Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On Day One, Father-General Looks to the "Nations"

Before a horde of cameras and a packed Gesu Church, Fr Adolfo Nicolás inaugurated his mission as the "Black Pope"... by asking that he not be known as the "Black Pope."

Preaching off-the-cuff at Sunday's Mass of Thanksgiving, the newly-elected Father-General of the Jesuits said he wanted his words to be received as "a simple reflection, not a message to the world." Even so, it ended up being no less of a tone-setting "inaugural address" as the broad strokes of the Spanish-born, Asian-formed head of the church's largest religious community began to emerge for his new audience.

As the moving statio unfolded in the camarete of St Ignatius before the liturgy (below), Loyola's 29th successor told the congregation at the Mass' start that he "experienced a great desire to flee, but the doors were all closed," according to Italian wire reports.

"And so, I have to stay," he said.

Recorded on delivery, the homily's translation has been released.

Above all I would like to say that this is not a message for the whole world. Rather, it is merely a simple homily; a prayerful reflection of today’s readings for us Jesuits who are here this afternoon.

The first reading taken from the prophet Isaiah briefly describes to us Christians our mission in the world. The prophet Isaiah tells us that we have all been called to serve, that we are here precisely to serve. It is a clear message regarding our mission as Jesuits, as Christians, as the people of God. God has made us servants and, in so doing, God finds delight. The Spanish version of this first reading says that God is proud of the servant, while the Italian version says that God “is satisfied”. I believe the latter is closer to what the Bible wants to say. The more we become as servants, the more pleased God is. I think this is an image we should all take home today.

Newspapers and magazines these past few days have been toying with a number of clichés, namely, the Black Pope, the White Pope, power, gatherings, discussions...But it is all so superficial, so artificial! These are but crumbs for those who love politics, but they are not for us.

The prophet Isaiah says that serving pleases the Lord. To serve is what counts: to serve the Church, the world, our fellow men and women, and the Gospel. Saint Ignatius also has written in summary form about our life: in all things to love and to serve. And our pope, Holy Father Benedict XVI, has reminded us that God is love; he has reminded us of the Gospel’s essence.

Later on the prophet Isaiah describes the servant’s strength. God is the servant’s only strength. We do not have any other source of strength: not the external strength found in politics, in business, in the media, in studies, in titles, nor the internal fortitude found in research. Only God. Exactly like the poor. Not too long ago I spoke to one of you regarding something that happened to me while working with immigrants. It was an experience that deeply affected me. A Filipino woman who had experienced many difficulties adapting to the Japanese society, a woman who had suffered a great deal, was asked by another Filipino woman for advice. The second woman said, “I have many problems with my husband and I do not know if I should get divorced or try to save my marriage...” In other words, she wanted advice concerning a rather common problem. The first woman replied, “I do not know what advice to give you right now. However, come with me to Church so that the two of us can pray because only God really helps the poor.” This statement deeply touched me because it is so true. The poor only have God in whom to find their strength. For us only God is our strength. Unconditional, disinterested service finds its source of strength only in God.

The prophet Isaiah continues today’s first reading by speaking about health. Our message is a message about health, about salvation. A bit later he stresses what has most caught my eye about this reading, namely, that our God, our faith, our message, and our health are so great that they cannot be enclosed within a container, in any one group or community, regardless of whether or not the group in question happens to be a religious community. What is at stake is the Good News of salvation for all nations. It is a universal message because the message itself is enormous; a message that in itself is irreducible.
All represented nations are gathered here today. All, everyone, is represented here. However, nations continue to open up. I ask myself today which are those “nations”. Indeed, all geographic nations are here today. However, there may be other nations, other non-geographic communities, human communities, that claim our aid: the poor, the marginalized, the excluded. In this globalized world of ours the number of those excluded by all is increasing. Those excluded are diminished, since our society only has room for the big and not the small. All those who are disadvantaged, manipulated, all of these, may perhaps be for us those “nations”: The nations that need the prophetic message of God.

Yesterday after the election, after the first shock, there came the moment of fraternal aid. All of you have greeted me very affectionately, offering your support and help. One of you whispered to me: “Don’t forget the poor!”. Perhaps this is the most important greeting of all, just as Paul turns to the wealthier churches of his time requesting aid for the poor of Jerusalem. Don’t forget the poor: These are our “nations”. These are the nations for whom salvation is still a dream, a wish. Perhaps it may be in their midst, but they don’t realize it.

And the others? The others are our collaborators, if they share our same perspective, if they have the same heart Christ has given us. And if they have a bigger heart and an even greater vision, then we are their collaborators. What counts is health, salvation, the joy of the poor. What counts, what is real, is hope, salvation, health. And we want that this salvation, this health, be an explosion of salvation that reaches out everywhere. This is what the prophet Isaiah is talking about: That salvation may reach and touch everyone. A salvation according to God’s heart, will, Spirit.

We go on with our General Congregation. Perhaps this is what we need to discern. In this moment of our history where do we need to fix our attention, our service, our energy. Or, in other words, what is the color, the tone, the image of salvation today for those many people who are in need of it, those human non-geographic nations that demand health. There are many who wait for a salvation that we have yet to understand. To open ourselves up to this reality is the challenge, the call, of the moment.

And we turn to the Gospel. This is how we can be true disciples of the Lamb of God, He who takes away our sins and leads us to a new world. And He, the Lamb of God, has shown himself as Servant, he who fulfills Isaiah’s prophecies, the message of the Prophets. His identity as Servant will be his sign, the mark of our own mission, of the call which we try to respond to these days.

Let us pray together for this sense of Mission of the Church, that it may be for the “nations’” benefit and not our own. The “nations” that are still far away, not geographically, but humanly, existentially. That the joy and the hope that come from the Gospel be a reality with which we can work little by little, doing it with a lot of love and disinterested service.
In short order, more insight about how Nicolás will govern the Society's sprawling apparatus -- almost 20,000 priests and brothers spread across myriad apostolates in 103 provinces and regions -- will likely be gleaned from his choices to fill the Jesuit Curia's top posts as his general counselors and assistants. What's more, given the two-year preparatory period for the General Congregation, an unusually large backlog of provincial appointments is said to await, including the delayed successions for several of the US' ten regional heads. (Appointed for a maximum term of six years, Jesuit provincials are chosen by the General, who selects from a terna presented by the local consultors.)

Already on-record with his pre-electoral hope that GC35 wouldn't "become another exercise in patience" and could accomplish its work "within a reasonably short time," Nicolás is reportedly aiming to adjourn the open-ended meeting by 1 March, nine days after he leads its 226 delegates to a private audience with the Pope.

While pleasantries will likely dominate the first meeting between Benedict XVI and his new neighbor down the street, the historic tension marking relations between the Holy See and the Company never lays too far beneath the surface. According to the Milanese daily Il Sole 24 Ore, the pontiff's pre-election letter to the Jesuits got a notable retort from the Mexican provincial, Fr Juan Luis Orozco.

"We obey the Pope," the paper quoted Orozco as saying, "but we're not the Swiss Guard."

With the vow of obedience slated to be a major topic for the remainder of the Congregation's discussions, Nicolás said in a 2005 interview that while "obedience can be very creative and very helpful when it is open, when there is inner freedom... blind obedience, I think, as a norm would be a disaster, for the Society or anybody."

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From Father-General's home-region of East Asia, a confrere shares his impressions:
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!

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 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 . . .”

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.”...

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.
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And, lastly, if it's true that every picture tells a story -- and it is -- then Fr Don Doll has been the GC's master storyteller.

Shown above flanked by Fathers-General past and present, this isn't the first time the award-winning shutterbug and professor at Creighton University in Omaha has played the role of the Congregation's "official photographer." But it is the first GC of the internet age, with the popular appetite for information worlds quicker and more comprehensive than it was when GC34 took place in early 1995. And so, almost daily -- and, seemingly, almost in real-time -- the priest-photog has posted comprehensive slideshows of the major events, culminating in Saturday's election (whose first images were relayed around the world within minutes).

Better still, he didn't let even the famous murmuratio go unchronicled.

As it would on few other ecclesiastical occasions, the global media spotlight has shone on Borgo Santo Spirito these past days. Lest there was any doubt, the breadth of coverage should serve as a reminder of the unparalleled extent to which, for all the dust-ups, challenges or prophecies of doom of recent years, the Jesuits still matter, and not just to the life of the church. (Just like the conspiracy theorists who eagerly muse on how, among other things, its members are "the leading force to take over Mother Earth after Planet X arrival," the fury the Society can sometimes arouse from its critics merely serves to reinforce the point.)

Away from the glare, however, there's a lesson. For the confreres and the many others watching from across the globe and waiting on the news, the camera's candid captures haven't just attracted interest, they've compelled communion.

When it's done right, the news invariably proves its ability to do that. But for a church oft in need of reminding that its effectiveness of mission lies in its communication skills (not of many fleeting words, but an Everlasting One), the photog's gift to the historical record has only been the beginning of his contribution.

Thanks to him for the tremendous work -- and, of course, the use of the shots.

PHOTOS: Don Doll SJ (1,2,3,4,7); Dani Villanueva SJ (6)