Prominent Catholic theologian, Professor Brian Gaybba, died last week. He studied theology in Rome during the watershed Second Vatican Council and has influenced generations of theologians in Southern Africa. Susan Rakoczy remembers Gaybba in this obituary.
Catholic theologian Brian Patrick Gaybba died on 25 February in Grahamstown at the age of 78. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
Born in Woodstock, Cape Town in 1939, he attended St Catherine’s Convent, Claremont and St Joseph’s College, Rondebosch. After matriculating he worked as a bank clerk for a year and then began studies for the Catholic priesthood at St John Vianney Seminary, Pretoria. Ordained in 1962 at 22, he did parish ministry but then was sent to Rome where he earned a licentiate and then a doctorate in theology at the Urban University. He was in Rome during the Second Vatican Council and had many stories of observing the changes in the Church as they happened. One of his favourite anecdotes of those years concerned his encounter with Karl Rahner, SJ, the leading theologian at the Council. While in Germany he made contact with Rahner who had to catch a train. Brian went along on the trip; they struggled to find a common language and settled on Latin for their theological discussion.
When he returned to South Africa after studies he continued in parish ministry, taught at St Francis Xavier Seminary and was the Catholic chaplain at the University of Cape Town. He was a theological advisor to the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference and a member of the Anglican-Catholic Unity Commission.
But then his life path changed dramatically; in 1977 he was dispensed from his priestly vows and married Monika Gaertner. They had two children, Jennifer and Richard.
He now began many years as an academic, first at the Theology by Extension College (TEEC) for a brief period and then ten years at the University of South Africa, the first Catholic on the theological faculty (1978-1988). During the early 1980s he became a founding member of the Catholic Theological Society of South Africa. In 1989 he moved to Rhodes University in Grahamstown where he was Professor of Theology in the Divinity Department, the first South African to hold that position. Among his publications are Spirit of Love: Theology of the Holy Spirit and God is a Community.
He retired in 2002. In his retirement years he continued to write and was involved in the local Grahamstown community through Rotary; he established the Grahamstown Feeding Scheme and also assisted in the Capuchin formation programme through teaching a course on basic Catholic theology.
In an interview he answered the question “Who am I?” by responding, “Someone whose memories grow more and more wonderful and fulfilling as time passes.” Former students at Rhodes reacted to the news of his death with warm appreciation of the impact he had made on them: “I am forever shaped by his systematic thinking and his reflections on God as Community” and “he shaped my entire theology; I can’t tell you how many times I have preached on what he taught us.”
Brian’s funeral was celebrated on Thursday, 1 March at St Patrick’s Church in Grahamstown. He is survived by his wife Monika, his daughter Jennifer and her husband David Stevens and their sons Joshua and Luke, and his son Richard. May he rest in peace.
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