In the nineteenth century it was common to include with biographies of notable politicians, bishops and writers a collection of their letters. The practice echoes a time when writing letters was the only way of communicating at a distance and within large organisations. It was common then for both writers and recipients to keep copies of their letters. Today much communication can take place face to virtual face or by phone, and email has become a standard form for casual correspondence. For biographers the sources that letters once provided have become more fragmented and their preservation more precarious.
These changes have affected Jesuits, too, whose central archives have been a mine for historians. Jesuit Superiors and other officials around the world were required to write regularly to Rome about the state of their Province and the challenges they faced. The practice continues, although the technology has expanded.
In such a time of challenge to the written word it is comforting to know that some Jesuits have continued to correspond regularly with family and friends by letter, and have retained or regained copies of their letters. Fr Gerald O’Collins is notable among these. He has drawn on his correspondence in the three volumes of his autobiography, and has now published this collection of letters to family and to some friends during and after the years he spent in Rome. These were a time of significant change in the Church, covering the Papacy of Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the beginning of Francis.
In his letters he makes only passing references to the controversies, rumours and issues which were at the centre of press coverage of the Vatican. His correspondence, however, is invaluable, in allowing the reader to see the network of relationships that constituted Rome for him. These include the teachers, students, Vatican Officials including Pope and Curia, visitors, journalists, publishers, friends, relatives and other Jesuits. They include also the institutional networks that brought these people together: the Roman Universities, the Vatican Congregations, the Jesuit Curia, the Religious houses, the Seminars, Conferences, Documents, cycles of the Church Year and significant changes in Vatican appointments. There are also the relationships and institutions outside Rome – the universities, theological colleges, conferences and publications of England, Australia, the United States and other nations, and to the friends gathered there.
The letters to family in Australia display the interchange between these various networks in Fr O’Collins’ day to day life. They are brought to life through the explanatory annotations of the letters. Close friends make regular appearances; people met first as theological students return later as Bishops and Cardinals; such leaders of church and state as Gough Whitlam and Archbishop Carey are met at the dinner table. Indeed, as we might expect in letters to the family, many of the events described are dinner parties or receptions. Fr O’Collins’ eye is consistently on the people rather than the event.
Taken together these letters represent both Rome and the writer’s life as a place of hospitality. They are discreet and generous – no eavesdropper would be offended by the way in which they are described, nor is catty Vatican gossip relayed. The letters are about persons and not about their public image. They also represent the ways in which personal relationships within institutions can be a source of blessing. A path is opened for a student’s further study, a writer is commended to a publisher and a theologian to an anxious Bishop, recommendations and references are offered, and advice is discreetly given.
Letters from Rome and Beyond describes an ordinary life as it should be lived. It is also a source of encouragement that in Rome and in large institutions such a life can be and is lived.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ