Fr Tony Campbell SJ: A scholar and a pastor

Fr Brendan Byrne pays tribute to Fr Tony Campbell as a colleague, teacher and pastor—and altogether memorable human being.

Fr Tony Campbell SJ died on 2 August, and was farewelled at a Funeral Mass on 6 August. You can read the eulogy by Sr Nicole Rotaru RSM and the homily by Fr Mark O’Brien OP.

In the reflection below, fellow Jesuit Fr Brendan Byrne pays tribute to Tony as a colleague, teacher and pastor—and altogether memorable human being.

Tony Campbell, a New Zealander by birth, was educated by the Marist Fathers at Silverstream, Upper Hutt. In 1953 he crossed the Tasman Sea to enter the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) at Loyola College, Watsonia, Victoria. After studying philosophy, he began his path in biblical studies by taking a combined Greek and Hebrew major in his honours degree at the University of Melbourne. Tony’s artistic appreciation and keen eye for detail attracted him also to archaeology. Under the inspiration of William Culican, biblical archaeology became for a time a major interest and potential area of specialisation.

After a year’s teaching at St Aloysius’ (secondary) College, Milsons Point, Sydney, Tony left for Fourvière, near Lyon, France, to pursue the theological studies required for priesthood. The choice of this theological institute stemmed from the leading role played by French theologians in the rediscovery of the Bible in Catholic theology. Living and studying at Fourvière in the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council, when the shadows and memories of wartime occupation still lingered, Tony experienced the turmoil as well as the liberation that swept through such institutions at the time. The experience contributed to an abiding conviction that any theology claiming to be genuine must submit to a rigorous checking out against the human experience it purports to address.

Following ordination to the priesthood in July 1967, Tony moved to Rome to obtain the Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute. The competence in biblical languages gained already in Melbourne enabled him to complete this degree in record time and then proceed to doctoral studies in Claremont, California, under the direction of Rolf Knierim. Here a fascination with biblical narrative—its genesis, its evolution, its ability to communicate meaning—was nurtured and honed into strict scholarly method, to become a life-long avocation.

One had only to meet Tony to grasp how significant a part those years in the California of the mid-1970s played in his personal, as well as his scholarly, formation. Throughout that period, he lived in the university parish of St Mary of the Angels, Claremont, where Monsignor Bill Barry was pastor for many years. A richly cultivated man, of keen theological as well as pastoral gifts, Barry offered both academic and physical hospitality to a whole generation of priest graduate students at Claremont. Tony’s debt to him and to the parish community is shown by his return, time and time again, when on study leave, to that same community, and to the friendship and companionship it offered.

His Claremont doctorate gained (and soon to be published in the SBL Monograph series as The Ark Narrative [1975]), Tony returned to Australia in 1975 to teach Older Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, within the United Faculty of Theology and the wider ambit of the Melbourne College of Divinity. Because of his theological studies in France, Tony had not been part of the foundation generation of students at JTC. He adapted, nonetheless, with alacrity to its distinctive style of living, finding that it offered an appropriate balance between community participation and the freedom required for continued scholarly work at the highest level.

Immediately on joining the faculty, Tony became Dean of JTC, a position he held for many years. Here he made a truly lasting administrative contribution. Prior to his arrival the organisation of studies reflected the upheaval in theology unleashed by Vatican II—rather much a time when ‘each one did what was good in their own eyes’ (Jdg. 21:25). JTC had also just become a full member of the United Faculty of Theology and much work needed to be done to bring its course requirements into line with those of the other colleges and, in particular, the Bachelor of Theology degree of the Melbourne College of Divinity. With his clarity of vision, capacity for organisation, and concern to see prescription include due allowance for individual need and exception, Tony devised a pattern of structures that endured, with remarkably little revision. Successors in administration, over thirty years, merely tinkered with the arrangements he set in place.

Besides administration, first as Dean and later as Principal of Jesuit Theological College (at times holding both offices simultaneously), Tony’s main contribution was as teacher of Older Testament. From the start, students in his classes, in both introductory courses and those of higher level, found themselves in the hands of a gifted and exciting teacher, effectively relating texts from a faraway past to universal human concerns and preoccupations. A scholar of international standing was mediating to them through his own formation under Knierim a tradition going back to the great German scholars of the 19th century. For many years, along with his former graduate student and long-time associate, Mark O’Brien, OP, Tony ran a research seminar on biblical narrative. This seminar forged a whole generation of students, including some of no great achievement hitherto, into a collective research team. The results of this cooperation emerged in a series of scholarly publications, notably the monumental study of source criticism, Sources of the Pentateuch (Fortress: 1993) and its later companion, Unfolding the Deuteronomic History (Fortress: 2000), both with Mark as co-author. Tony’s research seminar has a lasting place in UFT history—and legend!

At a higher level still, Tony had a steady stream of doctoral candidates enter into the scholarly guild under his direction. Attending an overseas conference some years back, he was bemused and not entirely ungratified to hear talk of a ‘Campbell-Schule’. His gifts for analysis and sense of process guided many students through research thickets to academic pastures that truly matched their capacities. The same gifts, along with a high concern for fairness and due process, made him a valued and challenging contributor on boards and in meetings associated with the Melbourne College of Divinity and other academic meetings. In recognition both of his scholarly attainment and the esteem in which he is held by his peers, the College in 1994 conferred upon him its highest award, the Doctorate of Divinity.

Tony was most generous in placing his flair for organisation and the preparation of material for publication at the disposal of various scholarly associations. He was for many years secretary of the Fellowship for Biblical Studies (Melbourne), whose academic journal, the Australian Biblical Review, he set up in print-ready copy for over two decades. He was an active member and office bearer in the Australian Catholic Biblical Association. Along with his publications, his participation in these and similar bodies contributed to ensuring that Australian biblical scholarship operated at the highest international standards.

Tony always sought, both in writing and in external lectures, workshops and the like, to make his scholarship available to a wider audience. An interest in psychology led him to work for many years on an interdisciplinary basis with Professor Edmond Chiu of Melbourne University Department of Psychiatry. He also brought biblical insights to the area of grief counselling, particularly in association with Sr Nicole Rotaru, RSM. His publication, God first loved us: the challenge of unconditional love (Paulist: 2000), drew on a keen perception of human experience to communicate in engaging and accessible terms something in which he passionately believes: God’s unconditional love. Many have found the book transforming.

Behind all this lay something that anyone who knew Tony well would readily concede. While he could at times present a formidable front—particularly if stirred early in the day—Tony was possessed of a deeply compassionate heart. Many are those who approached him—often in the dead of night or wee hours of morning—with some deep burden and came away feeling welcomed, heard, understood, wisely counselled. Tony’s capacity for process was never more effectively in play than in such situations. In a non-judgemental and non-directive way, he sat down and helped trapped and troubled people find possibilities, ways to go, and the appropriate order in which to take them. Women, particularly those bruised and hurt in the name of religion, found in him not only great reserves of compassion but also high capacity for friendship and support. It was here that Tony’s scholarship, priesthood and human qualities flowed together in a rich unity.

Besides his work as scholar and teacher, Tony for some years had oversight over the financial affairs of the Australian Jesuit province, of which he was for over fifty years a well-loved and respected member. His vigorous and colourful personality was widely held to belie the adage that all the ‘characters’ in the community have long since died out. While long committed to teaching and working on an ecumenical basis, his loyalty to the Catholic tradition and to the Society of Jesus within that tradition was patent. It is my privilege to pay tribute to Tony as colleague, teacher and pastor—and altogether memorable human being.

By Fr Brendan Byrne SJ