On January 19, in fact, the election was announced of Fr Adolfo Nicolas, 71 years old, from Spain, as superior general of the Society of Jesus. The news surprised many, in part because Fr Nicolas comes from Japan, where, to judge by the tiny number of conversions, missionary activity hardly seems effective.
43 years ago, the choice to lead to the great order was Fr Pedro Arrupe, also a Spaniard and a missionary in Japan. And when he had to resign because of illness, he was replaced by Fr Giuseppe Pitau, the former rector of Sophia University in Tokyo. It is a paradoxical situation: Japan, which is allergic to Christianity, can produce excellent missionaries. This was also the case four centuries ago in the persons of Saint Francis Xavier, the first missionary to the country, and Fr Alessandro Valignano, a forerunner of inculturation.
Fr Nicolas was able to gradually insert himself in this line of succession, so much so that he became the icon of the missionary in eastern Asia of the past 40 years: sent to Tokyo in 1964, when he was not yet a priest, he left the capital only when he went to direct the East Asia Pastoral Institute in Manila (1978-84).
When the average citizen of the Japanese capital thinks about the Catholic Church, the image that comes to mind is the building complex of Sophia University. Founded in 1913, its growth was stunted until 1945 by the restrictions of the ultra-nationalist government. But after the war, the Jesuit general headquarters in Rome, dreaming like others of a substantial development of Catholicism in Japan, invested a great deal in the Tokyo university.
After his priestly ordination in 1976, Fr Nicolas was sent to teach at the university. Although the dream of mass conversions had vanished, the theology faculty was well attended. It was here that the future leader of the Jesuits laid the foundation of his reflection on the relationship between culture and faith.
During an interview with journalists on the day following his election, Fr Nicolas said among other things that his vision of religion was heavily influenced by the years he had spent in Japan. In an article that appeared in the magazine Concilium in 2005, he wrote: "In Asia, we are in a crisis situation because our message is not made visible in our lives . . . The joy and simplicity of service have given way to a complicated system of rules and regulations that make the Gospel something far removed from people".
In 1998, on the occasion of the special synod of bishops for Asia, his ability and willingness to assist the leadership of the Japanese Church were revealed. The context was the collection of responses to the questionnaire sent from Rome to more than 350 representatives. "On that occasion", said Fr Oda Takehiko, rector of the theological seminary of Tokyo, " I admired his ability to gather and organise, without discrimination, the opinions of each representative. Thanks to this work, the bishops were able to present the views and requests of the Japanese Church at the special synod".
But it is above all in the service of foreign workers that his foresight and discretion were appreciated. This is attested by a Tokyo priest, Fr Ohara Takeshi, Fr Nicolas's seminary classmate and now the director of the International Catholic Centre of Tokyo, who had invited him to work for the Centre as soon as he had been freed from his responsibility as rector. "It was impressive to see his ability to handle the difficult situations of each person, and to support all respectfully in their faith, without emphasising religious attitudes that he does not share".
"Service" is the word that sums up the exhortation that the newly elected superior addressed to the 19,000 Jesuits scattered throughout the world, in the homily for the Mass that he celebrated in the Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in Rome on January 20: "As Christians, as Jesuits, as the people of God we are called to serve. The more we serve, the more pleasing we will be to God".
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