New Jesuit leader blends old with new

The Society of Jesus have elected a Spanish born academic who has spent the past five decades in Asia as its new Superior General.

The province website of the Australian Jesuits has reported that 71 year old Fr Adolfo Nicolas was elected on the second ballot at the order's 35th General Congregation in Rome on Saturday morning Ausralian time.

Fr Nicolas had been a former provincial of the Japanese province and in more recent years was the head of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania.

He was not considered a frontrunner before the start of the General Congregation and reports have suggested his election represents a ''fairly bold choice''.

His skills and outlook for the order is said to be a blend between the mild personal manner and diplomacy of his immediate predecessor Fr Kolvenbach and the prophetic emphasis on justice, peace, and Church reform associated with former General Fr. Pedro Arrupe.

Fr. Thomas Smolich, President of the Jesuit Conference in the United States and a member of the General Congregation that elected Nicolás, said the mood among the Jesuits was "joyous, exuberant, on cloud nine."

"I believe we've chosen the man God had in mind," he said.

The choice of Nicolás is especially significant, observers say, given that immediately prior to the election Pope Benedict XVI had addressed a letter to Kolvenbach, praising the Jesuits for their many apostolic works but also calling them to obedience on several contentious issues.

While it is not expected Fr Nicolas will lead the Jesuits in any direct challenge to Church teaching, observers say, his election is nevertheless a choice for a ''forward thinking'' outlook, as well as for a sensibility to the realities of Catholicism outside the West.

Mercedarian Sr. Filo Hirota, who knows Nicolás well from his time in Japan, described him as "almost perfect."

"He is a very fine theologian, very human, with a wonderful sense of humour," Hirota said. She said that Nicolás played a key role in organising a major gathering of the Japanese church in the 1980s that identified broad lines of future development, almost like a "mini-ecumenical council."

"He is a very balanced person," Hirota said. "He is prophetic in his vision, but he knows how to dialogue. He's very serene and very wise."

Smolich said that the blend of deep theological literacy and practical pastoral experience made Nicolás an attractive choice. For example, Smolich said, after Nicolás became provincial of the Jesuits in Japan, he moved to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tokyo and got to know the social reality, a move that Smolich said "amazed and inspired people."

The new Jesuit General speaks Spanish, Japanese, English, French and Italian.

The Jesuits have released the following biographical data about Nicolás:

• 29 April 1936: born in Palencia, Spagna
• 15 September 1953: Enters the novitiate at Aranjuez in the Province of Toletana (Spain).
• 1958-1960: License in Philosophy (Alcalá, Madrid)
• 1964-1968: Studies theology in Tokyo, Japan
• 17 March 1967: Priestly ordination in Tokyo, Giappone
• 1968-1971: Masters in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome
• 1971: Professor of Systematic Theology at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan
• 1978-1984: Director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila (the Philippines)
• 1991-1993: Rector of the Scholasticate (Tokyo, Japan)
• 1993-1999: Provincial of the Province of Japan
• 2004-2007: Moderator of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania.

On Monday morning, he will take over leadership of the General Congregation as it begins charting a future course for the Jesuit order.

21 Jan 2008