The Church needs theologians – Fr Gerald O’Collins sj


By Debra Vermeer

The Church needs theologians to effectively expound the Word of God in the third millennium with fresh language and new images, because where theology is weak, the Church will not be healthy, according to distinguished Australian theologian and biblical scholar, Fr Gerald O’Collins sj.

But, Fr Gerald said that these fresh approaches must include a commitment to rigorous scholarship, including the study of ancient languages.

Born in Melbourne, Fr Gerald earned his PhD from Cambridge University and spent 33 years teaching at the Gregorian University, Rome, where from 1985-1991 he was also Dean of Theology. He has been a visiting professor at universities in Ireland, the UK, the US, Australia and other countries. Fr Gerald has authored or co-authored 60 books and is a much sought-after lecturer and presenter at universities around the world.

The Jesuit scholar was the keynote presenter at a Summer School for The Broken Bay Institute in January, where he spoke on the topic of Access to Jesus as part of a ‘Faith, Revelation and Theology’ unit. He was joined by a team including one of the youngest theologians in Australia, 25-year-old PhD candidate, Dan Fleming, a BBI faculty member.

Fr Gerald said he was happy to be back in Australia, after many years living and working overseas, and to be getting out and meeting so many different people engaged in the study and teaching of theology.

“I’ve been everywhere – Bendigo, Lismore, Western Australia and other places – and you get fresh audiences wherever you go,” Fr Gerald said.

“I’m often talking to people in education, in schools, and I’m really full of admiration for what they’re doing.

“I also did an eConference with BBI (Jesus the Christ in 2010) and that was wonderful. You’re reaching thousands of people doing that - it seems very worthwhile.

“And the people I’m working with here (at BBI) are much closer to ordinary people and educationalists, so I’m very interested to hear what’s on their minds. And I can pass on to them things I’ve learned and gleaned in the last few years.”

One area of current international scholarship that he has been sharing with his students is the eyewitness testimony of the Gospels.

“After all, Jesus died and rose about 30 AD – well Peter doesn’t die until the 60s,” Fr Gerald said.

“Some of them died earlier and some of them died later, but these eyewitnesses, they’re controlling the tradition. They’re saying, ‘no, you’ve got it wrong, I was there’ or ‘yes, you’ve got it right’. And some of these were minor eyewitnesses like Bartimaeus, somebody who was cured by Jesus. Why was he named in the Gospels? He was named really because he told that story. Or Simon of Cyrene, he could tell that section of the Passion story – that seems to be the reason why their names are there.

“So there’s a lot of interesting work being done on eyewitness testimony. I feel I can pass on things about Jesus scholarship, what’s happening there.”

Rigorous academic pursuits underpin good scholarship

Reflecting on the changes he has seen over the decades, Fr Gerald said one of the big positive moves has been the opening up of theological study to more people.

“Well, far more women are studying it, and many more lay people in general, so that’s a major change. Because theology was mainly a study for people aiming to become ordained priests – and now all sorts of different people from different walks of life are studying it, so there are a lot of pluses there,” he said.

“And I think theology is much more aware of the world, of the global village. You can’t do your Christian theology without thinking of Judaism too and Islam and so forth. I mean theology today is often taught along with the study of religions.”

Fr Gerald welcomed the modern pastoral application of theology but urged students not to overlook the more rigorous academic pursuits that underpin good scholarship.

“The one thing I suppose I’m a bit concerned about is, that about 50 years ago people were willing to spend a lot of their life in libraries, learning the languages, the ancient languages and the modern ones. And really, I don’t think there are as many willing to do that now,” he said. “I can understand that. They find it so tough that they want to have some pastoral ministry in their lives and so forth - a theology that’s practiced and preached. But we have to have the other people that know Aramaic and Hebrew very well and the other ancient languages, and read Spanish and German and French, otherwise it's not the full picture. That’s a concern of mine, that tough scholarship - and that very often involves languages - is falling away.”

But, he said the growth in people studying theology was good news, because the need for theologians was as strong as ever.

“The Church needs theologians - it needs all kinds of things - but where theology is weak I don’t think you’re going to have a healthy church,” Fr Gerald said.

And, he said, theology had to keep moving forward, while always grounding itself in scripture and tradition.

“People talk about Vatican II changing things, well it did, but some of those changes were retrievals. The Second Eucharistic prayer is retrieved from the 3rd century, it’s the earliest Eucharistic prayer that we have. Those changes are often beautiful, wonderful retrievals.

“But theology that is just repetition is no real theology. I mean we have to expound the Word of God in the third millennium with fresh language and new images. The best of theology has been like that.”

A prolific author, Fr Gerald has more books in the pipeline, including a book on Vatican II and other religions, which is due to be completed later this year and published in 2013.

He has also written the first volume of his autobiography, A Midlife Journey (to be published around June 2012 by Connor Court Publishing), and has co-edited a book on Christ with a group of scientists and theologians.

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