Book of tributes launched in honour of ‘Reluctant Prophet’ Albert Nolan, OP

A book of tributes to Albert Nolan OP, the renowned South African priest, author, theologian and anti-apartheid activist, has been published less than nine months after his death on October 22 last year.

Edited by Mike Deeb OP, Mark James OP and Philippe Denis OP, and published by ATF Press, the 500-page volume includes contributions from 71 of Nolan’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.

Archbishop Stephen Brislin, who addressed the book’s Cape Town launch on July 8 and was named as one of 21 new cardinals by Pope Francis the very next day, described Nolan as a great intellectual and academic with a special gift for being able to speak and write profound thoughts and ideas in a way that was easily understandable to people. “There was no complicated language disguising or softening what he taught—he was straight forward and to the point. He lived what he taught, especially through his simple lifestyle. Always kind and gentle, he had a wonderful sense of humour,” Brislin recalled.

Many of the tributes in the book, Deeb noted during the Gauteng and Cape Town launches, referred to Nolan as a ‘prophet’, a title that is partly mirrored in the book’s own title. However, the book’s full title ‘Reluctant Prophet’, is 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 was 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 launches 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.” In his foreword to the book, former Master of the Dominican order Timothy Radcliffe OP also reflected on Nolan’s “simple, whole-hearted joy”, recalling a memory of a pub visit some forty years earlier when Nolan came to stay in Blackfriars, Oxford. “[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.”

The book and the launch events also underlined Nolan’s commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle, including his unprecedented 1983 request to be excused from taking up the role of Master of the Dominican Order, to which he had been elected, so that he could remain active in his opposition to the system that discriminated against black South Africans. In his contribution, Nicholas Punch OP recalls how the Dominican Chapter had to vote again to see if they accepted Nolan’s reasons for declining, which they duly did. “So, we had to go through the process of electing again! It did not take long for the Irish provincial Damian Byrne to be elected. How­ever, Damian travelled lightly and did not bring his habit, so he was sworn into office in someone else’s habit! Damian added something though. He promised obedience not only to the Order and to the pope, but to Albert Nolan. That received a standing ovation! I dare say this was probably the most unusual election in the his­tory of the Dominican Order,” Punch writes.

Addressing the Gauteng launch, well-known anti-apartheid activist and theologian Reverend Frank Chikane recalled how Nolan and his Catholic network kept him out of the clutches of the notorious apartheid security police when he was once again facing arrest and detention in the 1980s. “I was hidden in convents and community houses and Albert even arranged for me to stay for three months with the Jesuits in Jules Street. The Catholics really took care of me,” the ordained Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa minister recalled. Nolan himself also had to be hidden from the security police, with Brigid Rose Tiernan, of the Sis­ters of Notre Dame de Namur, writing about how Nolan approached her community in mid-1985 with a request to join them in Melville, Johannesburg, for security reasons. He used that time in hiding to write God in South Africa: The Challenge of the Gospel. While not as well-known as Jesus Before Christianity, Anthony Egan SJ argues that the book provided a “major contribution to under­standing a Christian response to a revolutionary situation”.

Besides Nolan’s books and his central role in the writing of the seminal Kairos document, which helped expose the contradictions in the South African Church’s response to apartheid while galvanising Christian opposition, the book also delves into other aspects of Nolan’s anti-apartheid activism. It includes a chapter titled ‘Operative 42’, written by Horst Kleinschmidt, former assistant to Reverend Beyers Naudé, and former director of the Christian Institute, which tells how Nolan smuggled letters from banned organisations and individuals in exile to activists on the frontline. Former Catholic Institute for International Relations general-secretary Ian Linden, meanwhile, 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.

In his foreword, Radcliffe 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. “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.”

Tributes to Albert Nolan OP. “Reluctant Prophet” Book Launch.
Johannesburg 1st July 2023

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

By Terence Creamer

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.

Left / Button

Contact info

 Piazza Pietro d'Illiria, 1 | 00153 Roma | Italy


Social network

Right / Button