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A new superior general has been elected for the Society of Jesus.
BY EDWARD PENTINREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
Father Adolfo Nicolás, 71, who has been elected the new
superior general of the Society of Jesus, was greeted with warm applause by his
fellow Jesuits during his first Mass as superior Jan. 20.
Father Nicolás was elected by the 217 voting delegates
participating in the Jesuits’ 35th general congregation currently under way in
Pope Benedict swiftly granted his approval of the election
and will meet Feb. 21 with Father Nicolás and all the other members of the
Father Nicolás was born in Spain and has spent more than 40
years in Asia, mainly as a missionary in Japan. His areas of expertise are in
spiritual formation and administrative leadership.
He has been a provincial superior to Japan and, for the past
four years, was president of the regional Jesuit conference covering an area
that includes Burma, Vietnam and China.
Much of Father Nicolás’s pastoral work has been with migrant
workers in Japan.
“He has excellent theological formation and a great
missionary spirit,” the Jesuit’s postulator general, Father Paolo Molinari,
said Jan. 20. “He is an optimal choice that gives good hope for the future.”
Fluent in five languages, the new superior general has a
reputation as a cultural bridge-builder, as an expert on other religions, and
as someone who can collaborative effectively with the Vatican.
The Jesuit order’s chief spokesman, Father Jose Maria de
Vera, said Father Nicolás is “an open person, very well respected and an expert
in the universality and inculturation of Christianity.”
On learning of his election, Father Nicolás said his initial
response had been “to flee,” but he added he was greatly encouraged by the support
of his fellow Jesuits.
And despite his initial shock, he appeared calm, smiling,
and at ease when he gave a homily the day after his election.
In the homily, Father Nicolás did not outline his plans for
the future but explained, without consulting notes, that the main mission of
the Jesuits was for “the poor, the marginalized, the excluded, the
“We are here to serve God, the Church and the world,” Father
Nicolás said. “Our God, our faith and our message are so great that they cannot
be put into a restricted form.”
Commentators have suggested Father Nicolás combines the
diplomatic skills of his immediate predecessor, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach
(who retired shortly after the Jesuits’ general congregation began last month),
and the emphasis on justice, peace and Church reform of Father Pedro Arrupe,
who led the Jesuits from 1965 to 1981.
But some Jesuits worry that Father Nicolás may be aligned
with some of the influences that gained ascendancy under Father Arrupe’s
leadership, particularly the order’s tolerance of dissenting viewpoints
expressed by a number of prominent Jesuits.
The order’s critics suggest those influences are responsible
for the Jesuits’ current difficulties, which include falling vocations and
continued dissent from some members of the order.
“In a sense, the society is making an option for the past,”
said one Rome Jesuit, who asked not to be named. “Through old age and very few
new vocations, we’re losing about 200–250 priests annually — that’s the
equivalent of a whole province a year. If that slide is to be halted, changes
have to be made, and a reasonable conjecture is that [Father Nicolás] doesn’t
appear to be the man to make those changes.”
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano sounded a much
more optimistic note in its Jan. 21 edition. According to the newspaper, Father
Nicolás “has the qualities required for a revitalization of the society” as
outlined by the Pope in a Jan. 10 letter to Father Kolvenbach.
In his letter, the Holy Father assured the Jesuits “of my
affection and of my constant spiritual nearness to you” and praised the “great
and meritorious contribution” the order provides to the Church “in various
fields and in many ways.”
But Benedict also suggested the order specifically reaffirm
its doctrinal fidelity during the general congregation.
Said the Pope, “And, really so as to offer the entire
Society of Jesus a clear orientation which might be a support for generous and
faithful apostolic dedication, it could prove extremely useful that the general
congregation reaffirm, in the spirit of St. Ignatius, its own total adherence
to Catholic doctrine, in particular on those decisive 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.”
Meeting with journalists Jan. 25 in Rome, Father Nicolás said,
“The Society of Jesus wants to cooperate with the Vatican and obey the Holy
Said the new superior general, “This has not and will not
change. We were born in this context, and this is the context that will
determine our decisions.”
(Zenit and Register staff contributed to this story.)
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.