Jesuit brings recent church history to life through his own experiences

“The Education of a Historian: A Strange and Wonderful Story” by John W. O’Malley, SJ. St. Joseph’s University Press (Philadelphia, 2021). 192 pp., $30.

By Kathleen Finley | Catholic News Service

If you think history — and church history in particular — is boring, think again.

Jesuit Father John O’Malley takes us along as his life story unfolds in a Jesuit vocation and then on to graduate study in history and to living through and writing about some of the most important events in the Catholic Church in the 20th and early 21st century.

This is the book cover of “The Education of a Historian: A Strange and Wonderful Story” by John W. O’Malley, SJ. The book is reviewed by Kathleen Finley. (CNS photo/courtesy St. Joseph’s University Press)

We experience with him the sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the destructive flood in Florence in 1966, important meetings of the Jesuit order, and even being up on the scaffolding during the renovation and cleaning of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

And he shares all this with the thorough and detailed eye of a historian but also with an impressive and gentle humility, as surprised as anyone at some of what unfolds in his life.

His understanding of history is key: “The past is about the present. The past, whether it is yesterday or a hundred years ago, tells us how we got to be where we are. Indeed, the past tells us who and what we are, here and now. It serves as our corporate memory, and memory is what constitutes identity.”

He gradually changed his focus as an historian from the Renaissance to the early Jesuits, as well as exploring the Catholic response to the Reformation, for which he prefers the term “early modern Catholicism” to “Counter-Reformation.”

And his analysis includes what he calls four cultures or lenses: the prophetic/reform culture, academic culture, literary/political culture and the culture of art and performance.

He explains that his work in history is only partly done when he finishes writing. “Once the main text is done, I need to step back, talk about what I have written, relax and let the subconscious produce the eureka experience that tells me the point of my book.”

That awareness and his focus on the style of communication, not just the content, led to an important insight about what he sees as a seismic shift in our lifetime: “The bishops at Vatican II were not unconcerned about public order in the church (as in past councils), but they were essentially engaged in a different enterprise whose matrix was the style of discourse they adopted.

“Instead of concentrating on public order, Vatican II was intent on exploring and articulating anew the church’s identity, recalling and developing its most precious values, and proclaiming a positive vision for the future of humanity. That was new for a council.”

By his helpful insights about his life and career as a church historian, Father O’Malley helps us to see how important are the times in which we live.

Kathleen Finley is the author of several books on practical spirituality, including “Holy Together: Reflections on Married Spirituality” and “The Liturgy of Motherhood: Moments of Grace,” and she previously taught in the religious studies department at Gonzaga University.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

Leave a Reply