By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
A Spanish-born academic who has spent most of his career in Asia, and who is seen as an advocate for the broadly progressive theological views associated with the Asian bishops, has been elected the new Superior General of the Jesuit order.
A native of Palencia, Spain, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás was elected this morning in Rome by 217 Jesuits taking part in the order’s 35th General Congregation. He succeeds Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach as head of the 20,000-strong worldwide Jesuit order.
Though Nicolás, 71, was not among the most commonly mentioned candidates in the run-up to today’s vote, Jesuit sources said he represents a fairly bold choice – something of a blend between the mild personal manner and diplomatic skill of Kolvenbach, and the prophetic emphasis on justice, peace, and church reform associated with former General Fr. Pedro Arrupe.
Fr. Thomas Smolich, President of the Jesuit Conference in the United States and a member of the General Congregation that elected Nicolás, said the mood among the Jesuits was "joyous, exuberant, on cloud nine."
Smolich spoke by phone from Rome, saying that Nicolás was elected on the second ballot this morning.
"I believe we've chosen the man God had in mind," he said.
A former director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila and head of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania, Nicolás is said to be particularly close to the church in Japan. In broad strokes, Jesuit observers say he represents the theological outlook associated with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, with emphasis on inter-religious dialogue, advocacy for justice and peace, and “inculturation” of church teachings and practices.
In comments last year to a Jesuit publication in Australia, Nicolás laid out his vision of mission.
"Those who enter into the lives of the people, they begin to question their own positions very radically," Nicolás said. "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 conversation must continue, Nicolás said, if the church is to learn from Asia and Asia is to learn from the church.
"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," he said.
Nicolás himself knows the alarms such views can sometimes set off in Rome. A Jesuit source in Rome said that several years ago, Nicolás was under consideration as Rector of the Gregorian University, but the Vatican expressed doubts about the appointment on the basis of concerns about the role he played as a theological advisor to the Japanese bishops during the 1998 Synod for Asia. During that session, prelates from across Asia, including a particularly strong push from Japan, argued for greater collegiality, or decentralization, in church authority.
The choice of Nicolás is especially significant, observers say, given that immediately prior to the election Pope Benedict XVI had addressed a letter to Kolvenbach, praising the Jesuits for their many apostolic works but also calling them to obedience on several contentious issues.
“It could prove extremely useful,” Benedict wrote, “that the General Congregation reaffirm, in the spirit of Saint Ignatius, its own total adhesion to Catholic doctrine, in particular on those neuralgic points which today are strongly attacked by secular culture, as for example the relationship between Christ and religions; some aspects of the theology of liberation; and various points of sexual morality, especially as regards the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care of homosexual persons.”
While Nicolás will certainly not lead the Jesuits in any direct challenge to those points, observers say, his election is nevertheless a choice for a "forward thinking" outlook, as well as for a sensibility to the realities of Catholicism outside the West.
Given Nicolás' background in inter-religious dialogue, both as a theologian and as a pastoral leader, Jesuit sources said the result could be read as a sort of response to the pope's letter -- giving the Vatican a dialogue partner who knows the issues posed by religious pluralism from the ground up.
Mercedarian Sr. Filo Hirota, who knows Nicolás well from his time in Japan, described him as "almost perfect."
"He is a very fine theologian, very human, with a wonderful sense of humor," Hirota said via telephone from her residence in Tokyo. She said that Nicolás played a key role in organizing a major gathering of the Japanese church in the 1980s that identified broad lines of future development, almost like a "mini-ecumenical council."
"He is a very balanced person," Hirota said. "He is prophetic in his vision, but he knows how to dialogue. He's very serene and very wise."
Smolich said that the blend of deep theological literacy and practical pastoral experience made Nicolás an attractive choice. For example, Smolich said, after Nicolás became provincial of the Jesuits in Japan, he moved to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tokyo and got to know the social reality, a move that Smolich said "amazed and inspired people."
Hirota added one point certainly not on the new General's official biography: he does a winning impression, she said, of Charlie Chaplin.
The new Jesuit General speaks Spanish, Japanese, English, French and Italian.
The Jesuits this morning released the following biographical data about Nicolás:
•t29 April 1936: born in Palencia, Spagna
•t15 September 1953: Enters the novitiate at Aranjuez in the Province of Toletana (Spain).
•t1958-1960: License in Philosophy (Alcalá, Madrid)
•t1964-1968: Studies theology in Tokyo, Japan
•t17 March 1967: Priestly ordination in Tokyo, Giappone
•t1968-1971: Masters in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome
•t1971: Professor of Systematic Theology at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan
•t1978-1984: Director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila (the Philippines)
•t1991-1993: Rector of the Scholasticate (Tokyo, Japan)
•t1993-1999: Provincial of the Province of Japan
•t2004-2007: Moderator of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania.
Nicolás will lead the Jesuits in a Thanksgiving Mass tomorrow, followed by a reception at the Gregorian University. On Monday morning, he will take over leadership of the General Congregation as it begins charting a future course for the Jesuit order.