From mid-February to mid-March of this year, the École biblique enjoyed the presence of Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP, former Master of the Dominican Order (1992-2001). We asked him some questions.
Fr. Timothy, you were at the École for a few weeks. What was your program?
I had no programme! I have just completed a new book, Choisis La Vie, about to be published by Le Cerf. I felt that I had said nearly all that I wished to say. I felt happy but empty. The time had come for a pause so that I could learn what the Lord wanted me to do or say next, if anything. Any vocation, whether as a Dominican or a lay person means keeping an ear open for the next step in the adventure of following the Lord. Think of the Director of the École, my old friend Jean-Jacques Pérennès! Algeria, back to France, Rome with me, Egypt and now Jerusalem.
And so I needed a time to be quiet and not prepare any lectures or articles, just to listen to the Lord. This listening happens in many ways – in silence, being attentive to one’s friends, reading ‘the signs of the times.’ One way absolutely central for a Dominican is listening with fresh attention to the Word of God. That is why I came to the École Biblique, so as to open my ears afresh to God’s Word. The idea had been that Anthony Giambrone OP would guide my reading, but he was ill in the USA. Even so he did from afar with great generosity. I just wish that I could have stayed longer!
No Dominican visiting the École fails to linger in our library. Did you find here what you came looking for?
First of all, I was immensely appreciative of the kind and generous welcome of the library staff, especially of Pawel. The great advantage of a library with open shelves is that every time that I looked for a book, I saw five others that I wished to read. I used to teach Scripture at Blackfriars, but I stopped in 1988, and I was surprised to see how the literature has changed and developed.
This trip to Jerusalem has also allowed you to reconnect with an École that you know well. In the general panorama of biblical studies, how do you see the mission of the École today?
Our society has largely lost a love for the dispassionate search for truth; the testing of hypotheses; the joy of discovering that one has been wrong! Academics have always infected by prejudices and party politics, just like everyone else, but we need somewhere like the École in which there is a careful, expert passion for the truth. Learning dead languages, practising archaeology and so on, can be very ascetic. One might long to be out and about doing pastoral work much of the time. But, as Lagrange knew so well, the credibility of our preaching of the gospel ultimately needs some people to be passionately about what the texts mean. Otherwise we shall be tempted to use them for our own ends, and be Masters of the Bible instead of its obedient servants.
The Motto of the Dominican Order is VERITAS, truth, and the École embodies part of what it means to search endless for the truth.
Of course understanding our faith involves many skills which no one can master by themselves. We need dogmatic theologians, philosophers, moral theologians etc. But central to our search for understanding are Biblical scholars who keep our feet on the ground, in love with the text.
Brother Anthony Giambrone opened my eyes to how far the conflicts of the Reformation still mark the way in which we read Scripture. Centuries old disagreements about what it means to be justified by faith still colour our reading of the gospels and most especially of St Paul. I would hope that one of the things that the École stands for is a Biblical Study that leads one beyond sterile disagreements of the past, into a fresh insight into the scriptures in which we find peace and Christian unity.
I was vastly impressed by the progress on La Bible en ses traditions. When it was first launched it seemed such an enormous project that I wondered how far we would ever get. And yet it is happening! Surely Christianity will slowly wake up to what a tremendous resource this is for us all! Lukasz Popko OP introduced me to the work on the Book of Jonah, which was dazzling. I was so pleased to see the attention to art as well as the history of its reception. It is as if one is reading the text within a community of scholars, artists, saints, thinkers which spans the centuries and the globe. It was wonderful to see so many young lay men and women working with us on this exciting project.
These weeks spent at the École have also allowed you to meet the community of brothers, the researchers in residence and the students. Can you say a few words about these exchanges?
It was a delight to be able to eat and pray with the broad community that the École has become. What a wonderful basis for a Christian community, to pray, study and eat together.
It is very much in line with the vision of Lagrange, who thought that we learnt as much about the Word of God from the liturgy as from academic study. And these often come together over shared food (plentiful at the École) and wine. I was struck by the joy of the community.
Jerusalem remains marked by political tensions. How do you view the country’s development?
Lagrange wanted the École to be in the Holy Land because how can we understand the Word of God if we do not come to love the land in which the dramas of our faith were enacted? But it did not look to me like a land that was loved and cherished. In and around Jerusalem, the land was overburdened by buildings, the land possessed, claimed. And when one went out into the Judean desert, it was polluted with plastic. If only the land were truly loved, maybe it would be easier for its inhabitants to love each other.
No one was able to offer me any signs of hope that peace and justice would come to this troubled land. But if the dead tree on Golgotha could bear fruit on Easter Day, then we can never despair that love will triumph.