Fr Albert Nolan – “A long obedience in the same direction.”


by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell


There are people whose faithfulness to living their call from God impacts countless lives. Fr Albert Nolan OP, who died earlier this week, aged 88, was one such person. Although I met him a few times, I did not have the privilege of knowing him personally. However, during my Wits Catholic Society (CATHSOC) days, I was friends with older students he had mentored. Through his impact on them and his writings, I came to experience something of his influence. I am awed by the number of people worldwide impacted similarly by the responses to posts about his death on social media.


Nolan was a priest, theologian, and social activist, a brilliant but kind and humble man. He was dedicated to the anti-apartheid struggle, even declining to accept the position as Master of the Dominican Order worldwide in 1983, choosing to stay in South Africa at a critical time.


He assisted in drafting the Kairos document in the mid-80s. Nolan pioneered contextual theology: a way of doing theology that emerges from the experiences of people and their suffering.


In the 80s, he was the priest chaplain to students in the National Catholic Federation of Students and Young Christian Students movements. He taught them to think critically about the situation in the country. He advocated values of justice and solidarity with the poor and lived these out in the simplicity of his lifestyle. Nolan courageously put himself at risk in his underground work in the liberation struggle. The fact that so many of his students continue to make significant contributions of their own to the common good says a great deal about the lasting impact of the relationships he formed with them.


He wrote several best-selling books which have had a global impact on theology, most notably Jesus before Christianity and God in South Africa. Nolan said that in writing these books, he was moved by “an urgent and practical purpose” – alleviating “the daily sufferings of so many millions of people.” He saw that living as a Christian responded compassionately to the signs of the times and sufferings of our context.


As I reflect on Nolan’s immense contribution, I see a person who God used in the particular context of the height of the struggle movement in South Africa to work for justice in many different ways: as a student chaplain, editor, contextual theologian and retreat giver.


Part of his impact is undoubtedly his brilliant intellect and his kindness. As Friederich Nietzsche said: “There is a long obedience in the same direction”. Nolan was clear about what he felt God calling him to be and do in the time and place where he found himself, and he did that faithfully in whatever ways were open to him.


Nolan’s life leaves us with a question: Given my gifts and the context in which I find myself, what is God’s call in my life, and how do I live it faithfully?

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