Saturday, January 19, 2008

Habemus Papam: Jesuits Go Ad Orientem

In a dramatic echo of the Arrupe legacy, Fr Adolfo Nicolás -- the Spanish-born head of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania -- has been elected the Society's 30th Superior-General and was rapidly confirmed in the post by Benedict XVI.

Based until now in Tokyo, Nicolás immediately takes the reins of the church's largest community of professed men.

Unlike the vast majority of those tipped for the post, the new Father-General comes short on Roman experience -- a former provincial of Japan, the theologian spent three years of study at the Gregorian University before a three decade run as a professor at Tokyo's Sofia University. He turns 72 in late April.

Hailed as "warm, bright, forward-thinking, wise, and serene" -- among other glowing attributes -- Nicolás speaks English, Italian, French, Japanese and Spanish. His election by the 217 delegates of the 35th General Congregation took place on the second ballot.

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Shortly after Roman Noon, the official announcement came from the Jesuit Curia's social justice czar, Fr Fernando Franco:
We have left the election hall a few minutes ago. I am glad to announce that we have a new Superior General of the Society of Jesus. There is immense joy as the members of the Congregation approach the new General to greet and embrace him. Adolfo Nicolas SJ is a man from Asia, a theologian from Japan, but born in Palencia Spain in 1936. He represents a new generation of Spanish missionaries in Japan after Fr. Arrupe.

He joined the Society of Jesus in the novitiate of Aranjuez, a small village close to Madrid, in 1953. After completing his studies of Philosophy in Alcalá, Madrid, in 1960 he goes to Japan to immerse himself in Japanese language and culture. In 1964 commences his Theological studies at Sophia University, Tokyo and is ordained priest on the 17th March 1967 in Tokyo.

After obtaining a Masters degree in Theology at the Gregorian Universality, Rome, he returns to Japan to become a professor of systematic theology at Sophia University. From 1978 to 1984 he becomes the director of the Pastoral Institute at Manila, Philippines and then Rector of the house for young Asian Jesuit students of Theology. From 1993 to 1999 he becomes Provincial of the Jesuit Province of Japan.

After this stint in 'power' he spent three years working in a poor immigrant parish in Tokyo. His work is difficult but he is able to help thousands of Philippine and Asian immigrants and gets a first-hand experience of their suffering. In a way, his love for the poor and downtrodden can become now, after so many years, his most important ministry.

In 2004 is called again to exercise governing functions, and is appointed responsible for the entire Jesuit region of East Asia comprising countries from Myanmar to East Timor, including the new province of China. It was during these years that he was able to support the phenomenal growth of the Jesuit presence in Vietnam and other countries.

Somebody might say that after celebrating the centenary of Fr. Arrupe, the Society has elected a General very much in his own line. It is as if the Society would like to re-affirm once more its missionary character and its commitment to all peoples and cultures.
From a 2007 profile:

It’s been 46 years since Father Adolfo Nicolás first traveled to Japan as a missionary from Spain. His has been a long conversation, first in Japan, but also in Korea and more recently in the Philippines. It’s left him convinced that the West does not have a monopoly on meaning and spirituality, and can learn a lot from the experience of Asian cultures.

‘Asia has a lot yet to offer to the Church, to the whole Church, but we haven’t done it yet’, he says. ‘Maybe we have not been courageous enough, or we haven’t taken the risks that we should.’

It speaks volumes that when Father Nicolás talks about Asia, he uses the term ‘we’. As President of the Jesuit Conference of South East Asia and Oceania, he’s responsible for bringing Jesuits across the region together to think beyond their own countries, and confront challenges facing the globe.

The group he represents stretches from China and Myanmar in the west, to Korea in the north, Australia in the south, and Micronesia in the east. It brings together an incredibly diverse group of cultures and societies. From countries where Christianity has been strong in the past, but is on the wane, to places where Christians make up a small but vibrant minority.

Asked if people from a culture like Japan experience Ignatian Spirituality differently than those in the West, Father Nicolás says the experience was indeed different, but it had yet to be formulated.

‘I think the real experience of the Japanese is different. And it should be different. But the formulation continues to be very much a Western formulation’, he says.

A Japanese Jesuit, Father Katoaki, has recently translated and added comments on the book of the Exercises from a Japanese-Buddhist perspective. Father Adolfo says there has also been some discussion on whether the Exercises could be presented to non-Christians, and how that might occur.

‘The question is how to give the Ignatian experience to a Buddhist’, he says. ‘Not maybe formulated in Christian terms, which is what Ignatius asked, but to go to the core of the experience. What happens to a person that goes through a number of exercises that really turn a person inside-out. This is still for us a big challenge.’

While some work has been done comparing the Ignatian experience with that of Hindus, he says there hasn’t been a lot of work on finding similarities say in Japanese, Chinese or Korean cultures. He says East Asia has been more slow to do this in India, partly because the East Asians have a strong respect for tradition, and hence a respect for Christianity’s European traditions. However, the region’s remoteness also gives it more freedom to be creative.

‘There is more space for experimenting, for trying, for thinking and exchanging’, he says.

Essentially, he says the Exercises are about letting God guide people. This is something that those directing retreats have been wary of in the past, but something that is important when dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds.

‘The fact is, if God is guiding then the Japanese will be guided the Japanese way. And the same with the Chinese, and with people from other religions’, he says.

‘Then the director simply has to be perceptive, to see signs that here God is saying something that I don’t understand, and be humble enough to say continue as long as you keep sane and balanced etc.’

Others throughout Asia are dealing more directly with questions of cultural difference, working as missionaries in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar. Father Nicolás says he’s wary of missionaries who don’t enter into the lives of the people, but keep the patterns of their home cultures – Europe or Latin America - alive in their mind. For them, it’s not about exchange but about teaching and imposing orthodoxy.

‘Those who enter into the lives of the people, they begin to question their own positions very radically’, he says. ‘Because they see genuine humanity in the simple people, and yet they see that this genuine humanity is finding a depth of simplicity, of honesty, of goodness that does not come from our sources.’

That conversation must continue, if we are to learn from Asia and Asia is to learn from us.

‘That is a tremendous challenge, and I think it’s a challenge that we have to face. We don’t have a monopoly, and we have a lot to learn.'

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Prior to the opening of GC35, the new Father-General wrote of his "six hopes" for the gathering... the text follows in full:
Can we be realistic?

I can still remember GC34. They are fond, humorous and challenging memories. But we were not realistic.

Just imagine: 220 Jesuits decide to tackle 46 topics, work on them for three months, produce 26 documents and solemnly handle and approve 416 complementary norms. Thus, we were not surprised when crises emerged: crises of content, of management, and of hope. Next year we will be close to 230 members.

It is my ardent hope that we be realistic as to what a GC can do decently well, what it cannot, and what it should leave to the new Father-General and his team.

Can we be transparent?

Transparency has become more difficult in our small world. When was the last time that a great leader could confess substantial sins in public and continue leading the flock, the country, the Church?

And yet, our GCs have always started with an honest and frank acknowledgment of where we are going wrong, what is missing in our lives, what has been distorted or wounded of our spirit, what needs conversion, renewal or radical reform.

It is my sincere hope that we can do that again.

Can we be accompanied?

The best of a General Congregation is the event itself, as an ‘event of the heart'. This is a time of intensive search and of exhilarating exchange, where questions and answers do not come lineally, but dance within us and around us, at the rhythm of fraternal and humble mutual openness.

My hope is that this happens to the whole Society of Jesus. I hope that we all take an active part in preparing the Congregation from inside our common issues. Prayer, reflection and exchange are the gift and the contribution.

I hope that those who do not go to Rome, will monitor and follow events closely, with the same hope, the same intensity of search, the same willingness to change and be led by the Spirit of our Lord. This will be our best accompaniment.

Can we be creative?

I have a feeling, still imprecise and difficult to define, that there is something important in our religious life that needs attention and is not getting it. We have certainly been diligent in addressing our problems whenever we have seen them: Poverty (GC32 in 1974 and 34 in 1995), Chastity (GC34), Community (Provincials at Loyola)... But the uneasiness in the Society and in the Church has not disappeared.

The question for us is: Is it enough that we are happy with our life and are improving our service and ministry? Isn't there also an important factor in the perception of people (Vox Populi) that should drive us to some deeper reflection on religious life today? How come we elicit so much admiration and so little following?

Thus, one of my hopes is that in GC35 we begin a process of dynamic and open reflection on our religious life that might begin a process of re-creation of the Society for our times, not only in the quality of our services, but also and mostly in the quality of our personal and community witness to the Church and the World.

Can we be practical?

The age in which we live and our younger Jesuits will live, is an age of very rapid change. New technologies and new communication possibilities can make a great difference. We are using some. We do not feel free to use others. Maybe a certain restraint in using new means might be good for us. Maybe not. It is so difficult to know what is going to happen seven, ten years from now.

It is my hope that the coming GC opens the way for future General Congregations, giving the new General and his Council the freedom to discern and choose the best means to prepare and to run the Congregations of the future.

Can we be short?

We would not like GC35 to become another exercise in patience. A General Congregation is not a "Panacea" for all the problems we might face. It is a help of great value, but basically oriented to the ongoing growth in the Spirit and the Apostolate of the whole Society.

Thus, my final hope is that we will be so clear as to the purposes, and so focused in our work, that we can do this service to the Society and the Church within a reasonably short time.
PHOTO: Don Doll SJ