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Jesuit Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., made history when, in January, he became the first leader of the Jesuits to resign. To fill his shoes, the Jesuits elected Adolfo Nicolás, S.J. Santa Clara President Paul Locatelli, S.J., was at the General Congregation in Rome for the once-in-a-lifetime moment.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Presiding at a Mass: Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., at the close of the General Congregation
Photo: Courtesy Society of Jesus
In January, Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., stood before the assembled reporters for his first press conference and acknowledged their mad scramble for answers: Who is this man they call Fr. Nico, just elected to serve as the 30th Superior General, leader of the world’s 20,000 Jesuits? Will he follow in the footsteps of well-loved predecessor Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who served the order for nearly a quarter-century before resigning? Or, like the Basque-born Pedro Arrupe, will he both ignite the ranks of the Company and run into conflict with the pope?
“Some journalists say that I am like Arrupe, or like Kolvenbach, half and half, up to 50 percent,” Nicolás told the journalists, according to the blog Whispers in the Loggia. “It would not be a surprise if someone said I am 10 percent Elvis Presley.”
Nicolás was elected Jan. 19, on the second round of balloting at the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. Prior to the Congregation, which was two years in planning, he was not on the short list of likely candidates.
Born in Spain, Nicolás has spent most of his life in Asia: studying theology in Tokyo, then working as a priest in the Philippines and Japan. He followed his six-year term as Provincial of Japan with three years working with a poor immigrant parish in Tokyo. Most recently he has served as head of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania, which stretches from Myanmar to East Timor and includes the new province of China.
His extensive experience in Asia has led some to draw parallels both to Arrupe and to St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit Apostle to the East. Nicolás acknowledged that his own extensive experience in Asia changed him profoundly.
“In Spain I was a little intolerant, thinking in terms of order, of commands, because I thought of religion as fidelity to religious practices,” he said. “In Japan I learned that true religiosity is more profound, that one must go to the heart of things, to the depths of our humanity, whether we are speaking of God or we are speaking of ourselves and of human life."
Steven Boyd Saum is managing editor for Santa Clara Magazine.