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BOOK REVIEW - Reluctant Prophet: Tributes to Albert Nolan OP

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Former Master of the Dominican Order Timothy Radcliffe OP, who has been appointed by Pope Francis to lead the bishops’ Synod retreat this month, describes the Reluctant Prophet: Tributes to Albert Nolan OP as an unusual book.

“It is rare to have a collection of such different sorts of contributions, ranging from the highly personal to the academic,” Radcliffe writes in the foreword. “But this is what the people of God is like, a deeply and beautifully diverse community of pilgrims on the way to the Kingdom, conversing as we travel.”

Published by ATF Press, the 500-page volume includes 70 contributions from 71 of the South African priest’s friends and contemporaries, including his Dominican brothers and sisters, former students from his days as a Young Christian Students chaplain, as well as colleagues, academics, and political activists.

The articles are written by a diversity of Catholics, people without religious affiliation and Christians of other denominations, including well-known anti-apartheid cleric Reverend Frank Chikane who spoke at the book’s first launch in Johannesburg on July 1. The subsequent Cape Town launch on July 8 was addressed by Archbishop Stephen Brislin who, the very next day, Pope Francis named as one of 21 new cardinals.

Published less than nine months after Nolan’s death on October 17 2022, the book is edited by Mike Deeb OP, Mark James OP and Philippe Denis OP. It reflects not only the impact that Nolan had as an author, including through his internationally acclaimed 1976 Jesus before Christianity best seller, about which, Radcliffe reveals, Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, expressed concerns during their first formal meeting in 1992. “My duty was always to stand up for the brethren, and so I argued that any action that was undertaken against the book would increase its sales, which I was sure the Cardinal did not wish to do. He agreed, smiling.”

The book, however, also shows that Nolan’s impact was one of brother, Dominican, preacher, priest, pastor, mentor, theologian, intellectual, political activist and friend, which was reflected in the tributes that circulated in mainstream and social media after Nolan’s death, including one from South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet.

Many of those tributes, Deeb reflects, referred to Nolan as a ‘prophet’, a title that is partly mirrored in the book’s title. But the full title is far more reflective of who Nolan actually was – especially his humility. Drawn from a documentary interview with the Irish TV company, Radharc, and described in Joseph Dunn’s book No Lions in the Hierarchy, Nolan is quoted as saying: “If there’s any sense in which (my speaking up) is prophetic, then like Jeremiah I’m a very reluctant prophet, and I wish to God that I didn’t have to do it.” Deeb went further at the launch by distinguishing Nolan from the traditional view of prophets as people who can come across as serious, grumpy, aggressive and abrasive.

“Albert was always so joyful and welcoming even of those who disagreed with him,” writes Deeb.

Radcliffe, too, recalls that “simple, whole-hearted joy” when Nolan came to stay in Blackfriars, Oxford, some 40 years ago and he took him to a pub. “(His joy) so overflowed that when the time came for the pub to be closed for the night, the publican invited us to stay on and share some more drinks with him. I had never had that honour before or since.”

Despite admitting that he would have preferred “a peaceful relationship with authority”, Nolan emerged as a tireless anti-apartheid campaigner and even an underground operative who smuggled letters from banned organisations and individuals in exile to activists on the frontline. (It was revealed by contributor Horst Kleinschmidt, former assistant to Beyers Naudé, the director of the Christian Institute, that Nolan was known as Operative 42 within the underground struggle).

Nolan used his Catholic network to hide activists from the security police. That network, including the UK-based Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), was also employed to spirit banned activists back into the country and to fund the internal resistance against the apartheid government.

In his chapter, former CIIR general-secretary Ian Linden describes how the priory set up by Nolan in the working-class area of Mayfair, Johannesburg, following the sale of the provincial house in the leafy upper-class suburbs, became the ideal bolthole and Nolan the ideal financial adviser for secretly getting money into South Africa to support the struggle inside the country.

“He was a key member of a clandestine Christian group that included the indomitable dissident Dutch Reformed Church dominee, Reverend Beyers Naudé, the charismatic Pastor Frank Chikane, later Chef de Cabinet for President Thabo Mbeki, along with Fr Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, then secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference. They performed the invaluable role within South Africa of guiding this stream of funding to the internal movement of the ANC – whose base was outside South Africa in Lusaka, Zambia and to a lesser degree in Maputo, Mozambique.”

The book reflects Nolan’s outsized impact on the Dominican Order, the Catholic Church and the broader Christian community. It includes recollections of Nolan’s unprecedented, and successful, 1983 request to be excused from taking up the role of Master of the Order, to which he had been elected, so as to remain in South Africa to oppose apartheid. Several contributions highlight his central role in the drafting of the seminal Kairos Document, which helped expose the contradictions in the South African Church’s response to apartheid and galvanised Christian opposition.

Contributions also include reflections on how his skilful use of Cardinal Joseph Cardijn’s See-Judge-Act method of social and theological analysis helped many Christians understand their role in opposing injustice and how to act with integrity in doing so.

Nolan’s ability to ‘read the signs of the times’ and to ‘stand for the truth’ must surely resonate at this time when the Catholic Church is undertaking its Synodal journey, and “conversing as we travel”. Nolan, as this book demonstrates so powerfully, would not fear the diversity of voices and would let all of them be heard; even ones with which he strongly disagreed. Yet his analysis and his actions would have been driven primarily by his unwavering option for the poor and the marginalised, no matter the personal cost.

The Reluctant Prophet: Tributes to Albert Nolan OP can be purchased online through the ATF Press at

Terence Creamer was a member of the Young Christian Students in the 1980s and 1990s and a full-time organiser for the movement in 1993. He currently works as an editor and journalist in South Africa.

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