Jesus has been 'the constant companion of my life'

Gerald O’Collins, S.J., is an Australian Jesuit systematic theologian who currently serves as an adjunct professor at the Australian Catholic University. He studied at Xavier College and the University of Melbourne before entering the Society of Jesus in 1950 and being ordained to the priesthood in 1963. He holds a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Cambridge, an S.T.L. from Heythrop College, and M.A. and B.A. degrees in classics from the University of Melbourne.

From 1973 to 2006, Father O’Collins taught theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. Prior to that, he taught theology during alternating semesters at the Jesuit Theological College (Melbourne) and at Weston School of Theology (Boston) from 1969 to 1973.

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A longtime contributor to America since 1970, Father O’Collins has authored or co-authored more than 60 books, including the recent “Christology: Origins, Developments, Debates” (Baylor University Press, 2015) that is a follow-up to his original “Christology” book.

On Oct. 15, I interviewed Father O’Collins by email about his work.

On June 15, you published a follow-up to your original Christology book. What inspired you to write a second book on Christology?

My original Christology book, now in a revised edition with Oxford University Press, aimed to provide students and professors with basic teaching. That put me under the constraint of covering the essential biblical, historical and theological questions. Then the admirable director of Baylor University Press, Dr. Carey Newman, wanted a book from me, and I thought: “Yes, it’s worth charting recent debates about Jesus, illustrating how Peter and Paul are key guides to faith in him, and taking stock of some issues that concern today’s vital dialogue with those of other faiths.” And so I published my recent Christology.

What is Christology and what’s the most important thing for ordinary Catholics to know about it?

In the discipline of Christology we ask: “Who was and is Jesus?” and “What has he done for us and for our world?” Our answers shape our sense of Catholic and Christian identity. If we don’t get Jesus right, we won’t get the Church right.

In this new book, what lessons or graces do you draw from recent debates in Christology?

Let me mention three welcome developments. First, Larry Hurtado and others have firmly established that, from the earliest years of Christianity, Jesus was worshipped and acknowledged as truly divine. Second, the Christology of Jon Sobrino, S.J., and of other liberation theologians, has pressed the cause of transforming society through the practice of justice and peace. Third, Han Urs von Balthasar has encouraged recognizing the beauty of Christ as a central datum.

You are a “systematic theologian.” What do those words mean to you and what is distinctive about your own approach to this field?

Systematic theology sets itself to clarify terms, ask central questions, and organize the basic data of Christian faith into a coherent whole. From the start of my theological career, I drew on the Scriptures and historical sources, and took advantage of outstanding philosophers. From the early 1980s, I made experience the leitmotif of my theology. Finally, I always aimed to use straightforward and accessible English when writing my books and articles. It must be a matter of lasting regret that too many theologians continue to write a clunky English that fails to communicate vividly. 

Recent surveys indicate that young Catholics want an experience of God from their religion rather than a set of principles. Pope Francis, our fellow Jesuit, seems to reinforce this attitude when he talks about faith in terms of an encounter with Jesus Christ who is truth. Given this evangelical emphasis on the primacy of relationships over ideas, how would you describe the role of theology in the Catholic Church today?

Much Catholic theology already takes advantage of the help provided by excellent biblical scholarship and historical research, not to mention the contributions coming from the human and natural sciences. But that theology should be more relational, experiential and prayerful. This would mean following Eastern-rite Christians by letting the Holy Spirit draw out the best in our experiences and relationships, and so making theology serve our common worship and personal prayer. Western theology still needs to make more room for the “Go-between God.”

In your five decades as an academic theologian, what are some of the biggest developments and changes you’ve witnessed in Catholic theology?

Catholic theology has witnessed seismic shifts as it has ceased being largely a male, clerical monopoly. Supported by the growth of biblical and historical studies, it has generally left behind abstract scholasticism and joined Blessed John Henry Newman in examining how church teaching actually developed over the centuries. Theological leadership has largely passed from Belgium, France and Germany to the United States.

From your perspective, what does Catholic theology most need today?

Driven by the pastoral needs of our world and church, too many up and coming theologians are reluctant to learn the languages, ancient and modern, and do the research required by their calling. More than ever, Catholic theology needs men and women ready to devote themselves to tough study.

The magisterium, or teaching authority of bishops united with the pope, often restrains theologians out of pastoral concern to protect the faithful from theories which seem too novel or too unproven. What gift does the magisterium offer to theologians?

The bishops not only lead the church but also represent innumerable rank and file Catholics. They form a jury for theologians to address when testing the results of their study and new insights. Dialogue with bishops helps ensure healthy theology.

Many Jesuit theologians, especially in the years before the Second Vatican Council, have been restricted from publishing and teaching but later endorsed as orthodox. Karl Rahner, S.J., even suggested once that theologians aren’t really doing anything interesting until they have been censured for a while. What gift do theologians offer to the magisterium?

Much more than bishops, theologians have the time for reading, reflection and discussion. They should offer bishops the fruits of their work and, at times, respectful correction.

Your book on the Trinity was called The Tripersonal God. What key insights have you tried to contribute to our Catholic theology of the Trinity?

Four questions loomed large to prompt insights in The Tripersonal God: What can we know of our triune God? How should we worship our God? What does God call us to do? What may we hope to receive through “the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit”?

Your recent book on Jesus Our Priest emphasizes Christ’s threefold office of priest, prophet and king. What image captures this theology of Christ’s priesthood most vividly for you?

A photograph from a Coptic cathedral in Egypt shows Christ the High Priest in glory stretching out his wounded hands to the universe.

In recent decades, some Christian theologians have re-articulated our ancient discomfort with the historical and physical reality of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, seeking to explain this event in metaphorical or psychological terms. But in your own works on the resurrection, you have insisted that Scripture itself makes it impossible to interpret Christ’s resurrection as anything other than an event that happened to a physical body. Based on your research, what’s wrong with recent theologies that seek to reinterpret the resurrection in non-literal terms?

Theologies that favor an “over-spiritual” interpretation of Christ’s resurrection propose the survival of his inner self, or, even worse, that “resurrection” is merely a way of talking about our continuing to live up to his ideals. They misinterpret the robust New Testament proclamation that he rose bodily from the tomb and into a new life of glory. Without accepting the empty tomb, we don’t believe in the living and powerful Christ who will transform human beings and their world.

One theological challenge with the resurrection, as with many of the miracles reported in Scripture, is that we seem unable to explain precisely how it occurred. Summarizing your own work, what do you believe really happened to Jesus Christ in the resurrection?

When Jesus rose body and soul from the dead, his historical life rose with him. His material existence was transformed and lifted beyond all the limits we experience in our earthly life. With Christ’s human capacity to relate and communicate maximalized, the resurrection prefigured God’s transforming activity that will finally change and redeem the whole created universe. These are the headlines; it is hard to press on and supply the small print. After all, in dealing with the resurrection, we face the awesome Easter mystery that eludes the grasp of our intellect.

In his book The Survival of Dogma, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., pointed out that our Catholic theology of the Eucharist could use further refinement in today’s world, but he added that recent theories like “transfinalization” and “transsignification” had failed to provide satisfactory alternatives to the classical dogma of transubstantiation. At this point in the history of Catholic dogma, what ways, if any, do you see for our theology of the Eucharist to develop in a positive way that still honors traditional teaching?

Blessed Pope Paul VI wisely remarked that “as a result of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new meaning and a new finality.” As the greatest of the sacraments and the central act of worship in the life of the church, the Eucharist can never be neatly summed up. Mario Farrugia and I spent many pages in Catholicism (Oxford University Press, rev. edn., 2015) trying to freshen up theologically a traditional and contemporary appreciation of the Eucharist.

In the Eastern Catholic churches, theology has developed in directions which feel much closer to Orthodox Christianity than to Roman Catholicism, resulting in a faith that is fully Catholic and at the same time completely free of Thomist influences. What can Latin Rite Catholics learn from the Eastern Catholic tradition in our theology today?

The Eastern Catholic tradition has both treasured the role of the Holy Spirit in the church’s life and maintained a lively sense of beauty, divine and human. This theology of icons has much to teach Western Catholics and theologians.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned from theology?

Over the years I have learned the need to “watch my language” in the presence of God. We theologians need to be scrupulous about the words we use.     

How does your Jesuit identity and training influence the way you do theology?

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which shape the training and identity of Jesuits, are utterly Jesus-centered. That has profoundly influenced my theology and also led to my putting the name of “Jesus” into the titles of 10 or more of my books.

Who is Jesus Christ to you?

The constant companion of my life, Jesus is the One on whom I want to center all my thinking and loving. 

When you meet Jesus in the next life, what do you expect will happen?

I expect to be simply swept away by the unique beauty of Christ. I hope and pray that he will forgive my sins and perhaps even thank me for speaking up for him in my teaching and writing.

Who are your role models in the Catholic faith, either living or dead?

I have found role models in students I taught at the Gregorian University who, like Blessed Oscar Romero (an earlier alumnus), have been martyred for the practice of their faith: Patrick Gahizi, S.J., Sister Luz Marina Valencia Treviño and others. Modern-day good Samaritans, they went out of their way to help wounded people and paid the ultimate price for their love.

How do you pray?

The Psalms and phrases from the New Testament (e.g., “love endures all”) nourish best my prayer life.

How has your faith changed or evolved over the years?

When I entered the Society of Jesus, I thought too much about my own eternal salvation. I had to learn the central importance of loving service towards other people.

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

I treasure St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, and find it comes alive repeatedly when I substitute the name of “Jesus” for “love.” After all, he was and is in person the “agapē” which Paul celebrates.

How would you describe the theology of Pope Francis?

Pope Francis is trying to implement the teaching of Vatican II: for instance, the collegial governance and a radical concern for the poor that the council endorsed.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Catholic theology today, what would it be?

Please encourage more theologians like Cardinal Walter Kasper to step forward and help them to be heard.

What regrets do you have about the past?

I wish that I had done more for the sick, the hungry and those in jail.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope that the good Lord will continue to help me serve others in whatever years are left to me.

What do you want people to take away from your life and work?

Right now I am just about to publish the third volume of my memoirs, From Rome to Royal Park (Connor Court and Gracewing). An autobiography is inevitably an act of self-justification. Yet I hope these volumes will enlighten people as to where, warts and all, my life and theology came from.  

Where do you find God most strongly in your life right now?

Living as I do among thousands of university students, both Australian and international students, I find God in their zest for life and hopes for the future.

Any final thoughts?

Lastly, I want to express my profound gratitude for the enduring hospitality shown to me by America magazine and all those who have lived over the years at America House.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Escril
2 years ago
More bleeding-heart liberalism and endorsing of heresy (Kasper). And people wonder why the Catholic Church is in the state it is in ? All we hear is the poor, the poor, the poor......hey, what about the middle-class ? What about more religious vocations ? What about better Catholic schools ? Catholic colleges and universities ? Defending the civil rights of Catholics ? Of course, this guy is a Jesuit, the loyal soldiers of the Church (/sarcasm).
Douglas Fang
2 years ago
Mike – it seems that you are hopelessly attached to your extremely narrow-minded and ignorant view about God, Jesus, the Church, and humanity. Based on this comment and your comment in the other article, I see that you bring zip, nothing to the debate and should be better quiet. Your words sound very similar to the words of the Jewish religious leaders when they condemned Jesus to death because in their view, he had committed blasphemy, he was a false messiah, and he was a heretic because he claimed that he was God himself.
William Rydberg
2 years ago
Thank you for your service Fr O'Collins SJ ! In my opinion, the questions posed to this famous Theologian portray the dominance of Liberal Protestant Scholarship with respect to taking for granted that the supernatural does not exist and the only acceptable hypothesis is that things described in Scripture have their origin only in human events. It's not that looking at Scriptures do not benefit from a variety of lens, but to interview such a noted Theologian like he was a Liberal Protestant Scripture Scholar is perplexing, especially in a Jesuit publication! In my opinion, Fr Salai SJ would have benefited the America readership more by framing his questions using Dei Verbum, in particular, taking in to account the wide variety of methodical approaches to the study of Scripture. Perhaps some of the questions above would have yielded better fruit. Finally, one often reads about St Thomas' 13th Century scholarly approach as if it were simply the study of Theology. It seems to me that even the Scholars forget that there were not separate disciplines Scripture, Theology and Philosophy. But don't seem to have a problem comparing apples and oranges... I think a disservice is done to St Thomas if this fact is not taken in to account in comparative analysis.
Charles Matthews
2 years ago
I have a different point of view. I don't think it is liberal Protestant scholarship; it is the modern world view. We use electricity, do space exploration, use modern medicine, and many other things that the scientific revolution brought about. We are not living in the 13th century (although I have great respect for St. Thomas as a man of his time). The issues of today are much different. The mentality of modern humanity is different. The salvific and transformative work of Jesus today will also be different from the past. Faith must dialog with our mentality today, so that belief makes sense for modern men and women. I think both the interviewer and Fr. O'Collins are trying to do just that.
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years ago

Thank you all for reading.

Bill Mazzella
2 years ago
Sean, Your questions are pertinent and fairly comprehensive. You covered the matter well. Though Gerald is aware of the theological problems he fails to question the bishops who must bear responsibility with the watering down of the Beatitudes. His alumnus, Romero, certainly did not get his gospel from the Gregorium. But from the reality of having compassion on the multitude. But it takes courage to be a prophet. Gerald understands the nature of a memoir when he admits, in this memoir crazed aged, that a memoir is "self justification." Narcissism might be more accurate. Even Andrew Greeley and Hans Kung succumbed. Memoirs are valuable for some history but one should proceed with caution. Of course, Augustine started it all. The man from Hippo wrote so much that his influence on the West is outsized and problematic to say the least. The Church of Dogma strayed from the Gospel often and found it a stumbling block and a scandal.

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