Religious Life
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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

-- CNS/Don Doll, SJ

The new Jesuit superior general, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, poses for a photo on a rooftop near St. Peter's Basilica in Rome Jan. 21. The Spanish Jesuit was elected the new superior of the Society of Jesus during the order's 35th General Congregation Jan. 19.
'We need to be very close to the people, our ears to the ground'


Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, the 30th superior general of the Society of Jesus, was serving as president of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania at the time of his election Jan. 19.

The 217 electors attending the Jesuits’ 35th General Congregation elected the 71-year-old Spanish priest, who has spent most of his life in Asia, to head their society after Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, 79.

About 16 months before the election, a Jesuit scholastic interviewed Nicolás about his preferred leadership style, conflict resolution, challenges the Jesuits face and leadership values he wanted to inculcate in young members. The following are excerpts from that September 2006 interview.

UCA News: Jesuits are supposed to follow their superiors. What are your experiences as a superior regarding this?
Fr. Adolfo Nicolás: I’d like to correct that. We are not expected to [blindly] follow superiors. We are expected to study the issue, discern and search together with the superior. Who decides in the end, if there is no agreement, will be the superior. Someone has to decide, but it’s a process of involvement.

I personally think obedience can be very creative and very helpful when it is open, when there is inner freedom. This is what St. Ignatius very much supported. If there is no inner freedom, it is very difficult to make the right choices. ...

Blind obedience sometimes is what people think of as true obedience -- whatever the superior says, right or wrong, you have to follow it. However, blind obedience, I think, as a norm would be a disaster, for the Society or anybody. For Ignatius it is an exceptional case, in times of crisis. ... This is very rare.

Obedience without imagination is not good, neither for the church, for people nor for oneself. ...

How do you deal with conflict?
One very important facet or role of leadership is to see new alternatives that other people do not see ... because real dilemmas are very, very few. We create the dilemmas because we get stuck. In conflicts, therefore, always look for solutions, and for these solutions we need to have a middle ground in which both parties or both positions can be acknowledged as having meaning. In every opinion there is something good. In the middle ground we can find a win-win situation; not right-wrong. That’s why dividing people into the axis of evil and the axis of good makes alternatives very, very difficult, as there’s no middle ground.

Also the alternative does not mean we always have to find the perfect solution. There is no perfect solution. In this imperfect world, how we can move imperfectly but make sense and make the best of the situation is important -- even in situations where, whether in canon law, Jesuit law or so forth, there are what you call prescribed solutions. But even in these situations, I like to look for other options, because the law does not consider every possible case. ... People are different. Therefore, even if there are solutions in the law, I’d like to think outside the law -- not against the law but outside the law. Are there other alternatives?

I am convinced that very often, we have to compromise. Compromise is not a negative thing, to say: “Oh, I give up.” No, in compromise you don’t give up. You accept reality, realizing at this stage this is the best that we can do. Maybe we need to come up with another strategy [to change] the way people think. Maybe at a different stage, say two years from now, something different can happen.

Which leadership style or school appeals to you the most?
I would consider, at least working in Asia, the style with which I feel most comfortable is the Japanese way of consensus. After 40 years in Japan, I think this way of consensus is very, very good. It’s a long-range process of working -- you keep reflecting and offering data until, more or less, the people have consensus and they move together.

Religious life, religious orders are associations of free people. This is not the military; it’s not the law of the country. ... It is important that people know what they are involved in, and that they consent to it. Otherwise, sooner or later we’ll find an unconscious, and I underline unconscious, sabotage of the decision. We all have experience of people who say, “Yes, yes,” but because the heart is not there, things don’t work out. Either they become sick, or they become despondent, or they don’t cooperate, or there is no energy or no involvement. And so things collapse. If we can anticipate that, then we know this is the wrong decision, because it would be sabotaged. ...

We need to ask: What does this imply? Do people know why [they are asked to do certain things]? Do they correspond to our values and priorities? Are we consistent? ...

Does consensus work in the short-term? Or does it require more time?
In the short-term you always have to [try]. However, emergencies don’t give you time for long-range policies. Emergencies are emergencies. ... Sometimes you have to make short-range decisions. It’s a decision now, it’s a start. It’s a start of a process of reflection. Maybe this decision will be changed in a few months. Or maybe a better solution can be found in a few months, but now you have to decide.

What leadership principles or values do you want to inculcate in young Jesuits?
I would say three things. The first is creativity. I’m not sure we have the creativity that is required of us at the present moment. I worry about the lack of imagination. I think this is a serious handicap for leadership, and I’m afraid the present system of education that stresses too much on exams, entrance exams, is not producing [creativity], especially in Asia. ...

The world is changing at a tremendous rate, everything -- communication, [technological] possibilities and all that. In this situation we need a lot of flexibility, and the only way to be flexible is to be imaginative -- to realize that all the possible variations are not just in fiction novels, they are in reality.

The second thing would be ... that we have to live with people and walk with them. It’s very easy for us to imitate what has succeeded before. That’s a common tendency: So and so has been successful in Europe, in America, Japan, so we do it here. ...

Take East Timor or Cambodia for example -- we have to see what the real needs of education are, what is happening in those countries. So we need to be very close to the people, our ears close to the ground and then grow with them. Start small, work with them and recreate all the time with them, responding to new needs. Our institutions have done a tremendous service and now they are asked to do something different. Do they have the ability to move with people, to be part of their growth? ...

The third point I would say is connectivity. ... Take for example the Internet. It provides fast communication, but not face-to-face communication. We don’t see persons and their needs, and so people are conditioned to act like machines. We become impatient when we work with people and realize they don’t function as fast as the Internet or machines. We want people to work in a certain way. We want to impose our values or principles. So when I refer to connectivity, I’m referring in particular to human connectivity.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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