ON THE LEFT BANK OF THE TIBER
by Fr Gerald O'Collins SJ
(Connor Court Publishing, 2013, 310pp, $29.95. ISBN: 978-1-922168-689)
This is the second volume of the autobiography of Australian Jesuit Father Gerald O'Collins. The first, A Midlife Journey, was reviewed in AD2000 last November.
There we left him as he was about to go to Rome following his appointment as Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University. In this volume he tells of his life in Rome and takes his story up to his retirement to Melbourne. Retirement? He has published a book almost every year since.
Where is the Gregorian? On the left bank of the Tiber! Fr Collins introduces us to its location and history. He expresses his love for old Rome, several times mentioning joy on sighting the dome of St Peter's and gratitude for Michelangelo's providing the basic design.
Its history? The founder of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius Loyola, established a small college in 1551. Later Pope Gregory XIII endowed it handsomely, so it was named in his honour. The Jesuits have always been in charge (except for some years when the Society was suppressed). So many of the brightest intellects amongst the Jesuits have constituted the teaching staff. It has been a powerhouse of theology and cognate subjects (e.g., canon law) ever since, producing leading theologians and numerous bishops.
Rome has many theological and other academic institutions, so it proved to be a congenial place for an Australian theologian to work. He spent his 32 years in the same room and came to love the university and the city of Rome with its majestic history. He also came to regard affectionately Italians and their ways.
What can a professor report? He mentions colleagues, outstanding scholars from all over the world. Noteworthy are his expressions of admiration for their sanctity – Fr O'Collins did not miss the sanctity of some just as he noticed the closed minds of others. Frequently he tells stories of his students, most of whom were priests or seminarians and/or members of religious orders.
One could call it a post-graduate university seeing that most students were graduates on entry, well equipped to undertake higher studies. In his early years few students were women, a situation he regarded as a deficiency which he worked to remedy, so that women over the years became students and taught courses. It is a small university of about 3,100 students, so staff could easily meet them.
The Gregorian was and is very much an international university. Bishops and superiors from almost every nation send to it their brightest subjects with the aim of supplying teachers for seminaries and universities, as well as for preparing future bishops. By the time of O'Collins' arrival the language of instruction was mostly Italian. It was also the lingua franca of the university. These facts made it an exciting – yes, exciting – milieu for an Australian professor.
He wrote and delivered thousands of lectures and published hundreds of articles. For six years he was Dean of the Faculty of Theology, a job involving much administration. One task was to supervise the writing of 92 doctoral theses. That involved knowing or getting to know a lot about the subject of each thesis.
During the Northern summer he travelled extensively in dozens of countries, regularly teaching courses in the USA, Germany, and elsewhere. He also conducted a program on Vatican Radio and gave interviews on radio and television.
Curial cardinals and popes engaged him to draft documents for them, he gave retreats, acted as confessor to seminarians, and did priestly work in parishes. And more – such as writing most of his 62 books.
This bare summary of his works lacks the anecdotes and jokes that pepper the book. The priest who taught Latin and was known as "the Latin Lover". The student who wrote 1,000 pages but could not finish his thesis. The Polish students' joke: "The Russians are our brothers." "Why's that?" "You can't choose your brothers."
Australian Clive James wanted to make a film on a decadent Roman nobleman and "even managed to get hold of a sexologist although it was news to me that Italians needed such a person," writes O'Collins. His birthday coincided with the Italian National Day, celebrated with military parades and flyovers by jets. He told the guests at his birthday lunch that Italy is the only country "which knows how to celebrate my birthday in style".
Finally, one is struck by Fr O'Collins' capacity for friendship. Australian relatives and friends, Protestant leaders and theologians, brother Jesuits, Italian noblemen and many others would call upon him or invite him to dine or stay at their homes. His enjoyment of their company shines in his many accounts of meeting them.
Australians praise their high achievers in sport, medicine, research, and business. It is time they acknowledged their outstanding theologians.