On the day after Adolfo Nicolás, the Jesuit superior general from 2008 to 2016, died in Japan, his Venezuelan-born successor, Arturo Sosa, reflected on his legacy in a meeting with a small group of journalists at the Jesuit Curia in Rome.
Afterward, in an interview with America, he spoke about his predecessor’s close relationship with Pope Francis, his style of leadership and his “accompaniment” of the Jesuits in the United States as they sought to restructure the Society of Jesus.
Father Sosa recalled that Father Nicolás and Francis, the first Jesuit pope, knew each other for many years. As a Jesuit provincial, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had traveled to Japan in the early 1980s to visit priests he had sent there to serve as missionaries with Father Nicolás. But according to Father Sosa, their relationship only really blossomed after the election of Pope Francis, when Father Nicolás was also in Rome as superior general of the Jesuits.
“They found themselves here in Rome in the role of pope and of general, and they really were on the same page. They developed a good relationship, deeply conscious of the responsibility they had on their hands and how they could contribute one to the other,” Father Sosa said.
Father Nicolás “was not the kind of leader who says, ‘I am the one who knows everything.’ He really trusted in people, and he listened.”
“They built a nice friendship. They communicated very frequently and very freely. In that way, Adolfo felt very free to say anything to the pope, but respectfully, and the pope was very happy to hear what he had to say.” Father Sosa underlined the importance of this friendship because “in a position like that of the pope, you cannot trust everyone and what they are saying to you.”
He said, “I will always remember when Pope Francis had a problem in finding a bishop for Turkey. The Italian Capuchin bishop, Luigi Padovese, was killed in southern Turkey on June 3, 2010, and the pope couldn’t find a suitable person to go there. No religious, no diocesan priest, there was no one to replace him as bishop.
“So he called Adolfo and said, ‘I need a Jesuit for this mission.’ Adolfo started looking and found Father Paolo Bizzeti, an Italian Jesuit from Florence and an expert on the Middle East. He proposed him, and Francis appointed him as Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia in Turkey.”
Father Sosa concluded, “So the pope was counting on the Society and on Adolfo for situations in which he didn’t know how to find people.”
Father Sosa said that Father Nicolás’s greatest contribution to the Society of Jesus was his style of leadership.
He explained that Father Nicolás “really trusted in his priests and in other people with responsibility in our structures…. He was not the kind of leader who says, ‘I am the one who knows everything.’ He really trusted in people, and he listened. He pushed for change and changed what had to be changed, but he really trusted people.”
Earlier, addressing Vatican journalists, Father Sosa recalled that in 1995 the Jesuits held their 34th General Congregation, one that decided on a major reform of the structures of the Society of Jesus. Father Nicolás served as secretary of that congregation, and when he was elected superior general in 2008 “he put into practice the spirit of that reform,” especially in regard to relations between the center and the periphery.
Father Nicolás promoted “a style of government that was more consultative,” and he involved people in the central government of the Society from around the world.
He promoted “a style of government that was more consultative,” and he involved people in the central government of the Society from around the world, including Father Sosa himself. He recalled that Father Nicolás led the Jesuits “with a great capacity for discernment” at a time of “growth of diversity and of cultures in the Society.”
He noted, moreover, that while Pedro Aruppe, superior general of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983, rediscovered the importance of discernment for the work of Jesuits, Father Nicolás developed this insight with great intelligence and depth.
Comparing the two leaders, Father Sosa said, “They were two very different personalities. Arrupe was more a man of action, immediate action; he was trained as a medical doctor. Adolfo, on the other hand, was rather timid. He was in the second row, but at the same time he could manage a complex situation, knowing where he wanted to go, but taking time and trusting people.”
Father Sosa said that Father Nicolás’s many years in Japan influenced how he governed the Society as he brought “a new synthesis” from the encounter of his Spanish culture with Japanese culture.
In this context, he recalled his predecessor’s “great capacity to listen and to remain serene even when faced with a complex situation. He did not become anxious; he remained calm in such situations. He understood that things have their own rhythm, and he took time.”
Indeed, he said, “I have never seen Adolfo overwhelmed, overcome, when he had to address very complex matters. I think maybe this is part of the Asian, Japanese culture, that you are able to stay calm, go deeper, and see things in a big picture, in a process.”
Father Sosa recalled the effort Father Nicolás put into assisting the Jesuits of the United States—“a very important part of the Society”—in reducing the number of provinces from 10 to five. He recalled that this process did not start with Father Nicolás; U.S. provincials had been thinking about it before he became superior general because of “the diminishing numbers of Jesuits in their homeland and the tasks they faced.”
The process started under Hans Peter Kolvenbach, S.J., he said, and his successor, Father Nicolás, “accompanied it.” Father Sosa said the Jesuits of the United States have done “a very good restructuring of the provinces” and would complete the process by the end of July. He said Canadian Jesuits have also restructured well, reducing their provinces from two to one.
Asked what advice Father Nicolás had given him when he was elected to succeed him, Father Sosa said, “We talked a lot; he was very respectful. We knew each other a lot before, and I knew how he thinks.”
He recalled, however, that in the two-year period that followed Father Nicolás’s announcement of his resignation and the general congregation that convened to elect his successor, Father Nicolás would write down anything that came to mind that he felt his successor should know about. “So, sometime after my election,” Father Sosa recalled, “he gave me [his notes] with his thoughts on what he felt I should take into account.”
Watch: Remembering Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J. | A Conversation with Fr. James Grummer, S.J.