Former Jesuit superior general Adolfo Nicolás has died in Tokyo

Father Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Society of Jesus, and Pope Francis, meet before celebrating Mass at the Church of the Gesu in Rome in this Jan. 3, 2014, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)Father Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Society of Jesus, and Pope Francis, meet before celebrating Mass at the Church of the Gesu in Rome in this Jan. 3, 2014, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., the 30th superior general of the Society of Jesus, died in Tokyo, Japan, on May 20. He was 84 years old.

“With sorrow, but at the same time full of gratitude, I wish to inform you that today...the Lord called to Himself Father Adolfo Nicolás, our former Superior General,” Arturo Sosa, S.J., the current superior general, said in a message to the Society.

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Father Nicolás served the mission of the Society of Jesus in a variety of ministries. He was an academic who taught theology in Japan and was also the director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute at the Ateneo de Manila in the Philippines.

He was remembered by his successor, Father Sosa, as “a person with a spirit of joyful service to others, smiling in the middle of a job done under pressure.”

“As superior general,” Father Sosa said, “he brought to the Society his deep missionary vocation that helped us to see the universality of the mission from the perspective and the passion of presenting the Good News in all corners of the world.”

According to Father Sosa, Father Nicolás “never tired of reminding us of the depth of spiritual life and intellectual depth as characteristics of the vocation of the Society.... He opted for universal apostolic preferences and promoted the restructuring of the Society in order to adapt to the new realities of the world and our apostolic body.

Father Arturo Sosa: “He brought to the Society his deep missionary vocation that helped us to see the universality of the mission from the perspective and the passion of presenting the Good News in all corners of the world.”

“He never lost sight of the apostolic challenges of the growing migratory flows and the urgency of attending to the refugees,” Father Sosa remembered. “China and the African continent were always among his priorities. The service to the church through [the Society’s communities] and interprovincial works of Rome was confirmed and renewed during his time as superior general. In short, the Society will always be grateful to the Lord for the gift that Adolfo Nicolás has been.”

“Father Nicolás was a gentle and compassionate priest who had extensive experience in working with other cultures as well as a profound sense of Jesuit and Ignatian spirituality,” said James Martin, S.J., the editor at large for America, “all of which made him a wise, beloved and effective superior general.

“His counsel to Jesuits to strive for ‘depth’ made a deep impression on me and continues to influence my Jesuit vocation,” Father Martin said. “In person, Father Nicolás was also warm and welcoming. May he rest in peace with the God he served for so long.”

During his long career, Father Nicolás served in Jesuit administration as the rector of the school of theology in Tokyo, as provincial of the Japan Province and as moderator of the Jesuit Conference of Provincials for Eastern Asia and Oceania, with his office in the Philippines. In 2008, the Jesuits’ 35th general congregation elected him the 30th superior general of the order.

James Martin, S.J.: “Father Nicolás was a gentle and compassionate priest who had extensive experience in working with other cultures as well as a profound sense of Jesuit and Ignatian spirituality.”

That congregation was convoked by the previous superior general, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., who expressed his desire to retire from the position as he reached 80 years of age. Jesuit provinces all over the world chose their allotted delegates, who came together in Rome in January.

The delegates accepted Father Kolvenbach’s resignation and set about the business of electing his successor. Following the usual practice, for a couple of days the delegates then talked to each other, praying for guidance.

Father Nicolás’s wide international experience and great administrative abilities certainly made him one of the likely candidates for the position of superior general. Added to this were his strong Jesuit identity and sense of mission.

The delegates elected him superior general on the second ballot. Like his two immediate predecessors, he was a European who had gone on mission and spent much of his Jesuit life in Asia—Pedro Arrupe, S.J., had served in Japan and Father Kolvenbach in Lebanon.

His election as general elicited great positive reaction among those who had known him in Japan and the Philippines. In its edition of Feb. 4, 2008, America quoted the Philippine Jesuit Ben Nebres, the president of the Ateneo de Manila University and a member of the general congregation, who said: “When I think of him, the feelings that come are of affection and friendship. Father Nico is many things, but he is above all a companion and a friend.”

Father Nicolás had taught many members of the Salesian order at Sofia University, in addition to serving as their thesis moderator or spiritual director. One young Salesian who worked with him in a youth program described him as jinkaku-sha, “a man of character”—a high compliment in Japan.

Father Nicolás wanted Jesuit schools to be different, to be deep, to form critical thinkers. He also wanted the whole Society of Jesus to be open to learning from Asia and the peoples at the “frontiers.”

Adolfo Nicolás Pachón was born on April 29, 1936, in Villamuriel de Cerrato in northern Spain. In 1953, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Aranjuez. In 1960, after studying philosophy at the University of Alcalá, he moved to Japan, where he studied first the Japanese language and then theology at Sofia University in Tokyo. He was ordained a priest in March 1967.

The following year he returned to Europe to study theology for three more years at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. After receiving his doctorate in 1971, he returned to Sofia University as a professor of systematic theology until 1991, with a break for his term as the director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Quezon City near Manila (1978-84).

He also assisted Jesuits in Korea as they transitioned from leadership by U.S. Jesuits to local Jesuits. In 1991, Father Nicolás was named rector of the school of theology in Tokyo, thus overseeing the education and formation of the young men preparing for ordination.

He held this position until 1993, when he was named provincial superior of the Jesuits in Japan. He served the standard six years in this position and then spent four years working among poor immigrants in Tokyo. After that, in 2004, he was appointed moderator of the conference of Jesuit provincials for East Asia and Oceania; this conference includes Australia, China, East Timor, Japan, Korea, Micronesia and Myanmar. Its headquarters are in Manila.

A few months after his election as superior, Father Nicolás talked with Jesuit journalists:

What I do expect from the Jesuits? If I try to put things into one idea or one phrase, I would say I really hope that we insert ourselves deeply into what we do—be it pastoral work, education, research, spirituality—not in terms of success or in terms of exterior factors. Whatever issue we take, even those questions that sometimes people feel so awkward about (like relationships with the local hierarchy), if we can go deep enough into it, we can find so many possibilities for cooperation, for helping people, because in the deepest parts of ourselves we encounter the Lord who inspires our best service of others. Asking Jesuits to go deep into the issues and deep into discernment on what the possibilities are and how we can serve better, that will be my key and central part.

He encouraged creativity among his Jesuit brothers as they adapted to the changing contexts of their ministry. In April 2010, speaking in Mexico to an international gathering of educators at Jesuit schools, he warned about the “globalization of superficiality”:

When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one’s blogs or micro-blogs; when the latest opinion column from The New York Times or El Pais, or the newest viral video, can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perceptions and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.

He wanted Jesuit schools to be different, to be deep, to form critical thinkers. He also wanted the whole Society of Jesus to be open to learning from Asia and the peoples at the “frontiers,” an early Jesuit model from the days of Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci and others.

Father Nicolás was an example of wisdom derived from his imagination and his years of work in Asia, Father Lombardi said, which gave him a wide perspective.

For eight and a half years, Father Nicolás governed the Society of Jesus from his office in Rome, appointing superiors, dealing with the administrative challenges posed by restructured provinces, writing letters and addressing groups. He also traveled the world, encouraging local ministries, learning about local issues on the ground, meeting Jesuits busy with their local ministries.

On March 13, 2013, a papal conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first Jesuit pope. Father Nicolás, who had known him for more than two decades, issued a statement to the Society the following day giving “thanks to God” for his election, which, he said, “opens for the church a path full of hope.”

Francis invited him to Santa Marta on March 17 for a private meeting and then asked him to concelebrate the Mass for the inauguration of the pontificate on March 19. They remained in close contact while Father Nicolás was superior general, and they met for the last time in Tokyo in November 2019, when Francis visited Japan.

In 2015, Father Nicolás announced his intention of calling a general congregation at which he would submit his resignation as he reached the age of 80. In October 2016, the congregation met, accepted the resignation and proceeded to elect Father Sosa as his successor.

On the morning of the resignation, Federico Lombardi, S.J., read to the congregation an expression of gratitude for the service of Father Nicolás. He thanked him first of all for the person he was—for his cordiality, his humor, his smile. He was an example of wisdom derived from his imagination and his years of work in Asia, Father Lombardi said, which gave him a wide perspective.

Father Nicolás returned to the Philippines in his retirement. He lived in the community of the scholastics, where he quickly became a beloved presence. He faced declining health with serenity and grace. One of the scholastics there, Robbie Paraan, reflected on what his presence came to mean to the young men.

He recalled Father Nico, as he was always called there, “addressing us scholastics in one of our monthly community meetings.... I had expected him to tell us to study harder...or maybe mention his constant refrain as general to be persons of depth. But his first official message was startlingly simple yet, knowing who said it, was of great wisdom: ‘Be yourself, but let Christ touch this self.’”

Father Nicolás remained an inspiration in retirement, a faithful Jesuit on this new mission of aging gracefully.

Father Sosa, in his letter announcing the death of his predecessor, said, “The best way to remember Father Adolfo Nicolás may be with a brief prayer, written in his own hand after an eight-day retreat with his General Council in 2011, Exercises that I had the privilege to accompany. Many months after those Exercises, some meetings of the Council began with this prayer, which arose from the personal meditation of Father Nicolás on the miraculous catch of fish narrated by Saint John in chapter 21. It is an excellent synthesis of his person and of his spirituality”:

Lord Jesus,
What weaknesses did you see in us that made you decide to call us, in spite of everything, to collaborate in your mission?
We give you thanks for having called us, and we beg you not to forget your promise to be with us to the end of time.
Frequently we are invaded by the feeling of having worked all night in vain, forgetting, perhaps, that you are with us.
We ask that you make yourself present in our lives and in our work, today, tomorrow, and in the future yet to come.
Fill with your love these lives of ours, which we put at your service.
Take from our hearts the egoism of thinking about what is “ours,” what is “mine”, always excluding, lacking compassion and joy.
Enlighten our minds and our hearts, and do not forget to make us smile when things do not go as we wished.
At the end of the day, of each one of our days, make us feel more united with you and better able to perceive and discover around us greater joy and greater hope.
We ask all this from our reality. We are weak and sinful men, but we are your friends. Amen.

Father Sosa concluded, “Reading this prayer reveals the true Adolfo: a wise, humble and free man; totally and generously given to service; moved by those who suffer in the world, but at the same time overflowing with hope drawn from his faith in the Risen Lord; an excellent friend, who loved to laugh and to make others laugh; a man of the Gospel. It is a blessing to have known him.

“As we pray for his eternal happiness with the Lord, whom he served so well, we ask to be able ourselves to continue serving the mission as he did, with goodness, generosity and joy.”

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