The new Black Pope

Through the Jesuit web portal, I was able to follow the election of the new Father General of the Jesuit order, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas. In the first few days, the content of this particular sub-site on the 35th General Congregation was all about the election; I learned, for example, that Fr. Ben Nebres, president of the Ateneo de Manila University, was among those selected to draft a report on the state of the Society (as Jesuits who speak in English call their religious congregation).

Father Bernas, the constitutionalist who now writes for the Inquirer every Monday, devoted his column this week to Father Nico (as the new Father General used to be called, especially by Jesuits in the Loyola Heights campus, where he spent, what was it, a total of nine years). He quotes at length from a profile of Father Nico written by Father Danny Huang, the Philippine provincial superior.

I got a copy of that moving portrait too. Here it is:

OUR NEW GENERAL: Adolfo Nicolas, S.J.

The day after the election of Fr. Adolfo Nicolas as Superior General of the Society of Jesus, many of us here in Rome find ourselves deeply grateful for the guidance of the Spirit. We believe in faith that it was the Spirit who led us to choose Fr. Nico–as we fondly call him in our part of the world–as the 29th successor to St. Ignatius. This past week, the newspapers in Italy had come out with lists of possible generabili. It is surely significant that Fr. Nicolas was never mentioned!

A Man of God

Fr. Nico embodies for many of us the primary quality St. Ignatius stipulates as desirable in the man who is to become General: that he be a man “closely united with God our Lord.” “Tell me,” an elector from Europe asked me soon after Nico’s election, “have we elected a saint?” Whatever the answer to that question, many have noticed and wondered at the serenity and joy that Nico radiates. There is a wholeness, a centeredness, a freedom about him that point to spiritual depth.

Yesterday, we walked up the stairs of the Curia to the Aula where Nico would later be elected General. He asked me if I had slept well; I answered that I had, more or less. I asked him, in turn, if he had slept well, both of us knowing, as had become clear on the last day of murmurationes, that he was a strong possibility among the electors. He simply smiled his Nico smile, and said, “Yes. I slept very well. There is always hope.” The genuine peacefulness with which he communicated this, in the face of such daunting possibilities, moved me deeply.

Yesterday afternoon, after the election, I visited him in his new quarters, the famous rooms of the General in the Curia. He said that, at lunch, he had asked Fr. Kolvenbach when this—that is, the reality of becoming General– would hit him. Fr. Kolvenbach had answered: “Tonight.” This morning, I was surprised to find Nico (that is, Fr. General) knocking on my door, to give me the gift of the chain he had used to hang his GC 35 ID on, since he no longer needed it. I inquired about how he slept last night. He answered with his familiar smile: “Very peacefully.”

A Friend in the Lord

“A joyous man, warm, energetic, and with whom one feels so close!” These words of Fr. Louis Gendron, the Provincial of China, summarize well a second gift Fr. Nico brings to his new office. Fr. Ben Nebres, President of the Ateneo de Manila University and elector for the Philippine Province, speaks in the same vein: “When I think of him, the feelings that come are of affection and friendship. Fr. Nico is many things, but he is above all a companion and a friend. He brings the gift of friendship and encouragement of Blessed Peter Faber. He is a leader who will walk with us and who will invite us to find together, in conversation and prayer, the way that the Lord wants us to follow in our time.”

Nor is this sentiment limited to Jesuits. In his letter of congratulations to Fr. Nicolas, Fr. Gabriel Je, the Delegate of the Korean Provincial in Cambodia, describes the delighted response of a lay missionary from Hongkong working with the Jesuits in Phnom Penh. She had met and been favorably impressed by Fr. Nico when he had visited Cambodia last year. On hearing of his election as General, she spontaneously exclaimed: “There is hope for the Jesuits!”

This warm, welcoming humanity of our new Fr. General—“I feel refreshed after talking with him,” one elector from India told me—is a quality that eminently fulfills the second qualification St. Ignatius mentions in his description of the ideal General: “Charity . . . should particularly shine forth from him, and in a special way toward the members of the Society; likewise a genuine humility which will make him highly beloved . . .”

Numerous gifts of person and experience

To lead the Society as General clearly requires many other gifts. “He ought to be endowed with great intelligence and judgment,” Ignatius writes. “Learning,” “prudence,” “experience,” are among the necessary qualifications for governance that St. Ignatius adds to his list.

Fr. Nico, the “wise man from the East,” as some are already calling him, is richly blessed with such gifts that are both personal and the fruit of his broad experience of many cultures and governance on many levels. “Nowhere was it written that we wanted someone from the Orient,” Fr. Gendron observes. “But for the third time in a row, the Society has elected a missionary, like Fr. Kolvenbach and Fr. Arrupe, a Westerner who has spent most of his Jesuit life in the Orient.” There is something providential, surely, in this pattern.

Fr. Nico, European in origin and training, yet with such breathtakingly broad cultural exposure, and indeed exercising leadership for over forty years in various parts of Asia, brings with him crucial perspectives and sensibilities at a time when the Society of Jesus finds itself in major demographic transitions.
As a professional theologian of depth and creativity, he is also well equipped to help articulate for the Society faithful yet fresh and inspiring visions of our mission and religious life today. His years as Director (and at present, Chair) of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila involve a rich experience of respectful and fruitful cooperation with the hierarchies and local Church leaders of many continents. Moreover, because he worked for several years in the pastoral care of vulnerable Filipino and Asian migrant workers in Tokyo, he brings to his office a special care for the poor, whom the Church and the Society of Jesus call Jesuits to have a preferential love for. At the same time, because he has labored for many decades in the increasingly secular milieu of Japan, he also has a profound sensitivity to the challenges of unbelief and religious indifference that are the context and challenge of many parts of the developed world. Finally, as one who has been Provincial of Japan and President of the Conference of Provincials of East Asia and Oceania, as well as former Major Superior of our Jesuit missions in Cambodia, East Timor and Myanmar, Nico is no stranger to the requirements of governance and administration, and brings this rich administrative and leadership experience with him into his new office.

Young at 71

Yesterday, with a glint of mischievous humor in his eyes, Fr. Nico told me that he had never experienced so many Jesuits asking him with such concern about his health. This is, of course, entirely natural. Ignatius realistically lists sufficient “physical strength demanded by his charge,” as the final qualification of the General. And Nico is 71—72 by April.

His age was, frankly, a concern. But interestingly, it became clear to many of us that chronological years were not the most reliable measure of age where Nico was concerned. Paradoxically, one of the oldest among us was also one of the most youthful in energy and spirit. “He has the mind of a young man,” someone told me in admiration. “I have never walked with anyone who walked so fast. I have to tell him to slow down when I walk with him,” a Latin American Jesuit told me.

But perhaps it is best to let the young speak. Since the announcement of his election, the seventy or so scholastics in the Arrupe International Residence in Manila have been excitedly gathering to share stories and experiences of the General who, until yesterday, was their Major Superior. Scholastics, mostly in their twenties, from East Timor, Myanmar, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand have expressed their delight in and appreciation of the choice of the Congregation. Isaias Caldas, a junior from East Timor, wrote to his Regional Superior, Fr. John Mace, thus: “Personally I am excited and overjoyed because this General is someone whom I know personally, a General who always passes by in front of AIR after his lunch in EAPI, a General who once told us during one of his exhortations to the community to make our religious struggles become “big,” [broad in apostolic horizons] not limited only to our worries about prayer and chastity, a General who wants us to think now about what we can do in the future, a General who wishes us to be very good at one thing for, if that is so, we would be very useful in our ministry later, a General who has good humor and is friendly to us scholastics, a General who encourages me to read more and watch good movies like a good Jesuit.”

“Because we are poor, God is our only strength.”

Yesterday morning, in the Aula, when it became clear that Adolfo Nicolas had been chosen, and when he finally left his place among the electors to stand and then kneel in our midst to make his profession of faith, I found myself, to my embarrassment, unable to control my tears. I felt such pity for Nico, as we placed the enormous burden of the governance of the Society on him, and also such gratitude to him, too, for his willingness to accept this office for the sake of the Society. As I wept, I found myself repeatedly praying a single sentence: “Lord, help Nico.”

Today, however, I am more at peace, mostly because I see that the General is at peace too. This evening, Fr. General led us in a Mass of Thanksgiving at the Church of the Gesù. His homily (in Italian interspersed with a few “Italianized” Spanish words!) was deep and moving, radiant with “Evangelical simplicity,” one European Jesuit told me, “without a single excess word.” He reflected on the Servant of Yahweh in the book of Isaiah. Where does this humble servant get his strength to serve? To answer this question, Nico shared an experience he had during his ministry to migrant workers in Japan. A woman, a Filipina, overwhelmed by her many problems, confessed to her friend her confusion and near despair. Her friend, also a Filipina migrant worker, simply said to her: “Let us go to Church. Because we are poor, God is our only strength.” Once again, when I heard these last words, I felt tears rush to my eyes, because it seemed to me that Fr. General had borrowed the words of this poor, vulnerable, faith-filled woman to speak of himself.

“Because we are poor, God is our only strength.” It is surely appropriate, that as we pray in gratitude to God for the gift of our new General, we pray too for him. May God be Nico’s only strength, as he leads us, in wisdom, courage and compassion, in the Society’s service of “God alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff,” ad majorem Dei gloriam.

Daniel Patrick Huang, S.J.
20 January 2008

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