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By William Bole

The Jesuit Journey of Adolfo Nicolás

By William Bole

September 21, 2016 — In the 476-year history of the Society of Jesus, there have been 30 Superiors General of the order better known as the Jesuits. By contrast, with a history just half as long, the United States has elected 43 presidents.

Father Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, 30th Superior General of the Society of Jesus

The death or resignation of a superior general is a momentous event for the Jesuits, who run ministries worldwide and are especially known in the USA for their high schools, colleges and universities. Father Adolfo Nicolás, SJ — a native of Spain who has spent most of his life in Asia and whose preferred language is English — has served in that role since 2008. He will formally step down next month as Jesuit electors gather in Rome to choose a new leader and deliberate on the future of the order.

Fr. Nicolás celebrating Mass at Sacré Coeur Parish in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2011.

By historic standards, it has not been a long run for a “Father General,” as the top Jesuit is known. And yet, the 80-year-old Fr. Nicolás is leaving a lasting imprint on the global community of Jesuits and lay people who collaborate with the priests and brothers, according to members of the order and many observers. He has done so in ways strikingly similar to his fellow Jesuit who arrived in Rome five years after he did — Pope Francis.

As the newly elected Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Nicolás celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving at the Church of the Gesù in Rome in 2008.

Jesuit leaders point out that Fr. Nicolás has reanimated the idea of a “universal vocation.” It is a phrase that underscores both a global perspective and the importance of reaching out to those on the margins of society.

Fr. Nicolás with bakers at Homeboy Industries during a visit to California in 2009. The Jesuit-founded program provides training and support to former gang members.

“That’s what he’s been doing and saying for the last eight years. ‘Get out there, get out to the people who need you.’ It’s exactly what Pope Francis is saying now,” says Father Joseph Daoust, SJ, who served for six years as a top adviser to Fr. Nicolás in Rome and now ministers to Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “He is pre-Francis, but he represents the same movement that is taking place under Francis. It’s the same spirit, moving the Church.”

Fr. Nicolás (center), with Fr. Joseph Daoust, SJ, (right) who served for six years as a top adviser to Fr. Nicolás, and Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ, (left) Delegate for the Interprovincial Jesuit Communities at the Jesuit Curia in Rome.

Fr. Daoust points to a widely circulated photo of Fr. Nicolás and Francis warmly embracing each other. It was taken on March 17, 2013, when Fr. Nicolás paid his first visit to the Vatican guesthouse where Francis lives, just four days after the Argentinian was elected the Catholic Church’s 266th pope.

Fr. Nicolás and Pope Francis on March 17, 2013.

The Jesuits have enjoyed no special privileges as the religious order from which the pope hails, Fr. Daoust and other Jesuits have noted, but that’s beside the point. What the photo conveyed is that the pope and the superior general share what Jesuits call “a way of proceeding” rooted in the lively spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, the priest said.

All Aboard

“We’re all aboard the same ship. We’re all going in the same direction,” said Fr. Daoust, characterizing the shared attitude. “Stop being so defensive. Let’s get out of our secure fortresses. Get out into the world, engage it.”

During a 2010 trip to Nicaragua, Fr. Nicolás visited a  Fe y Alegría school, an educational movement for the underprivileged, founded by the Society of Jesus.

It has been an especially pointed message for the 16,740 men who make up the international Jesuit order. And Fr. Nicolás has been the right Jesuit to deliver it, says Father Timothy P. Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Fr. Nicolás (left) and Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, when Fr. Nicolás visited Chicago in 2013.

“He’s very personable, a very playful guy; he always has a joke or a funny story that puts everyone at ease. He loves to be with people,” Fr. Kesicki said of the Father General. “He loves to see Jesuits at work in the world, to listen to them and accompany them. And he always asks Jesuits, ‘Are you free and available?’ In other words, will you go anywhere, do anything?”

Fr. Nicolás greets a young girl while visiting a Jesuit infirmary in Ontario, Canada, in 2011.

Fr. Kesicki notes that Jesuits are available to move on easily to new assignments, which is part of their call to a universal vocation. “As Jesuits, we don’t need anything but our personal effects. For Nicolás, the more free and available you are, the more you come into your own as a Jesuit. And he’s lived out the message. He never went back home.”

Fr. Nicolás in Mexico in 2014.

In 1960, Fr. Nicolás left Spain during his period of Jesuit formation and went off to Japan, where he learned Japanese (one of six languages he speaks fluently) and was ordained seven years later. Before becoming superior general, he devoted himself to ministries in Asia — teaching theology in Tokyo, serving as director of the Jesuit-sponsored Pastoral Institute in Manila, presiding as the Jesuit Provincial of Japan, ministering to poor immigrants at a Tokyo parish, and running the Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference (covering areas extending from China to the South Pacific and Australia), among other roles.

From left: Fr. Nicolás as a Jesuit scholastic in formation; newly ordained in 1967; and with Fr. William Currie, SJ, at the Jesuit Theologate in Tokyo. 

“In Asia I am aware that I am a European, but in Europe I am aware that I am not a European. I don’t care whether I am a Spaniard, or French, or Japanese,” Fr. Nicolás has told audiences.

What the superior general has done is to help Jesuits “recover a sense of being Jesuits first,” said Father Daniel Patrick Huang, SJ, who has worked with Fr. Nicolás in Asia and in Rome, now as the regional assistant for Asia Pacific at the Jesuit Curia, or headquarters. “It’s a recovery of our universal mission, our universal identity, and the prioritization of our Jesuit mission over national identities.”

Fr. Daniel Huang, SJ

Speaking the Language of Wisdom

A word he uses frequently is “depth,” Fr. Huang, who is from the Philippines, said. “He’s always challenging people to go deeper, to a greater depth of reflection and spiritual life, and it’s a reflection of his own search. He insists that our language should be the language of wisdom. People are looking for wisdom, for a sense of what makes life important, what makes life joyful. He’s a wise man who helps people in their search for wisdom.”

Father General with novices in the United States earlier this year.

Fr. Huang recalled when the superior general spoke with Jesuit novices in Indonesia, in 2009. Fr. Nicolás told them, “I hope you’ll be happy Jesuits, because you’ll be useless as unhappy Jesuits.”

Fr. Nicolás celebrated Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Toronto in 2011.

On October 2, more than 200 Jesuit electors from around the world will gather for the order’s 36th General Congregation, known by the shorthand, “GC 36.” A general congregation is always called when a Superior General dies or asks to resign, and among other deliberations, the congregation will be deciding by secret ballot on Fr. Nicolás’ successor.

Fr. Nicolás and Fr. Kolvenbach greet each other after Fr. Nicolás’ election as Superior General in 2008.

What’s likely is that the Jesuits will call forward a leader who is “comfortable with the diversity of cultures,” Fr. Huang said. That is, like Fr. Nicolás and his two immediate predecessors: Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, a Dutchman who adopted the Middle East as his home, and the beloved Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ, another Spaniard who served in Japan.

It gets back to the “universality of the Society (of Jesus),” says Fr. Daoust.

“We’re not provincial. We’re not local. We do local things. We’re rooted there,” he said of the Jesuits, “but we are to be available to uproot ourselves and go wherever the need is greatest, especially on the frontiers.”
William Bole is a senior writer and editor at Boston College and an independent journalist.

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A Nicolás Sampler

Father Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, has spoken in many public forums not only as a Jesuit leader but also as a theologian and Catholic intellectual. Here are a few of the topics and concerns that have engaged his attention, typically in addresses to Jesuits and at Jesuit universities as well as in published interviews.

In Search of Depth

When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one’s blogs or micro-blogs; when the latest opinion column from the New York Times or El Pais, or the newest viral video can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perceptions and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.

One can “cut-and-paste” without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions. When beautiful images from the merchants of consumer dreams flood one’s computer screens, or when the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s … music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow. When one can become “friends” so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks — and if one can so easily “unfriend” another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation — then relationships can also become superficial.

Religion is “Musical”
Religion is first of all very much more like this musical sense than a rational system of teachings and explanations.

We are not in education for proselytism but for transformation. We want to form a new kind of humanity that is musical, that retains this sensitivity to beauty, to goodness, to the suffering of others, to compassion. But of course, this is a sensitivity that is threatened today by a purely economic or materialist mindset which deadens this sensitivity to deeper dimension of reality.

Just as this musical sense is being eroded and weakened by the noise, the pace, the self-images of the modern and postmodern world, so is religious sensitivity.

I suggest that mission today … must first of all work toward people helping discover or rediscover this musical sense, this religious sensibility, this awareness and appreciation of dimensions of reality that are deeper than instrumental reason or materialist conceptions of life allow us.

Competition, the search for higher rankings for the sake of even more economic gain, has become the driving force for some institutions. It would be a tragedy if our [Jesuit] universities simply replicated the rationality and self-understandings of our secular, materialist world. Our reason for being in education is completely different.

“The Globalization of Superficiality”
The world is becoming very superficial. We have more information than ever, but less ability to think, to reflect, to digest that information. So there is a globalization of superficiality. … And even if the first news are totally biased or prejudicial, that’s what sticks in the mind. And we don’t have the ability to confirm, to study, to see whether this is true or whether this is balanced.

This is happening in the Church as well.


Europeans have been great at some aspects of the human journey. But we have neglected other aspects, that other human groups in other parts of the world have nurtured and developed. To think that human progress and development have to follow the European model as the best, only indicates how deep and insensitive our ignorance of humanity can be. Fortunately I have always known Europeans who approach with great respect other Eastern or Southern [Hemisphere] Traditions, and who know that the best response to lack of understanding, when it happens, is silence.”

—Compiled by William Bole