No Place Like Rome

On the Left Bank of the Tiberby Gerald O'Collins, S.J.

Gracewing. 332p $24

Gerald O’Collins, S.J., has written a delightful memoir on his years in Rome at the Gregorian University. With Rome’s history in mind, he shares a series of personal and touching stories to explain the matrix that generated his theological and spiritual writings. Yet they communicate not only one man’s experience but represent the essences of persons and institutions, what the sociologist Max Weber called “types.” I advise anyone in Rome to get to know a priest of O’Collins’s type. He is straightforward and honest and not afraid to engage contrary opinions, though this has sometimes landed him in trouble. Fearing that he had been too frank with a reporter, he recounts being “rescued” by Italian thieves who stole the tape of the interview from the reporter’s car. This is a great book for anyone who loves Rome or who hopes to live or study there.


O’Collins is the kind of priest whose faith is evident and who loves relationships and collaborating with others. He places great importance on family and friends, and his loyalty is lasting. He describes the steady stream of his visitors flowing though the Gregorian, some going back to his Australian origins and others who are world figures, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and his wife, Eileen. His stories show him to be an excellent colleague, mentor and friend. He appreciates both human and artistic beauty. His loyalty to his friend Jacques Dupuis, called Jim, is touching, and his account of how his collaboration with colleagues and students contributed to his development as a theologian is edifying. He is proud of his students and their successes.

Seeking a deeper encounter with multiculturalism, O’Collins initially sought assignment to India, but he unexpectedly found the encounter at the Greg, with its connections to national colleges and its international student body. He saw how global inequality resulted in deficiencies in early education that caused difficulties in enrolling students and how a certain ruggedness there made it challenging to recruit full-time faculty. With humor and regard he reveals the unity and the diversity that characterized the international Jesuit community. We meet characters like Felice Cappello, S..J., a canonist in and out of favor with popes, and saintly alumni like Archbishop Romero and Sr. Luz Marina, who became martyrs. He reflects on three styles of theology that laid the foundation for his “retrieving fundamental theology.” One is classical European academic theology centered on the verbal expression of truth; the second is Latin American liberation theology that strives to live the truth while seeking justice; and the third flows from the Eastern churches’ expression of truth in worship.

The papacy is central to Rome, and O’Collins witnessed three pontificates during his time there. The first was that of the frail and lonely Paul VI. The second was that of the gracious pastor John Paul I, who reigned for only one month. The third was John Paul II, a complex and innovative man who as bishop of Rome regularly visited parishes and was the first pope to visit a Roman synagogue. O’Collins offers an honest and thoughtful discussion of his pontificate that extends over two chapters. He was impressed by John Paul’s use of the language of experience. As a communicator he was a star and at his best when he spoke simply and directly. He also identifies shadows of this papacy. One was a tendency to over-centralize the church; another was his heavy-handed treatment of the Jesuits, especially Pedro Arrupe. The third appeared as insensitivity to Latin America, demonstrated in his treatment of Archbishop Romero. Overall he evaluates John Paul II’s legacy positively and cites his major role in the downfall of Communism and his promotion of the well-being of families and ecology. He was a pioneer in encouraging all religions to embrace a common responsibility for human welfare. Though not perfect, he truly displayed heroic virtue.

O’Collins predicted that whoever succeeded John Paul II would take the name Benedict because it responded to the greatest need of the time: reconciliation. Yet he offers frank criticism of that successor, Joseph Ratzinger, who presided over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during O’Collins’s years in Rome. Here the type of bureaucracy, rooted in ancient Rome, helps us to interpret events.

Weber said that bureaucracy could be a very efficient form of organization, but it could also be an iron cage. Bureaucracy can lead good people to exercise bad behavior. A lack of transparency can allow faceless men to wage vicious battles in which pettiness, misinterpretation and misunderstanding prevail. O’Collins criticizes the bureaucratic functioning of the C.D.F. under Ratzinger, which he said lacked professionalism, lacked respect for biblical scholarship and produced theologically flawed documents. O’Collins had a mixed relationship with the Vatican, and his detailed account of the investigation of Jacques Dupuis from 1998 to 2004 represents bureaucracy at its worst.

A Belgian, Dupuis came to the Gregorian after many years in India, where he had been immersed in interreligious dialogue. He displayed a passion for recognizing the treasures of world religions not unlike that of Pope John Paul II. O’Collins asks if the Dupuis investigation might be a case of misplaced aggression against the pope himself. O’Collins, who served as Dupuis’s spokesperson before the C.D.F., asserts that fair process was lacking and Dupuis was accused of holding views he did not hold. Dupuis loved the church and wanted to be loved by her; his love for Christ and the church was strong until the day he died in 2004.

O’Collins loved Italy and the Italians, who favor individual freedom over national unity and speak a language filled with cute ironies. He appreciated their kindness and devotion and made many Italian friends for whom he provided pastoral services like weddings, consolation in sickness and funerals. He also loved his travels throughout the world, many of them connected with pastoral purposes. He comes across as a man who is always growing and shows a willingness to make changes in the beginning, middle and latter part of his life. He has worked well with his brother Jesuits, his fellow theologians, the Catholic hierarchy and leaders of other religions. He is definitely not the bureaucratic type, but truly a man for others.

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