On January 19th 2008 Fr. Adolfo Nicolás S.J. was elected by the Thirty Fifth General Congregation to be the thirtieth Superior General of the Society of Jesus.
Unconditional, disinterested service finds its source of strength only in God. His identity as Servant will be his sign, the mark of our own mission, of the call which we try to respond to these days. That the joy and the hope that come from the Gospel be a reality with which we can work little by little, doing it with a lot of love and disinterested service. (Final Three Sentences from Fr. Nicolás’s first homily as the Father General)
Fr. Nicolás was born April 29th 1936 in Villamuriel de Cerrato, Palencia, Spain. He is the third of four brothers. His father was a prominent village leader and he, along with his mother, espoused strong Catholic traditions. As the Spanish Civil War began, a nearby town with communist sympathies planned to kill him. Warned by a brother who lived in that town, Fr. Nicolás’s father escaped with his family. From the beginning of his schooling through high school, Adolfo attended seven different schools. This experience helped prepare him for his vocation.
When I went to Japan, I would be in a different community every six months, from the language school on. I was used to being with new people and making new contacts, from the time of my childhood so that helped me very much for my missionary life as well. I had to travel throughout South East Asia, going to different countries, different places, different communities. My past experience certainly made it easier, so the pain of my childhood later became a blessing for my future.
His older brother entered the Jesuits, but later left. This was his first introduction to the Society. He had previously been educated by the LaSalle Brothers. Later when his family moved to Madrid, he entered a Jesuit school. He entered the Jesuits at the novitiate in Aranjuez in 1953 and was later ordained in 1967.
Fr. Nicolás studied philosophy in Alcalá, Madrid in 1960. From there he answered a request from the then Superior General, Fr. Janssens S.J., to serve in Japan. He immersed himself in the Japanese language and culture for several years, and in 1964 undertook his theology studies at Sophia University in Tokyo. There he was ordained in 1967 and after obtaining a Masters in Theology at the Gregorian Universality in Rome. He returned to Japan to teach systematic theology in Tokyo. From ’78 to ’84 he directed the pastoral Institute in Manila, Philippines and then Rector of the house for young Asian Jesuit Province of Japan. He then spent three years working in a poor migrant neighborhood in Tokyo. In 2004 he was appointed responsible for all the Jesuits in East Asia, China, and Oceania.
Fr. Nicolás has drawn many comparisons to the 28th Superior General, Fr. Pedro Arrupe S.J. who, born in Northern Spain, “spent most of his priesthood as a missionary in the land of the Rising Sun, likewise rising to its provincialate.” Fr. Arrupe was a dynamic, inspiring leaders who popularized the phrase “men and women for others” when speaking about the educational mission for Jesuit schools. Some tension arose with the Vatican as a result of his progressive approach to the ministry. Fr. Peter Hans Kolvenbach S.J. was elected Superior General following Fr. Arrupe, and is often credited for the harmony between the order and the Vatican today. Just before the 35th General Congregation convened, Pope Benedict sent a letter to the order “in a Jan. 10 letter to the Jesuits, Pope Benedict asked them to reaffirm their "total adhesion to Catholic doctrine," particularly regarding interreligious dialogue and various aspects of sexual morality.” It is hoped that Fr. Nicolás will be able to blend the virtues of his two predecessors. He has renewed his vows of obedience to the Pope, and at the same time is calling the order to a greater depth of service. In an interview he recently said “"I have a feeling, still imprecise and difficult to define, that there is something important in our religious life that needs attention and is not getting it.” His rhetoric recalls Fr. Arrupe who Fr. Nicolás once said had an intuition that far outstripped his theology…”thank God.” Fr. Nicolás has also spent much thought and effort exploring interfaith issues. He has been described as a bridge between the East and West, and it is hoped that his wisdom on the issues will be a blessing to the order and the church.
Service, Detachment, Spiritual Life and the Marginalized
Fr. Nicolás has described the three key aspects of his spiritual understanding as being service as vocation, living in the spirit, and detachment. In his first homily after being elected, he reflected primarily on service. “The more we become as servants, the more pleased God is.” He dislikes the image of service as the bearing of a cross. Instead he sees it as the true ministry of Christ, an opportunity to encounter God and walk as a companion of his. Living detached from the results of our actions, is fundamental to a life of service. For “if you win your life you will lose it.” This concept exists in the Gospels and in the writings of Ignatius, but it also overlaps with many Buddhist ideas, which Fr. Nicolás had encountered again and again in his work. “God is the servant’s only strength. We do not have any other source of strength: not the external strength found in politics, in business, in the media, in studies, in titles, nor the internal fortitude found in research. Only God. Exactly like the poor.” Disinterested service is accomplished by living in the spirit. Being detached from the results of this world’s works, and instead focusing on the constant of God’s love has, according to Fr. Nicolás, brought him relief, inspiration and consolation. The first step towards Christ, toward disinterested service, is the poor. Over and over again in his writings and his interviews, he emphasizes that it is through contact, meaning real open conversation with the poor, that we are able to serve and to love.
Father Nicolás says he’s wary of missionaries who don’t enter into the lives of the people, but keep the patterns of their home cultures – Europe or Latin America - alive in their mind. For them, it’s not about exchange but about teaching and imposing orthodoxy.
Those who enter into the lives of the people, they begin to question their own positions very radically’, he says. ‘Because they see genuine humanity in the simple people, and yet they see that this genuine humanity is finding a depth of simplicity, of honesty, of goodness that does not come from our sources.
That is a tremendous challenge, and I think it’s a challenge that we have to face. We don’t have a monopoly, and we have a lot to learn.
References and Links
Fr. Fernando Franco S.J. January, 2008. http://www.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/GC35/News-about-Nicolas.html
Fr. General’s Homily. Gesú Church, Rome. January 20th 2008. http://www.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/GC35/CG35_2008-01-20%20Homily_eng.pdf
Israely, Jeff. “Will the New “Black Pope” Work?. January 19th 2008. Time Magazine. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1705399,00.html
McVeigh, Michael. “Father Adolfo Nicolás.” Province Express. February 21, 2008. http://www.express.org.au/article.aspx?aeid=2305
Nicolás, Fr. Adolfo. “Eight Encounters With Fr. Pedro Arrupe.” November 14th 2007. Province Express. http://www.express.org.au/article.aspx?aeid=3786
Palmo, Rocca. “The ‘Second Arrupe’ on the First.” Whispers in the Loggia. January 20th 2008. http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2008/01/second-arrupe-on-first.html
Transcript of a Conversation with Fr. Nicolás. Tom Rochford, Pierre Bélanger, and Dani Villanueva. February 10,2008. http://www.sjweb.info/35/
Wooden, Cindy. “New Superior General Urges Jesuits to Strengthen Service to Poor.” Jan 21, 2008. http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0800363.htm