By: Mike Mallowe, The Bulletin
Just a week ago, delegates from the worldwide Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, sat down to the serious business of electing the order's new Superior General. Their mission was accomplished by last Sunday - in what has to be record time for any deliberation involving the Catholic Church.
They selected Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, a man who has spent most of the last 44 years living and working in Japan, East Asia and Oceania. He'll be 72 in April, and his profile up until now could hardly be more modest. All of that, of course, is about to change. The Jesuits are the Catholic Church's front-line missionaries and agents of social activism, in addition to being world-class educators. The leader of that order of almost 20,000 priests and brothers sets an agenda that can have long-lasting political and diplomatic impacts, especially in developing nations.
In every way Fr. Nicolas's election was a surprise. A handful of favorites had emerged in the weeks leading up to the General Congregation and Fr. Nicolas's name was prominently missing from that list. Some insiders were leaning heavily toward the Australian provincial of the order, Fr. Mark Raper. He seemed like a logical choice because he was not only a familiar figure in Rome, but also a priest thoroughly identified with the emerging Church in Asia and the Third World. Fr. Frederico Lombardi, the former head of Vatican Radio and one of Pope Benedict's closest advisors on matters of communication and the media, looked like another favorite. The growth of the Jesuits has been steady and influential throughout India, so a man connected with that populous nation also looked like a good possibility. But the 217 Jesuit delegates in Rome fooled everyone.
The new Black Pope, as the head of the Jesuits is known (to distinguish his simple black cassock from the white robes of the pope), was elevated by his peers despite his relatively advanced age, his aversion to the ceremonial niceties of the Vatican and a career spent on the sort of tough issues that makes the hierarchy of the Church uneasy. In fact, Fr. Nicolas already clashed with the Vatican back in 1998 when he supported a group of Asian bishops who were campaigning hard for more local autonomy in their largely missionary dioceses. When Pope Benedict approved the Jesuits' choice so quickly, that, in itself, was a mild shock.
Fr. Nicolas's pedigree is connected not with the man he is replacing, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, a skillful consensus-builder, but with the most controversial Black Pope in modern history, Fr. Pedro Arrupe. Like Fr. Arrupe, who also spent many years in the Asian missions, Fr. Nicolas is a bright, admired Spanish theologian whose sentiments lie with the poor, the disenfranchised and the voiceless. During his formative years in the order, as a young priest, one of Fr. Nicolas's jobs was to serve as personal barber for Fr. Arrupe. His influence on the new Black Pope was personal and life-long.
After stepping down from a university appointment in Toyko and the leadership of the Jesuits in Japan and the Far East a few years ago, Fr. Nicolas moved out of his official residence and took a small apartment in one of Japan's worst slums. That's where he was working when he was named Superior General.
His election indicates that the Jesuits have every intention of continuing their bold mission of global change and conversion. This has often led to conflicts with local governments, especially in South and Central America.
Not only does Fr. Nicolas evoke glowing comparisons with the fiery, charismatic Fr. Arrupe - whom he calls a "visionary" - but with St. Francis Xavier, himself, the 16th-century Jesuit who became known as the Apostle to the East.
For the next month, the work of the Jesuits' General Congregation in Rome will continue - with Fr. Nicolas setting the tone for meetings that were already prepared to tackle subjects like a redefinition of the Jesuits' organizational identity, a rearticulation of their mission in the context of Third World inequalities and a new
concentration on crimes against the environment, particularly in those developing countries.
Never far from the Jesuits' collective consciousness is their relationship with the Vatican. Before becoming pope, Benedict was critical of some Jesuit theologians and their writings. Very recently, he removed the Vatican's famed astronomical Observatory, traditionally run by Jesuit scientists, from its longtime home in his summer residence.
The Pope also sent a letter to the General Congregation, reminding it of its vow of obedience to the Vatican.
Despite meager coverage of the Black Pope's election by the American media (CNN and Time magazine standing out as exceptions), Fr. Nicolas's new job has generated front-page treatment from New Delhi to London. There's a huge story there that goes far beyond the Jesuits and their change of leadership. The stakes are enormous in East Asia, including a quiet diplomatic offensive that has seen a slow but steady improvement of relations between China and the Vatican during Benedict's short pontificate. Nearly 500 years ago the Jesuits were the first Western missionaries to meet with any kind of success in China after establishing themselves in Japan. Part Two of that story may already be in the works.
Mike Mallowe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos from the 35th General Congregation
taken by Fr. Don Doll, S.J. - Creighton University