Unlikely revolutionary

2008-04-30 00:00

A Roman Catholic priest with the surname Nolan. Must be Irish. “So when did you come to South Africa,” I ask Albert Nolan. “I’m fourth-generation South African,” he replies. “My great-grandmother ran a boarding house on Greenpoint common.”

Nolan, a Catholic theologian currently resident at the Dominican Priory in Pietermaritzburg, is not only South African born and bred, his ancestors came from England. “Although probably my previous ancestors came from Ireland; it is an Irish name.”

Nolan (74) was born in Newlands, Cape Town, moving at the age of two with his family to Gardens. “I have a brother and a sister, both with families and both retired. They are younger than I am and keep telling me I should be retired as well.

“I’m bursar at the Dominican Priory,” he laughs. “That’s the sort of job you do if you are retired. And I’m responsible for the spiritual formation of our students.” He also edits the Dominican newsletter Buwa Buwa (speak, speak), writes for various journals, is busy assembling an anthology of his articles and is much in demand for his talks. Nolan is simply not the retiring type.

He came to Pietermaritzburg in 2005 and, after spending 2007 in Johannesburg, returned again this year. In-between his various duties, Nolan’s day conforms to the regular rhythms of the religious life. “We have morning and evening prayer and there is mass each day.”

Nolan’s upbringing wasn’t conventionally Catholic. “My father was a Catholic, but my mother wasn’t, so many of my relatives weren’t Catholic,” he says. Although his home life wasn’t entirely Catholic his school days were, first at St Mary’s Convent and then at Marist Brothers in Rondebosch. After leaving school, Nolan worked in a bank for four years. “I realised counting other people’s money was not for me. I wanted to be of service to people in the church and decided to become a priest, then a Dominican priest.”

The Dominicans are a religious order founded by St Dominic in the 13th century. Members add the letters O. P. to their surnames. The letters stand for Ordo Praedicatorum — the Order of Preachers. The Dominican emphasis on study and teaching appealed to Nolan. “These were linked together with living in community. We are friars as opposed to monks. Friar means ‘brother’; the Dominicans are a brotherhood.”

Dominicans take three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. “Poverty means we have no personal property and own everything in common,” explains Nolan. “Obedience is obedience to the Dominican community, usually personified by an abbot. I’ve not had a problem with it. People here are very reasonable.

“Celibacy was the thing I was most apprehensive about when joining. But it worked out all right. I’ve always been kept busy, I have good friends and I am very committed to living in community.

“The way we understand our vow of chastity is that we are available for everybody. There are issues of loneliness and companionship. But I can’t say it’s been a big problem. It’s meant I can get on with my writing and reading. But it would be a great difficulty if one was a priest alone in a parish and not in a community.”

In 1954, Nolan commenced his training at the Dominican Priory in Stellenbosch. This was Dutch Reformed Church territory and Nolan suddenly found himself regarded as part of the “Roomse gevaar” (Roman peril). According to Nolan, one of the reasons for the Dominicans being in Stellenbosch was to try to change this perception. They succeeded and were gradually integrated into the life of the university. “We were seen as a political danger more than a religious danger because of our opposition to and criticism of apartheid.”

In 1961, Nolan went to the Dominican University in Rome. Returning to South Africa in 1963, he was appointed university chaplain at Stellenbosch, then national chaplain supporting all the university chaplaincies in the country. “I would visit all the universities, which were separate — black and white — in those days.”

Nolan’s first book came out of this experience. “I found the best way to educate Catholic students theologically was to talk about Jesus instead of dogmas and doctrines.” When a student suggested he write a book, he did. Jesus Before Christianity, published in 1976, has since sold an estimated 250 000 copies and been translated into 10 languages.

“Its success came as an enormous surprise to me,” says Nolan. “I suppose it fulfilled a need. This was the day of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, so the interest in Jesus was there. The book put what was to be found in scholarly journals into more accessible language.”

The book also spoke to South Africans living under apartheid. “It got across that Jesus was involved in issues of politics and economics, that he faced the problems of the society of his day. There was no separation between politics and religion in those days. You couldn’t say ‘Oh no, I don’t get involved in that, that’s politics’.

“The book emphasised the social dimension of the gospel. And it was clear the values of Jesus contradicted apartheid.” It was a message that inspired a generation of Catholic students to become anti-apartheid activists.

The same year the book appeared, Nolan went to Johannesburg to take up his appointment as Provincial of the Dominicans in Southern Africa. “I arrived in June just as everything was blowing up in Soweto.”

Dominican headquarters was a house in the plush suburb of Houghton. “We decided this was not the place to be so we moved to the poorer suburb of Mayfair. This multi-racial suburb was the best place to be in the struggle days.”

During that period, Nolan says the Dominican stance was clear. “Justice was one of our priorities.

“Back in Stellenbosch, the security police hadn’t liked us because we helped people in squatter camps and organised protests. Some Dominicans were deported or temporarily imprisoned during states of emergency. When I knew they were looking for me I went into hiding.”

In 1984, after two four-year terms as Provincial (“I was involved in administration, taking care of the Dominicans, moving people around where needed.”), Nolan joined the Institute for Contextual Theology where he became editor of the magazine Challenge for 10 years. “That got me into the world of media — the alternative media.”

It also resulted in another book, God in South Africa — The Challenge of the Gospel. “That dealt with the theology of the struggle against apartheid — and what it meant for a Christian.”

His latest book, Jesus Today, is in response to more recent concerns. “There is a huge hunger for spirituality,” says Nolan. “The book shelves are laden with books on it, but the books don’t look at Jesus’ own spirituality. Jesus becomes an object of worship rather than a subject, a person who had a spirituality that we can learn from.”

Published in 2006, Jesus Today has already sold 30 000 copies and has proved the fastest-selling book yet for its American publisher.

“If there’s a thread that runs through my writing it is the attempt to take Jesus and the gospel seriously,” says Nolan. “We say glibly ‘Oh yes, I’m a Christian’, but then leave out the inconvenient parts.

“In the Gospels there is a big emphasis on the suffering of the poor and the greed of the rich. But it’s not spoken about in sermons. In the Gospel of Luke, one verse in seven is about the poor. The church needs to emphasise strongly the existence of the poor, otherwise they become invisible, insignificant and forgotten. Somebody has to say this economic system is unjust, that destroying the environment for profit is immoral and that a war for oil is unjust. I see that as the role of the church, just as once we said apartheid was unjust.

“Some people say that it is the duty of the church to say that is a lie and that another world is possible.”

That possibility has inspired Nolan’s life. “I suppose part of what my life has been about is to bring together ideas of social and economic justice with spirituality. These two are often kept separate. People are interested in one or the other. Those interested in spirituality will say social justice is not for me. Those interested in social justice say spirituality is too self-indulgent. I have tried to bring them together. Belief in Jesus and the values of Jesus prevents us divorcing the two.”

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