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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

Elvis or not, this superior general is his own man

A Spanish-born academic who has spent most of his career in Asia, and who is seen as sympathetic to the broadly progressive theological views associated with the Asian bishops, is the new superior general of the 19,000-strong Jesuit order.

A native of Palencia, Spain, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás succeeds Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

Though Nicolás, 71, was not among the most commonly mentioned candidates prior to the opening of the Jesuits’ 35th General Congregation, sources say he represents a fairly bold choice -- a blend between the diplomatic skill of Kolvenbach and the prophetic emphasis on justice, peace, and church reform associated with the former general, Fr. Pedro Arrupe.

Parallels between Nicolás and Arrupe are especially striking, most notably that both are Spaniards who spent long stretches in Japan. (At one point, Nicolás even served as Arrupe’s barber.)

Nicolás himself has downplayed the comparison. Lampooning claims that he’s a cross between Arrupe and Kolvenbach, Nicolás joked during a Jan. 25 session with the press in Rome that it wouldn’t surprise him if someone asserted he’s also “10 percent Elvis Presley.”

A former director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila and head of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania, Nicolás tends to reflect, Jesuit sources say, the theological outlook associated with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, including emphasis on interreligious dialogue, justice and peace, and inculturation of church teachings and practices.

Nicolás knows the alarms such views can trigger in Rome. A Jesuit source said Nicolás was once under consideration as rector of the Gregorian University, but the Vatican gave a thumbs-down on the basis of concerns about the role he played as an adviser to the Japanese bishops during the 1998 Synod for Asia. During that session, prelates from across Asia, including Japan, argued for decentralization in church authority.

In his comments to the press, however, Nicolás stressed a desire for harmony with the Vatican.

“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.

“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.

Nicolás met Benedict XVI on Jan. 26 in what he later described as a warm session. Nicolás reported that Benedict encouraged the Jesuits to continue efforts toward evangelization, dialogue with cultures, and the formation of youth.

That Nicolás is his own man is a point echoed by Jesuit Fr. Josep M. Benitez i Riera, who teaches at the Gregorian University. Benitez said during a Jan. 30 briefing at Rome’s Foreign Press Club that in 1971, the year the term “liberation theology” was coined, Nicolás completed a doctoral dissertation at the Gregorian titled “A Theology of Progress” -- focusing more on existential questions arising from modernity rather than social justice and structural sin.

Mercedarian Sr. Filo Hirota, who knows Nicolás from his time in Japan, described him as “almost perfect.”

“He is a very balanced person,” Hirota said. “He is prophetic in his vision, but he knows how to dialogue.”

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Smolich, president of the Jesuit Conference in the United States and a member of the General Congregation, said that a blend of deep theological literacy and practical pastoral experience made Nicolás attractive. For example, Smolich said, after Nicolás became provincial in Japan, he moved to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tokyo, which Smolich said “amazed and inspired people.”

A brief interview with Nicolás in English can be found on

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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