The legacy of Father Adolfo Nicolás

Father Adolfo Nicolas, former superior general of the Society of Jesus, speaks during a news conference at the Vatican on Oct. 25, 2012. Father Nicolas died May 20, 2020, in Tokyo. He was 84. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

On May 20, 2020, Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., former superior general of the Society of Jesus, died in Tokyo after a long illness. Affectionately known as “Adolfo” by his friends and “Nico” by the Jesuits of Asia Pacific region, Father Nicolás was elected superior general at the 35th General Congregation of the world-wide Jesuit order on Jan. 19, 2008. Eight years later, his resignation was accepted by General Congregation 36, and his successor, Father Arturo Sosa, was elected. After Father Nicolás’s death, Father Sosa described his predecessor as “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.”

Though I did not know Father Nicolás personally, as a lay Catholic theologian who teaches at a Jesuit university, I feel as though I have lost a dear mentor and friend. Perhaps more than any other Jesuit figure in recent years, including Pope Francis, Father Nicolás has informed my thinking about the Ignatian imagination, the future of Jesuit education and the challenges to Christian faith formation of young people in our time.

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Though I did not know Father Nicolás personally, as a lay Catholic theologian who teaches at a Jesuit university, I feel as though I have lost a dear mentor and friend.

I credit Father Nicolás with recentering the role of imagination in Jesuit education and in the intellectual and spiritual formation of the whole person. His love for Japan and respect for Buddhist culture exemplify a commitment to interfaith friendship and, not incidentally, reinforce his emphasis on the contemplative roots of Ignatian spirituality. His speeches and interviews, many available online, continue to inspire, challenge and stir my heart as an educator and stumbling follower of Christ. In short, for me, too, “It is a blessing to have known him.”

What follows is an expression of my gratitude for Father Nicolás’s service to the Society and the people of God and my desire to bring wider attention to his life and thought. I speak mainly for myself but perhaps also for my lay colleagues around the world who are blessed to be collaborators in Jesuit secondary and higher education. Because music emerges repeatedly as a keynote during his years as superior general, I adopt a musical metaphor to suggest three key “movements” in the overarching symphony that is his legacy as leader of the Society of Jesus.

First Movement: Depth of Thought and Imagination

In his landmark 2010 address in Mexico City to Jesuit educators from around the world, “Depth of Thought and Imagination: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education today,” Father Nicolás begins by confronting the “deleterious effects” on the intellectual and spiritual formation of young people created by the “complex new interior world created by globalization.” Before he addresses Jesuit pedagogy or an Ignatian vision of education, he wants to look deeply with his audience at the cultural context that young people take for granted today, so as to understand the challenges they face before they set foot into the Jesuit classroom. His striking description of what he calls “the globalization of superficiality” merits citing at length.

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. One can “cut-and-paste” without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions.
When beautiful images from the merchants of consumer dreams flood one’s computer screens, or when the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s MP3 music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow.... When one is overwhelmed with such a dizzying pluralism of choices and values and beliefs and visions of life, then one can so easily slip into the lazy superficiality of relativism or mere tolerance of others...rather than engaging in the hard work of forming communities of dialogue in the search of truth and understanding. It is easier to do as one is told than to study, to pray, to risk, or to discern a choice.

Adolfo Nicolás: "When beautiful images from the merchants of consumer dreams flood one’s computer screens, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow."

Notice Father Nicolás’s emphasis on the “interior world” created by habits and processes endemic to our globalized technological landscape, how they can shape “one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring.” To the extent that young people spend so much of their time in virtual technological worlds, they (and we right along with them) risk succumbing to “a process of dehumanization that may be gradual and silent, but very real. People are losing their mental home, their culture, their points of reference.” Perhaps above all, Father Nicolás worries that superficial and siloed perceptions of reality “make it almost impossible to feel compassion for the suffering of others.” In place of empathy we see an “unchallenged reign of fundamentalism, fanaticism, ideology, and all those escapes from thinking that cause suffering for so many.”

At this point in the address, Father Nicolás pivots to describe a Jesuit or Ignatian way of knowing, a way of proceeding both in and beyond the classroom, which aims to “promote in creative new ways the depth of thought and imagination that are distinguishing marks of the Ignatian tradition.” To this day, it remains one of the clearest and most moving accounts of an Ignatian approach to education as spiritual formation that I have ever seen in print. It reads:

The Ignatian imagination is a creative process that goes to the depth of reality and begins recreating it. Ignatian contemplation is a very powerful tool, and it is a shifting from the left side of the brain to the right. But it is essential to understand that imagination is not the same as fantasy. Fantasy is a flight from reality, to a world where we create images for the sake of a diversity of images. Imagination grasps reality.
In other words, depth of thought and imagination in the Ignatian tradition involves a profound engagement with the real, a refusal to let go until one goes beneath the surface. It is a careful analysis (dismembering) for the sake of an integration (remembering) around what is deepest: God, Christ, the Gospel. The starting point, then, will always be what is real: what is materially, concretely thought to be there; the world as we encounter it; the world of the senses so vividly described in the Gospels themselves; a world of suffering and need, a broken world with many broken people in need of healing. We start there. We don’t run away from there. And then Ignatius guides us and students of Jesuit education, as he did his retreatants, to enter into the depths of that reality. Beyond what can be perceived most immediately, he leads one to see the hidden presence and action of God in what is seen, touched, smelt, felt. And that encounter with what is deepest changes the person.

Once we engage the real with our students, a deep desire to respond is awakened in their hearts, that is, a yearning to take responsibility for reality, in its sorrows and its joys, its brokenness and its beauty.

Once we engage the real with our students, Father Nicolás suggests, a deep desire to respond is awakened in their hearts, that is, a yearning to take responsibility for reality, in its sorrows and its joys, its brokenness and its beauty. Implicit in Father Nicolás’s insistence on engaging with concrete reality is the prophetic aspect of any education that aspires to be Christian, Catholic and Jesuit in its way of proceeding. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responding from Birmingham City Jail to public criticism of his tactics by fellow Christian ministers, Jesuit education will challenge its students with uncomfortable questions. “Our brothers and sisters are suffering terribly the blows of injustice. I’m here at their side in Birmingham. Where are you?”

For Father Nicolás, to “find God in all things” in the context of Jesuit education is more precisely to be found by God in all things, in and beyond the classroom. In university life, we tend to fashion ourselves as the ones seeking, pursuing truth, new knowledge and ultimately, the mystery of God. Drawing from the life and deepest spiritual insights of St. Ignatius, Father Nicolás here offers a profound reversal: It is God who pursues us with the passion of the Beloved. Thus, the telos of Jesuit education is to accompany students in the direction of this question: How is God calling out to us, inviting us to see, judge and act from within this concrete historical situation?

The oft-maligned “secular” world, in other words, is not in some cultural space “out there.” It is the air we all breathe, those of us who belong to churches, synagogues and mosques and those innumerable young adults who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Implicitly, Father Nicolás is urging all who are responsible for religious education in the church not to lose sight of the fundamental thing: our vocation, precisely in the midst of the secular city, to help young people discern and respond to God’s hidden presence in the world, calling us to its renewal.

For Father Nicolás, to “find God in all things” in the context of Jesuit education is more precisely to be found by God in all things, in and beyond the classroom.

Second Movement: A New Kind of Humanity That Is Musical

At a 2016 celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Japan, Father Nicolás offered some remarkable comments about religious faith that went largely overlooked in Catholic media. Religion, Father Nicolás suggested, is less a code of doctrines and moral teachings than it is a sensitivity to the dimensions of “transcendence, depth, gratuity and beauty” that underlie our human experiences. Likening religious experience to a person who can appreciate the intricacies and variations of classical music, Father Nicolás said, “Religion is first of all very much more like this musical sense than a rational system of teachings and explanations.” Addressing Jesuits and lay educators from around the world, he continued:

We are not in education for proselytism but for transformation. We want to form a new kind of humanity that is musical, that retains this sensitivity to beauty, to goodness, to the suffering of others, to compassion. But of course, this is a sensitivity that is threatened today by a purely economic or materialist mindset, which deadens this sensitivity to deeper dimension of reality. Just as this musical sense is being eroded and weakened by the noise, the pace, the self-images of the modern and postmodern world, so is religious sensitivity.

Reprising challenges articulated in Mexico City, Father Nicolás suggested that “mission today must first of all work toward helping people discover or rediscover this musical sense, this religious sensibility, this awareness and appreciation of dimensions of reality that are deeper than instrumental reason or materialist conceptions of life allow us.” He then sounded a cautionary note that will be familiar to anyone charged with the survival of Jesuit universities today: “It would be a tragedy if our universities simply replicated the rationality and self-understandings of our secular, materialist world. Our reason for being in education is completely different.”

I had already liked Father Nicolás before this speech, but after it, I loved him. I continue to be challenged by his words. What can he mean by forming “a new kind of humanity that is musical”? The answer, I believe, is closely related to another theme that echoes across his tenure at the helm of the Jesuits: his insistence that people everywhere today yearn to recover spaces for silence, a “taste for silence” in the midst of our busy and often overstimulated lives. In a stirring 2013 interview with The Jesuit Post, Father Nicolás says that the “education of our hearts,” and the path toward forming “a new kind of humanity,” begins in silence. “The chapel we carry within ourselves, all of the time, no? And we don’t need to have walls and chapels and all kinds of things. We can live in great simplicity in the middle of people and yet be carriers of silence.”

Adolfo Nicolás: “It would be a tragedy if our universities simply replicated the rationality and self-understandings of our secular, materialist world."

With a characteristically Jesuit wide-angle lens on the global human situation, Father Nicolás is drawing to our attention a deep spiritual malaise at the root of the present human predicament. And he is offering a contemplative way of proceeding grounded in Ignatian spirituality—but by no means limited to it—for the recovery of our deepest humanity. Music serves here as a guiding metaphor for a way of listening deeply and responding to reality that goes beyond explicitly religious ways of knowing to touch on all our relationships, in every realm of our lives, not least in the education and spiritual formation of young people.

In sum, an appreciation for silence is the necessary counterpart to musical and religious sensitivity because music, just like liturgy, is a patterning of stillness and silence. Across some 20 years as a teacher in Jesuit institutions, the most memorable experiences I have had with students involve the careful attunement of silence and speech, contemplation and action, active listening and creative expression—the art of communal learning and discernment. To form “a new kind of humanity that is musical” seems to me shorthand for what Ignatian educators do at their best, akin to Karl Rahner’s famous statement that tomorrow’s devout person “will either be a mystic—someone who has ‘experienced’ something—or else they will no longer be devout at all.”

“In the middle of the noise,” says Father Nicolás, “we can create a space for silence.” In doing so, especially in our classrooms, across all disciplines, we offer a lifelong gift and centering spiritual practice to our students.

Third Movement: A Companionship of Equals

There is a remarkable moment at the conclusion of his Mexico City address in which Father Nicolás asks his audience to imagine themselves “not as presidents or C.E.O.s of large institutions, or administrators or academics, but as co-founders of a new religious group, discerning God’s call to you as an apostolic body in the Church. In this globalized world, with all its lights and shadows, would—or how would—running all these universities still be the best way we can respond to the mission of the Church and the needs of the world?”

The question signaled the Society’s commitment today and, in principle, from its beginnings, to an understanding of Jesuit mission as a “companionship of equals” alongside lay women and men of every background. Father Nicolás was asking both the lay professionals and his Jesuit brothers in the room to imagine the future with him: Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and, we can safely presume, not a few agnostics and atheists. And he linked the invitation directly with the movement of the Holy Spirit in our times.

What kind of universities, with what emphases and what directions, would we run, if we were re-founding the Society of Jesus in today’s world?... [Because] I think every generation has to re-create the faith, they have to re-create the journey, they have to re-create the institutions. This is not only a good desire. If we lose the ability to re-create, we have lost the spirit.

What kind of universities, with what emphases and what directions, would we run, if we were re-founding the Society of Jesus in today’s world?

That the Jesuit mission cannot be imagined apart from collaboration is nowhere more powerfully stated than in Father Nicolás’s 2009 keynote address at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, “Companions in Mission: Pluralism in Action.” Here Father Nicolás notes with approval the emergence in the Society, mirroring developments in the church after the Second Vatican Council, of “a non-Eurocentric vision” of the mission in Asia and Africa, North and South America and Europe, “where Jesuits find themselves as co-workers in someone else’s work. Correlatively, they engage with Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Moslems or even agnostic co-workers in their own works.” Jesuits err when they assume, often in a paternalistic way, that the mission is “ours,” and only by necessity must non-Jesuits be recruited to assist in Jesuit apostolates. To the contrary, a true “reciprocity of personal presence is central to our identity as Jesuits” and has been so from the beginning.

As if to underscore the point more clearly, Father Nicolás then broke from his prepared remarks to share a story from one of the Jesuit schools in Japan involving a Buddhist administrator who stepped in to mediate a conflict with a disgruntled faculty member, who was also a Buddhist but was militantly antireligious in his stance toward the school’s Jesuit mission. The administrator was able to engage the faculty member in a way that peacefully resolved the situation. Father Nicolás concluded the story with this comment:

The point I want to make is that sometimes a Buddhist like the vice principal might have a better grasp of what we mean by a good Christian or Jesuit education than some of us do. It’s the whole experience that counts. It’s not just what we do in the chapel, which is very meaningful and keeps our hearts alive. It’s also what we do in the classrooms, the research labs, the residence halls, and so forth. It’s the whole operation that is working for depth, for creativity in the lives of people today, for a new humanity in our world and in the future. This man—this Buddhist—got it. We need more companions in mission like him.

Again, notice the emphasis on striving toward the formation of “a new humanity” for the benefit of a suffering world. The language is idealistic and aspirational, to be sure, and Father Nicolás admits that “the conversation on this issue has not yet become deep and penetrating,” not yet a true dialogue “among equal co-workers and companions.” In other words, there is much work yet to be done in the realm of collaboration. He takes pains to acknowledge, for example, that while General Congregation 34 formally committed the Society to “solidarity with women as integral to our mission,” it remains the case in some Jesuit works that this “has remained more a lip-service ideal than an obvious ‘taken-for-granted’ reality.”

This brings us to what seems to me the “final movement” in Father Nicolás’s legacy as the leader of the Society of Jesus. If today we are all “thrown together” by the forces of globalization, as he emphasized in Mexico City, then more than ever we must find ways “to meld our differences into a vital shared purpose.” Mere toleration is not enough, Father Nicolás insists, and certainly falls short of a Jesuit vision of education. He concludes by noting that in all things, Ignatius Loyola privileged “the humble, down-to-earth yet exacting task of genuine spiritual conversation.” Above all, it was “in authentic conversation about mutual mission,” St. Ignatius intuited, that “God was always active, present and profoundly to be found.”

This is what I have found, how I have so often been found, in my work in Jesuit education. God comes to us in the dance of conversation, person to person, heart to heart, in a space of mutual welcome and mutual challenge where our diverse gifts are allowed to flourish. If we lose this dimension of our work as Ignatian companions in mission, we lose the heart of our way of proceeding, our creativity, our spirit. Let us give thanks for the life and witness of Father Adolfo Nicolás and for the signposts he has raised on the road of our shared mission.

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