiography of the renowned Scripture scholar and Australian Jesuit, Fr Gerald O'Collins, for the period from his birth in 1931 to 1974 when he was about to leave Melbourne for Rome, where he was to spend 32 years as Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University.
In a postscript he tells us that he wrote this book in 1974, though since then he has corrected errors, deleted short sections, and added explanatory footnotes. He wrote it in 1974 because he wanted to report how he saw his life then, not as he would see it later. So this is the story of Fr O'Collins up to the age of 43.
He divides his account into three periods: (1) boyhood, June 1931 to January 1946; (2) student in Jesuit schools and seminaries in Australia; (3) studying and teaching overseas, mostly in Europe and USA.
The first part gives a history of his grandparents, parents, and members of his family. I found this section somewhat clogged with detail, although the family's Irishness and ardent Catholicism were impressive. One grandfather had been for a time a Patrician Brother and it was "a high priestly family", one studded with priests and nuns, including three uncles who were priests. One of them, James O'Collins, became Bishop of Ballarat.
The author is grateful for his having spent his youth in Frankston, outside Melbourne, an almost rural area at the time. His parents were leaders, and considered themselves such, of the Catholic élite of Melbourne
Gerald attended the Jesuitrun Xavier College in Melbourne and many in his graduating class were academically gifted. He was one, topping the school in classics (Greek and Latin) and decided to give himself to God as a Jesuit. With 28 others he entered the novitiate for two years of seclusion from society and intense spiritual training. Such were the times of abundant vocations to the religious orders and seminaries. I do know, for I entered a novitiate of 28 a few years earlier.
O'Collins spent 13 years preparing to take his final vows before ordination to the priesthood. In his studies of philosophy and theology he usually topped the class. He next took a BA in classics at Melbourne University with not only first class honours but also the university medal; then he quickly added an Honours MA.
His account is studded with humorous anecdotes, some hilarious. One scholastic drew gasps of envy when he publicly confessed to breaking, not a cup, but a crowbar. He notes how hard was the life of a scholastic (student) with many spiritual exercises throughout the day as well as very demanding courses of studies. There were no homilies at Masses. He says he accepted the system without query, one which discouraged personal feelings.
After ordination in 1963 by "Uncle Jim", the Bishop of Ballarat, he went to Germany to prepare for final vows. He was soon convinced that German theology was the most advanced in the world and so to Germany he often returned. He next decided to go to Cambridge University for a doctorate in systematic theology and found Pembroke College and the university very congenial. His ecumenical convictions deepened whilst researching under leading Protestant theologians, who became his good friends. (Fr George Pell of Ballarat was sharing that experience at Oxford at about the same time).
Along the way, he published books and articles, conducted retreats, lectured, travelled in Britain and Ireland and on the Continent, attended plays and concerts and visited art galleries. His long studies had been in European civilisation, so most of Europe had meaning for him. He also fell in love.
He tells the story simply. In 1968 he met Margaret "gentle, very pretty", an American graduate student who touched him "in an unexpected way." She quietly returned his love. He himself was unsettled by unrest within the Church and the prospect of marrying and taking a lectureship in Cambridge was very appealing. For 18 months he wrestled agonisingly with this unexpected challenge.
Following gentle advice, he became convinced that he would not care much for the needs of others, were he married. There spoke St Ignatius. He said goodbye to Margaret in Boston and never contacted her again. In a piercingly sad sentence he mentions he thought about her almost every day for three years.
His superiors wanted him back in Australia to lift the standard of teaching of theology so he returned to Jesuit Theological College in Parkville, Melbourne, where he lectured for one term, then spent a term at the diocesan seminary, Corpus Christi College, Glen Waverley, then six months overseas, lecturing at Weston College, near Boston, followed by research, writing, travelling in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Of course, during this period he published books and articles, gave retreats, lectured at Australian universities, broadcast on radio, etc. Significantly, he admits that he had gradually given up prayer, the core of Jesuit life, although the Mass remained his spiritual anchor. Then suddenly he was offered the chair of Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome: "My travelling had finished. I had found another home."
The character of Fr O'Collins as revealed in this book? A prodigious worker. One is staggerered when considering the list of his achievements, including publication of over 50 books. He was intellectually brilliant, a gift of which he was conscious, as was Newman, and which he offered to Jesus and his Church. Affectionate and surrounded by affectionate relatives, he was proud of his family's history. He was also keen on sports and a good golfer. He was deeply spiritual: as he says, he never lost the sense of the Presence (of God).
This book will interest many readers because it will bring to the minds of the older generation the state of Catholic life before Vatican II. For the younger generation, it will do the same and, additionally, explain much about the trends in the Church since the Council. Above all, it will reveal a wonderful man.
Dr Frank Mobbs formerly lectured at Catholic colleges, seminaries and universities in philosophy and theology.