By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Thanking the press for its interest in his election, but also gently chiding reporters for “inventing” stories and “creating drama,” the new leader of the 20,000-strong Jesuit order made his public debut today in Rome.
Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, 71, a Spaniard who has spent most of his career in Asia, met with the press today at the Jesuit headquarters, just off St. Peter’s Square. Elected last Saturday on the second ballot by the Jesuits’ 35th General Congregation, Nicolás made brief remarks to reporters but did not take questions.
A Jesuit spokesperson said this morning that they hope to hold a full press conference with Nicolás at the end of the General Congregation.
Nicolás said that the reality of his new post has still not fully sunk in.
“When someone says ‘Father General,’ I still look over my shoulders for Kolvenbach,” he joked, referring to Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who just stepped down following 24 years as leader of the order.
Nicolás began by thanking the press for its attention to the Jesuits and for the largely “benevolent” coverage of his election.
“I’ve never read the papers as frequently as I have in recent days,” Nicolás joked, adding that he has been amazed at the way news agencies in Spain have gone in search of background on his life “as if it’s a sort of treasure hunt.”
He acknowledged the difficulty journalists have faced, conceding: “I’m unknown.”
Nevertheless, Nicolás also politely objected to some coverage which he said is “not so helpful,” mentioning in the first place reports of tensions between the Jesuits and the Vatican or the pope.
“The Society of Jesus from the very beginning has always been in communion with the Holy Father, and it will continue to be,” Nicolás said. Referring to impressions of a split between the order and the Vatican, Nicolás said this is “an artificial tension that comes from outside of us.”
“If there are tensions, it is because we are so close,” Nicolás said, comparing the relationship between the Jesuits and the papacy to a marriage.
“Those who are married understand that there is no relationship with its problems,” he said. “It’s because we love one another.”
“We want to collaborate with the Holy See and to obey the Holy Father,” Nicolás said. “That has not changed, and it will not change. This is the context in which we will make decisions.”
In a similar spirit, Nicolás also rejected reports of any theological tension between himself and Pope Benedict XVI.
“This is false,” he insisted, saying that as a young theology student he read the books of then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger.
“There was a newness, an exhilaration that engaged all of us” in Ratzinger’s writings, Nicolás said. “Any distance [between himself and Benedict] is more theoretical in the minds of those who imagine it,” he said.
At the same time, Nicolás seemed to leave space for differing accents and approaches to theological questions.
“Theology is always a dialogue,” he said. “We seek the truth, to know the mind of God amid the lives of Christians. There may be differences, but always within a common search for truth.”
Nicolás also laughed about reports that he was elected as a sort of “blend” of the styles of his predecessors, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, seen as a prophetic champion of social justice, and Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, more of a diplomat who calmed the waters with the Vatican.
“No one has said yet that I’m also 10 percent Elvis, though at this stage it wouldn’t be a surprise,” Nicolás joked.
“All this is false,” he said. “I’m not Arrupe, and I’m also obviously not Kolvenbach.” Nicolás said that “loved and admired” Arrupe, for example, but that he’s a different person.
Defining himself only in the most general terms, Nicolás said that he’s “in the process of becoming the person God wants.”
Nicolás talked at length about his experience in Asia, where he went to study and to work at the age of 24. He’s spent much of that time in Japan, but has also lived and worked elsewhere, including the Philippines.
The biggest problem he faced in Japan, he said, was not coping with the Japanese diet, or even learning the language, since he’s always found linguistic study interesting. Instead, he said, the challenge cut much deeper.
“I realized the world is not like what I thought it was in Spain,” he said. “What’s common sense in Spain is not so in Japan. I was meeting a totally different world.”
That experience, he said, opened him up.
“I believe that Asia changed me, I hope for the better,” Nicolás said. “I came to better understand others, to accept what’s different about them, trying to understand these differences and what we can learn from them.”
“This may be hard for you to believe, but in Spain I was a little intolerant,” Nicolás said. “Religion was understood as fidelity to a series of practices, and I was very demanding.”
“In Japan, I saw that true religiosity goes deeper … I learned to smile at differences that in Spain would have made me very nervous. I also learned that imperfection is natural, and we have to accept it on principle.”
“For the Japanese, it’s often a scandal that we are so intolerant, not accepting of differences,” he said. “This is a challenge for us.”
“Asia is a challenge for the universal church,” he said. “Asia can give us much,” later citing especially the “deep humanism” of the region.
Nicolás touched briefly on a number of Asian nations, pointing to China, for example, as a special challenge given its vast territory and ethnic and linguistic diversity. He also spoke briefly about the Philippines, where he served as director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute.
“The Philippines is the ‘Italy of Asia,’” he said, “with its sense of humor, its view of life, and its rather flexible attitude towards the law … They say that in the Philippines, traffic laws are basically just recommendations.”
As for the future, Nicolás noted that the Jesuit General Congregation is superior to the Father General, so is he waiting to take direction from the assembly.
“I have to obey,” he said. “That’s my mandate.”
Nicolás added that the Jesuits also want to “respond to the challenges the Holy Father has given us,” expressed in the form of a letter addressed to Kolvenbach shortly before the General Congregation began – a letter which Nicolás said the Jesuits are “taking very seriously.”
Nicolás ended by saying he hopes to be “transparent,” and promised collaboration with the press. Drawing on his Japanese formation, he stood and bowed before he left the room.
After the brief session with Nicolás, which lasted roughly a half-hour, reporters were escorted into the large meeting room where the 226 Jesuit delegates are meeting, and where Nicolás was elected last Saturday.
Speaking informally to reporters, Jesuit spokesperson Fr. Jose de Vera clarified a couple of points about the election process. Formally speaking, he said, Pope Benedict XVI did not “approve” the election, but was merely informed of it before it was made public. In this case, de Vera said, a telephone had been installed in the meeting room so that someone could call the pope, and the delegates remained in the room until this had been done. (De Vera said he wasn’t sure who made the call, or whether this person spoke directly to the pope or perhaps to his secretary.)
Contrary to an earlier report in NCR, de Vera also said that no list of candidates was submitted to Benedict XVI prior to the election of the new Father General. On the other hand, since the custom is for the general to be elected from among the delegates to the General Congregation, theoretically the Vatican could have expressed reservations about a particular candidate well in advance.
In any event, de Vera said, to the best of his knowledge neither the pope nor any Vatican official expressed any ambivalence about Nicolás.