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 Rome.
Pope Benedict swiftly granted his approval of the election and will meet Feb. 21 with Father Nicolás and all the other members of the general congregation.
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 manipulated.”
“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 Father.”
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.