CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The late Dominican Father Albert Nolan “was a beacon of hope for the poor and oppressed in a world and a country that is still characterized by gross inequality and injustice,” said Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
Nolan, a world-renowned theologian and anti-apartheid activist, died suddenly in Johannesburg, South Africa, Oct. 17. The author of the seminal 1976 book “Jesus Before Christianity” was 88.
Born in Cape Town in 1934, Nolan joined the Dominican order in 1954. The theologian served as the order’s provincial superior in South Africa, 1980-84 and 2000-2004.
In 1983, he was elected master of the Order of Preachers, and thus worldwide leader of the Dominicans, but he immediately asked to be relieved of that position to be close with the oppressed people of South Africa.
In South Africa, Nolan continued his anti-apartheid activities. After being one of the key initiators of the groundbreaking ecumenical Kairos Document, which gave a theological basis to the struggle against apartheid, Nolan had to go underground to evade extrajudicial detention by South Africa’s Security Police. In hiding, he wrote “God in South Africa,” published in 1988.
As Dominican provincial, Nolan made the decision to sell the order’s house in an affluent part of Johannesburg and relocate to a run-down property in a working-class neighborhood. The reason was not financial but an attempt to bring the Dominican community closer to the reality of the people they were called to serve. The Dominican house also gave office space to the Catholic Young Christian Students movement and other community organizations.
Nolan, who was known for his gentle humility and keen sense of humor, advocated that theology must first come from the grassroots, and he saw himself first as a preacher rather than a scholar.
“Jesus Before Christianity” has been translated into at least nine languages. Jesuit Father James Martin said on Facebook it was the first book he had read that situated Jesus in a historical context.
“His book influenced me more than almost any other book on Jesus,” Martin said.
Sipuka, in a letter of condolences to the Dominican community, said Nolan’s “example of life and lucid naming of what is wrong with the prevailing systems of politics and economy and a call for Gospel-inspired alternative ways was a consolation for the poor, a challenge for the leaders and a motivation for the church to remain steadfast in its preferential option for the poor.”
Nolan’s requiem was celebrated at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Springs, near Johannesburg, Oct. 19.
Simmermacher is editor of The Southern Cross, Cape Town.