A Midlife Journey

Author: Gerald O?Collins SJ
ISBN: 978-0-85244-803-8 pp. 437, pbk
Date: 2012
Price: ?15.99
Publisher: Gracewing, Leominster

In this first part of an extensive autobiography first written in 1974, Fr O?Collins takes us from his childhood in Australia to his appointment as a Professor at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1974.

Although revised since then for publication it has the zest and bloom of a young man?s work and the sheer vigour and vitality of the man is what impresses the reader most. I became tired just reading of his travels through post-war Europe and his extensive conversations and meetings with eminent theologians in the post-war scene. In fact the Index reads like a ?Who?s Who? of European post-war theology and there are not many key figures who do not crop up at some point. This of course makes the book instantly fascinating and gives some new insights into the characters and personalities of many people one only now knows through their literary legacy.

At one point O?Collins describes a fellow minister as ?the epitome of a charming English priest. He had a fund of stories, an astonishing memory for names and faces, and preached effective, personal homilies.? Such a description could be equally applied to O?Collins himself and the person who emerges from these pages is a straight- forward and honest observer of the ecclesiastical scene around him without much ?edge? or any particular axes to grind. Readers looking for deep theological insights, however, will be disappointed. O?Collins has perhaps wisely confined these to his fifty or so published works on systematic theology. Rather, what we get here are several hours in the company of a witty and charming host who peppers his accounts of theology in the 50s and 60s with wry observations and telling anecdotes. Some are amusing and surprising ? Germaine Greer playing a stripping nun on the Cambridge Footlights for example. Other stories will inform the younger generation who have no idea of the type of formation to which priests and religious of O?Collins? generation were subjected.

The chapters on his time in the Jesuit novitiate in the 1950s, a culture he describes as ?rigid, ancient and alien? are indeed gruelling to read and it is amazing how such a balanced and humane figure emerges from what sounds a deeply pathological formation. He mournfully describes a novitiate excursion as looking like a ?prison outing?, a view the reader has to concur with. Yet there is no doubt that his encounter and embrace of European culture in the 60s was the essential formation for the man, especially in the cultured salons of Cambridge (still, at this time, rarely inhabited by Catholic priests) and ultimately leading to his decision to spend the rest of his life in Rome.

However we shall have to wait for Volume Two to hear how this develops. During Pope Benedict?s visit to the UK in 2010 a section of this autobiography was published in The Guardian detailing O?Collins life as the young Joseph Ratzinger?s neighbour in T?bingen in 1967. Most of the account was in the original Guardian article but it still makes fun reading and worth buying the book for this alone: ?There was always an air of formality about the way he looked. You would not see him in jeans and a T-shirt...? An image, once conjured, that is difficult to banish from the mind (Jo and Gerry sharing a barbie in the 1967 summer of love...). This is a direct and honest account of the theological formation and development of a sincere and eminent theologian who also clearly possesses a great heart.

I think, however, it is unfinished work. Schopenhauer once wrote that the first half of life had the appearance of a beautiful tapestry but the second half was the revelation of the jumbled threads that wove together to make up the tapestry. Fr O?Collins has woven the first half of the tapestry, we await the second half with keen interest.