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Interview with Fr. Albert Nolan, O.P.

Interviewed by Fr. Luis Ramos, O.P.

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Q. Could you tell us something about your background?

A. I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and I am fourth generation South African-my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents were all born in South Africa, coming from England originally.

Q. How about your past studies?

A. As far as academics are concerned, I did not do very much before becoming a Dominican. My studies really began after entering the Order.

Perhaps I should say a word about why I became a Dominican. I was going to become a diocesan priest, and then I read Thomas Merton. His revival of contemplation was of great interest to me. But I did not want to be a Trappist, and in any event there were no Trappists in South Africa. I wanted to be able to preach. I was attracted to the Dominicans by that, and also by the fact that Dominicans did study. So that combination of contemplation, study, and preaching is what attracted me to the Dominicans.

As far as my Dominican formation goes, I can say that I believe I had a very good novice master, Fr. Bernard Delaney, an English Dominican. He made a very deep impression and impact on me.

Q. How did you become interested in the topics of race and racial integration and the struggle against apartheid?

A. I think the first part of that is the Gospel itself. It was by trying to live the Gospel that made me realize, in fact, that what was happening in my country was unjust, unfair-cruel, in fact-to black people. I had not been quite so aware of that before I became a Dominican.

Q. Is there any precise event that was pivotal in this change in you?

A. No. I've often been asked if there was a precise event that changed me, and the answer is, No, there wasn't. It was gradual. Certainly, in our parish near the priory where I was educated, a place called Stellenbosch, I did meet poor people and people who were suffering, so gradually, yes, I came to realize the evil of apartheid.

The more political or social involvement came later, when I was a chaplain to university students, black and white, who conscientized me about a lot of things that were happening and why they were happening. So, that period of my life when I was university chaplain was very important for me as well.

Q. Do you distinguish between social involvement and political involvement?

Yes, I do, in the sense that it was not important for us to be part of a political party. We were not-people like myself, Dominicans, Christians, etc.-trying to gain power. We were working for justice. That's a social issue. We did work with political parties-in fact very much so-because it was necessary to do that in order to ensure that there was going to be social justice. So, while we worked with politicians, when the time came to have a democratic election, it was the politicians who became members of parliament and of government, but those of us who had worked on behalf of Christianity and because of our Christian faith, we continued working in the Church; we were not interested in political power. But there were a few people from the Churches who did go into politics, partly because there were not many people to take all the political posts of government that was necessary at the time.

Q. Did you ever see any conflict between your social activism and your vocation as a Dominican and religious?

The conflict was not so much with being a Dominican, but there was conflict with the Church and with other members of the Church, because there were many people who said that one should not be involved in politics, and that even issues of justice were not the kind of thing that a priest should be involved in. I was often accused of being a "political priest."

I was also accused of being a communist. If you were against the government-which was regarded as a Christian government, even if it did wrong-and if you wanted equality for everybody, then you were a communist. That was a criticism that I and many in Latin America put up with: the accusation of being a communist. All that is gone today, but it was a problem in the past.

Q. Do you really think that is all past?

A. Yes, in the sense that now we have democracy. In 1994 we had our first democratic elections. Up till then only white people could vote; black people could not. That meant that something like twelve percent of the population voted and dominated everybody else. Now we have a democracy. And now the accusation of being a communist is gone, because there is equality. There is still a communist party, but it is in alliance with the A.N.C. [African National Congress], the party that is in power, and everybody has now met the communists and knows that they are some of the best people in government, and in fact some of the best people in the country. So, the accusation of communism is gone.

What has not gone is the racism. The policy of apartheid is gone, and racial discrimination is outlawed, but many people are still racists at heart since you cannot change the heart as easily as you can change the constitution or the laws of the country. So, yes, you do still have racism. But what has happened is that we now have what is regarded as probably the most progressive constitution in the world, partly because we wrote our constitution only recently, and so could learn from every other constitution in the world. But not only that. It is also because the people wrote the constitution together. There was a constitutional committee that opened up the constitution to the whole country. Anyone could write in, anyone could say what he wanted in the constitution, or what he did not want in the constitution. So people participated in it, and that helps to make it a very good constitution.

It is also a good constitution because it is reacting to the discrimination of the past. In the constitution there is no racial discrimination. Nor is there any discrimination on the grounds of gender or sex; discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, as they say, is excluded, so that homosexuals, gays, and lesbians have equal rights and can appeal to the constitution. Even people who have AIDS and people who are disabled have equal rights and can appeal to the constitution if they are ever discriminated against. Of course that also means that other groups such as Muslims or Jews have equal rights. So, in that sense it is a very progressive constitution.

Capital punishment is also against the constitution, and that again makes it more progressive, I think, than countries that do have capital punishment. Some of the most famous countries in the world have it. Many African countries around us have it.

We have a very good constitution, but we do have problems. We have many problems, partly because of what we inherit from the past, and partly because of the world we live in. Because we have so much unemployment, there are problems with poverty, homelessness, crime-often very violent crime-and with corruption and fraud. But things are different inasmuch as all those problems are now public, they are known, they are exposed regularly. There was always corruption, but now corruption is exposed, people make a big fuss about it, they set up commissions to investigate it, especially in the government. So, while there is a good deal of corruption, there is also a lot of discussion and argument about it. Sometimes the government is not very good at solving the problems, but that the problems are discussed and opposed makes it a healthy democracy, I think.

Q. What can you tell us about being Provincial in South Africa?

A. Legally, I am a Vicar-General rather than Provincial, since technically we are not a province but a vicariate general. We come from two vicariates, the Dutch and the English which both had missions in South Africa. In 1968 they were amalgamated together with the South African Dominicans, and at that time one vicariate general was formed.

We haven't been able to form a province yet, partly because we lack the number of men and priories required. We could have two priories soon and become a vice-province, but it is difficult because we have had to reorganize all our apostolates in order to come together in one place to be a priory, and that has been difficult. I am not, therefore, a Provincial but a Vicar-General, although I am often called a Provincial.

I am currently in my third term. I had two terms from 1976-1984. Now I've been asked to come back to do it again. I am in my third term with a gap between the second and third terms.

Q. What are the needs of your Vicariate, as you see it now?

A. Well, we're only thirty-eight men. That's a very small number. Formation is a very important priority indeed. We get vocations, but not very many; it is slow. But that's good. That's how we must progress to the future. I think we will grow bigger, but not fast. I do not have a problem with that, because I think it is more important for us to have good quality than great quantity.

We emphasize spiritual renewal. It is the quality of our life that really makes the witness, rather than the numbers.

Q. How do you pray when confronting misery, suffering, injustice, and misunderstanding?

A. I think we have learned to live with that-not that we do not protest against it. It is very sad, and we continually try to change the country so that there will not be poor people, or fewer poor people. But I think we realize that this is very difficult with the kind of globalized economy we live in today. We have to realize it is a struggle that will take a long time. We cannot solve all these problems ourselves and need to trust in God and do the best we can. So, I think that would be more my prayer.

The virtue we need most of all, I would say, is hope. We need to teach people hope, and to be hopeful ourselves in one way or another.

Q. How can you teach hope?

A. Well, "teach" is entirely the wrong word. No, you can't teach hope. But if we are hopeful, and can give an account of our hope to others, as the Letter of Peter says, we can, by what we do and say, enable other people to be hopeful.

Q. Can you say something to us about your book Jesus Before Christianity?

Well, it has now been translated into nine languages. I wrote it many years ago, and in fact Orbis Books is publishing the twenty-fifth anniversary edition this year. I wrote the book when I was chaplain to university students. What happened was that I wanted to teach the university students faith and theology. That was something very difficult to do since they were not interested in the kind of theology we grew up with. So, I thought maybe the best way to talk to them about theology and about faith was to talk about the person of Jesus. So I tried to build everything around Jesus as a person, trying to make him a live and a loveable person. I found that was very successful. People listened when you were talking about a person. Also, remember this was the 1970s, so it was a time when there was a great deal of interest in Jesus-Jesus Christ Superstar and all that kind of thing. So, it went over very well. Then it was suggested that I take those talks and write them up in a book, so I did some more research then wrote it in a book which I called Jesus Before Christianity. I had no idea it would ever be a successful book. I thought a few people who had been listening to me at the university might read it, but I did not think it would be read much beyond that. It turned out to be a book that met a real need. I wrote it as simply as I could, taking what the scholars were saying and putting it very simply, since I had in mind university students who might well be Catholics but not theologians. I wrote it for students and it seems to have been successful. puce


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