le Jesus? We
ga don't know ourselves'
Ed West meets the theologian who taught a whole generation of bishops
Iam in the presence of a man who has. I am told, taught more current bishops than anyone in the English-speaking world, if indeed the entire Catholic Church.
Fr Gerald O'Collins smiles and shrugs. "I used to lecture to a few in Rome, but some of the men I've taught are dead, martyred. I don't think I've had a cardinal yet, but one must be coming along soon enough."
But, Australian modesty aside, Fr O'Collins teaches more than just future bishops, for all Christians are his students. As Lord Carey of Clifton put it, writing about Fr O'Collins's book Jesus: A Portrait: "Gerald O'Collins is one of those rare Christian theologians who can combine deep scholarship with accessible language and personal experience." The whole world is his classroom.
Born in Melbourne in 1931, he comes from a "totally Irish background" and carries an Irish passport to visit the country of his ancestors as often as possible.
"I was over there last week, in Derry. I like going to the north. I find them very real. I love the south, but the north is different. It has come out of civil war and it has an edge. Last time I was there it was the middle of winter and there were guys with no sleeves on their shirts and they'd obviously spent time behind bars. They had great eye contact," he laughs.
He gets a consistently positive reaction in Ireland. "In Dublin last week I was lecturing and twothirds of the audience were men. That's unusual — there were some priests, but mostly laymen."
He was speaking about Jesus: A Portrait, or "book 50" as he calls it. When me meet, in St Mary Moorfields outside the city of London, the queue to buy the book is so long that they soon sell put, rather frustrating the publisher who wished he'd brought more. Beforehand Fr O'Collins gives a sermon at Mass about the beauty of Christ.
And yet when Fr O'Collins completed the manuscript last May he had a nasty shock. It is every biographer's nightmare to discover they have a rival, but when that person is the Pope, it is especially trying.
"When I finished writing it last year I found out that the Holy Father had written on exactly the same subject," he recalls. "I spent a weekend reading his book and realised we converge on a lot of central points but we are different. His has more to say on the temptations, his book covers from baptism to transfiguration. But we have the same idea."
Maybe the ideas have been floating around since the 1980s, when be was a neighbour of Bishop Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They even had the same landlady. It was a good time.
"1 loved it in Rome, the international side of things,he says. "Particularly the students from all over the world."
Fr O'Collins was here from 1973 until 2006. Having grown up and studied in Melbourne he moved to Germany and then Cambridge, where he did a PhD, and then spent five years in Boston, catching the tail-end of Cardinal Cushing's time.
What does he recall of living next door to the future Pope?
"He used to go to bed early and get up early, real early. He also had a fleet of Dachshunds, and you had to watch that you didn't stand on them. You could kill one if you stood on its back.
"He's the best scholar. He gave a very good lecture at a Protestant centre about the Eucharist — meal or sacrifice? Both, he said. Good scholarship is an awful lot on the Pope's side, and I don't think he realises how many allies he has.
"I remembered he'd just written a book — Introduction to Christianity, which built a house for him and his sister." His sister, Maria Ratzinger, managed the then Bishop Ratzinger's household until her death in 1991. "She loved to listen to music with him, she cooked with him. I remember going to a concert with both of them. His book is still in print, and it deserves to be." So are most of Fr O'Collins's works which, though academic, are readably academic. He says there is "an enormous gap in the market for books examining Jesus", such is the popularity of Christ even in this atheistic time. But he also writes books aimed at a more academic audience.
This month Oxford University Press are also publishing another one of his works, Salvation For All: God's Other People. "That's one of the more significant books I've ever written, it's about the biblical side of inter-religious dialogue, which hasn't been done. People in inter-faith, whether centre, left or right, none of them have read the scriptures properly."
The same goes for the pop Biblical scholars. Post-Da Vinci Code there seems to be an unquenchable thirst for quasi biblical pseudo-history dealing with the "real" Jesus and the Apostles. A recent documentary claiming that Peter never died in Rome especially irritated him (although he smiles with anger).
"You just don't do that, the Peter thing. The tradition that Peter was martyred in Rome is early and unchallenged. Whether he's buried under St Peter's is a further question, but it's very likely true. There were two great British archaeologists, Jocelyn Toynbee and John Ward-Perkins, who went there in 1956.
"There are no rivals to the convergent evidence from very early sources. But these people found something with 'Simon Son of John' and said, `wow'. No Israeli would even suggest that , that is Peter's tomb, because Simon was an incredibly common name, as was John. Simon Peter was like John Smith today.
"History is a very fragile discipline. Poor old history, it's established its scientific way of looking at things, with good historical scholarship, and these people come in and play these silly games. And that's the fruit of all these hundreds of years of great studies. What people are saying is not even pseudo or wacky scholarship, it's not scholarship, its just wacky nonsense."
But it's not all bad. He was impressed by the BBC's The Passion, which aired this Easter.
"Not bad. I thought when Mary was saying `it was him but it wasn't him. Jesus, but transformed,' I thought it was a nice touch, a nice way of putting him — new, transformed, glorious. Then when he walked away from Peter, the great love between them. Only the one he loves see him.lt was as good a way as finishing as any."
After three decades in Rome Fr O'Collins now teaches al St Mary's University College, Twickenham. He still travels around the British Isles — he loves the trains here — and writes with zealous productivity. In November Oxford University Press will publish book 51, Catholicism: A Very Short Introduction. "I wanted ti do Jesus: A Very Short Introtiuction as well," he says.
Still, he adds, none of us can really know the real Jesus "Do you know yourself'?" he asks. "No, we don't even know ourselves."
Jesus: A Portrait is published by Dorton, Longman and Todd and is available for £10.95 from www.dltbooks.com