The Education of a Historian

John W. O’Malley

John W. O’Malley SJ The Education of a Historian: A Strange and Wonderful Story. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2021, 192p.

O’Malley says that The Education of a Historian is not an autobiography. Yet it is definitely a biography. It is more a sharing of growth as a historian. He taught history as a young Jesuit. He liked it and decided to ask his provincial study history at Harvard. It is not a choice that is usually where Jesuits get their doctorates. The provincial nevertheless gave him the green light. Professor Myro Gilmore introduced him to the history program at Harvard. Gilmore appeared may times later in his journey learning to be a historian.

All of O’M’s books are scholarly and full of history and theology. The style is interesting, easy to read and informative. The Education of a Historian is different; it has no footnotes. It is a legacy of what he learned about research and history as well as the story of his life and his craft. What he learned is due to professors, friends, and sometimes to intuition or simple luck. His focus was the Renaissance especially the sixteenth century. His dissertation was research of the sermons given at the Basilica of St. Peter at the Vatican. The style was special. Years later he noticed the special style of Vatican II; the sixteen documents were not in the style of Canon Law, but a style of collaboration, and consensus.

My first reading of O’ Malley’s books was What Happened at Vatican II? (2008) In Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (2000) O’M’s research on the Renaissance and its culture helped him very much in this work. Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (2018) used his knowledge of the sixteenth century and he added his research of the Ultramontane Church. Four Cultures of the West (2004) is a development of both culture and history.

O’Malley could have lived his whole life in Tiltonsville, Ohio teaching history. However, he joined the Jesuits and went to Germany, Italy, especially to Rome, Florence and cities that helped his research of the Renaissance. He studied lessons on renaissance art and culture at Columbia University in the summer when it was not taught at Harvard. Later when he finished his research in Florence his provincial, Fr John McGrail, intervened and won permission for him to live at the American Academy Association which put him among students of renaissance art and culture.  There was a two-week conference for Raphael’s birth, and to observe it a two-week conference for specialists in Renaissance art and culture were organized. He published an edition of a sermon preached in the Sistine Chapel in 1508. The preacher said Rome was the new “School of Athens”. Later he was invited to meet in the Sistine Chapel to help the publication of a book of the pictures of the renewed Michaelangelo paintings.

In the Epilogue of the book, O’M writes: “Their selves and their craft interact and inform on another in an ongoing, dynamic and creative process. Siena mi fe Siena made me. (Dante)

Ernest Falardeau, SSS

Cleveland, Ohio