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Posted on on February 11th, 2008
by Pincas Jawetz (

Kevin Rafferty was editor of “The Universe,” Britain’s Catholic newspaper. He wrote for The Japan Times of February 11, 2008, an article about the election of Adolfo Nicolas, a 71-year-old Spaniard who went to Japan as a young man 46 years ago and never left Asia except for going to Rome for further theological studies, as the new “father general” of the Jesuit order.

His choice is potentially of historic significance. Nicolas takes over as Pope Benedict is getting into his stride in his task of bringing erring priests and people back into line, with the zeal of someone who was the Vatican’s theological watchdog before becoming pope. The Vatican gets more conservative!

In the last few months the Vatican issued a warning against the writings of a Vietnamese-born U.S.-based theologian whose writings have tried to bridge the gap between Catholicism and Asian religions. It also refused to accept a divorced man as Argentina’s ambassador.

Pope Benedict weighed in with specific warnings to the Jesuits, and wrote to Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the outgoing Dutch father general, who at 80 asked to retire, even though the job is for life. The pope urged the Jesuits to accept “total adhesion to Catholic doctrine.” He singled out “those neuralgic points which today are strongly attacked by secular culture, as for example the relationship between Christ and religions; some aspects of the theology of liberation; and various points of sexual morality, especially as regards the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care of homosexual persons.”

Just in case that was not clear enough, Cardinal Franc Rode, who delivered the homily at the opening mass of the Jesuit congregation, expressed “sadness and anxiety” regarding aspects of Jesuit life and urged them to “think with the Church.” The cardinal told the National Catholic Reporter that he showed his text in advance to “superior authority,” a reference to the pope.

But the new father general Nicolas is no lightweight. On the one hand, in a prophetic paper prepared for the Asian Catholic bishops in 1990, he showed he was a man ahead of his time. He lamented secularization and feared the assault on wisdom from “bias, nonsense and the infinite varieties of selfish or group interests.”

But on the other hand, at the time, he also called for “A new justice for all humans regardless of age, race, gender, physical, financial or social capabilities, also a new justice for the Earth and all its living creatures and their habitats. This translates into a new justice for the coming generations of Asian peoples who will want to encounter the living God and his marvelous creation in the glorious beauty he so laboriously elaborated through billions of years: and not to be abandoned to a boring search for him through the devastated and exploited wastelands we are multiplying at present.”
Rafferty remarks that his plea came almost a generation before it became fashionable to be green.

The real importance of Nicolas is that although raised in Europe, his formative years as a man and a Catholic priest were in Japan, which has few Catholics but much experience in religious thinking. Where the pope seems increasingly concentrated on obedience to the Church and toeing the line, Nicolas stresses the importance of listening and learning.

Further, we write about this because of the concluing remarks by Rafferty: Nicolas said that Japan “has changed me and helped me to understand others, to accept what is different and try to understand why it is different, in what lies the difference and how I can learn from that difference.”

Japan, he added, “has taught me to smile at the difficulties, at human imperfection, the human reality. In Spain I was a little intolerant, thinking in terms of order, of commands, because I thought of religion as fidelity to religious practices, and in Japan I learned that true religiosity is more profound, that one must go to the heart of things, to the depths of our humanity, whether we are speaking of God or of ourselves and human life. Human life is this way, we people are this way; imperfections are so natural that it is necessary to accept them from the very beginning.”

Put his way, Nicolas seems more truly Catholic — in its original meaning of “universal.” His election could offer a marriage of black and white made in heaven. But it remains uncertain whether the wholly Roman pope will tolerate such diversity on Earth.

Comparing the above with the positions of the present Pope – the Germanic Benedict XVI – the Pope being considered historically the “white pope” because of his white robes, and the father general being considered the “black pope” because of his traditional simple black garb – one is left wondering about who is more appropriate to our times, and who has learned a thing or two by having been exposed to Eastern (that is now Asian, not Bizantine) cultures.

The reaction to father Nicolas’ elections are telling: Enter Adolfo Nicolas as the new leader. The first amazing thing about his election was the happiness that greeted the news, sheer joy from Rome to Japan and the Philippines. An elector from Europe asked, “Have we elected a saint?” Another described him as “the wise man from the East.” A Hong Kong woman working with the Jesuits in Cambodia exclaimed, “There is hope for the Jesuits!”

In the Philippines, where Nicolas had worked from 2004 as moderator of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania, Bishop Francisco Claver said he was at supper with priesthood students and, “When we got the news, everyone cheered like we were winning a basketball game.”

From Japan, where Nicolas spent most of his priestly life, a nun, Sister Filo Hirota praised Nicolas as “almost perfect, a very fine theologian, very human, with a wonderful sense of humor, prophetic in his vision, but he knows how to dialogue.” She added that he does a very fine impression of Charlie Chaplin.

How very different from the pope, almost a difference between black and white. It is hard to see the austere, stern pope gaining such applause or being called affectionately “Father Nico,” as many call the new Jesuit general.

Our question is now – Will father Nicolas follow up by becoming the GREEN POPE?

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