May 25, 2020 — “He was a laughing man with a great sense of humor. He was optimistic, embodying great simplicity, great depth, and great compassion,” recalled Fr. Daniel Lebond, SJ. On May 20, 2020, Father Adolfo Nicolas, former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, passed away at the age of 83 in Japan. Elected on January 19, 2008 at the 35th General Congregation, he served the Jesuits in this role for 8 years.
What was his impact on Canadian Jesuits and the Jesuit Province of Canada? More broadly, what contributions did he offer to Jesuits around the world? We present here the testimonies of five, four from Canada and an international one, who in one way or another were close to Father Adolfo Nicolás.
Three and a half years after he was elected Superior-General of the Society of Jesus Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., came to us in Canada to help celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Jesuits to these lands. He joined us for the first days of a major gathering at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario, called Congress 2011. His wisdom, humour, warmth and gentle courtesy completely charmed us.
The elderly men in the infirmary in Pickering were delighted that he went out to see them. The young Jesuits in formation were flattered that he wanted to meet them without any of their superiors around. Laywomen and men were pleased by his interest and his gratitude toward them. All of us were touched and moved by his attention, warmth and humour. He made a keynote address to us where he used the image of a giraffe to explain what a good apostle was: like the Jesuit martyrs, the giraffe has a big heart to pump blood up through that long neck and, from the end of the neck, the giraffe can see far. I still have a little blue stuffed giraffe on my desk to remind me of this moment!
A big, warm happy heart that sees far. This captures for me what I loved about Fr. Nicolás. It was this spirit that urged him to speak at every opportunity about the universality of the mission we have from God, and about the world’s great need for depth. Indeed he saw wisdom as the particular gift that consecrated life should bring to the world now, that is, to present the Good News in ordinary language of word and action to help people connect and reconnect with the loving God who is all around us.
One of his many wisdom stories that has stuck in my mind weaves together these themes. He recounted it in a talk on spiritual leadership to the board chairs and presidents of Jesuit colleges and universities in Chicago on October 12, 2013. It went something like this: A young Buddhist teacher in a Catholic university was offended by the religious symbols, particularly the chapel. A senior Buddhist on the faculty took him aside and said, ‘You don’t understand. In this school, the moment you enter the gate, everything is chapel. But what makes the school sacred is the students. Wherever the students are is chapel.’
Thank you, Fr. Nico for helping us to see farther by enlarging our hearts!
My first memory of Fr. Nicolas is from when I was provincial, and he was elected to the 35th General Congregation. He had big shoes to fill because Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who had held the position for 25 years, had a big personality. I saw Father Nicolas rise with immense humility, remove his headphones, and walk to the front with his head bowed, to pray. His life had just turned upside down! By his approach, I felt that he accepted it. He was a devout servant. Subsequently, throughout the rest of the Congregation, I was struck by the fact that he was humble, a true servant. He accepted this heavy responsibility in a spirit of real service. Yet, he was at the same time connected to each of us and demonstrated that he had a big heart. He was attentive and inspired by everything he heard at the Congregation to help move the Society forward in the years that followed.
Members of the 35th General Congregation, which elected Father Nicolás as Superior General. Photo: Jesuit Curia, Rome
I have a wonderful memory of the openness of his character during his stay in Rome. As an artist, I put on an exhibition of my works at the Congregation by a fortunate combination of circumstances. The following morning, as I was almost late for a meeting, I ran up the stairs and came face to face with Fr. Nicolas. He said: “This is very beautiful!” I was surprised at his reaction, by his openness. I gave him a painting and he was pleased — he was a man who loved art. I also saw this characteristic in Rome. He moved through the crowds quite naturally.
Subsequently, he visited Haiti before the earthquake and once again showed his connection to people. The first thing he said when he got off the plane was: “Speak to me me in French, I want to fully understand with my own ears”... and, as I would add, with his own heart. This demonstrates his desire to be connected to people. He had a real capacity for listening and conversation, and was very generous with his time. In Haiti, at informal moments such as meal times, he provided a real presence — but not in the sense that he captured the full attention of the room. Rather, he created a sense of connection among us all. During my provincialate, he did much for Haiti; he truly wanted to help the Haitian people. I will never forget that.
Personally, in all of these one-on-one moments with him, I always felt that he had an earnest presence. He knew how to connect and I felt that he understood me. He knew how to address the challenges I faced as a Jesuit and as a provincial, as well as the challenges faced by the province more widely.
Twice at meetings I met Father Nicolas, and in both cases he showed himself to be a man of simplicity, interested in genuine contact with his fellow Jesuits. I was attending a meeting of provincials and regional superiors in Spain, and Jim Webb, at the time regional superior in Jamaica, were going out for a walk. Fr. Nicolas saw us, asked if he could join us, and our conversation was for me the outstanding experience of that meeting.
Of course I met him at GC 35, in which we elected him as general. I was already convinced of his readiness for the task, but of course with a man beginning his seventh decade, the issue of health and age was a factor. Benedict was already an elderly pope, but as we know he did the unexpected thing, which was to resign in 2013. Fr. Nicolas continued on as general, and welcomed Pope Francis, whose election brought him even closer to the Society.
I was not involved in the actual coming together of our two provinces, but I have a sense that the integration, seen as inevitable but requiring great determination, was energized and encouraged by Fr. Nicolas. He was a key “behind the scenes” person in the life of our new province.
We are ever grateful for his ministry, both in East Asia and for the universal Society. May his example – the key words are universality and depth – and his intercession always be with us.
I am grateful for the two opportunities that brought me closer to our former Superior General, Father Nicolás. He knew how to blend simplicity and depth.
In 1995 to my great surprise I was elected as delegate of the Province of French Canada to the 34th General Congregation. From the start, the Congregation proceeded to elect a secretary and two under-secretaries. Father Adolfo Nicolas was quickly selected as secretary. But if I was surprised at being elected a delegate, how profoud was my second surprise — that of being elected First Secretary of the Congregation!
What a human and spiritual experience this has offered me. The support that I brought to the Secretary, in the complex daily tasks of a General Congregation which involved tending to the orientation of the Society and revising the complementary Rules, allowed me to become acquainted with a remarkable man. Adolfo Nicolas was organized, he knew how to guide the work of the commissions, and he exercised leadership that was both gentle and firm. He could therefore smooth out any tensions that arose; rally the ‘troops’ during the three months of the session; and brilliantly synthesize a completed session or prepare the report for the following session — diverse contributions, all.
The members of the Congregation were housed in Domus Pacis, 4km from the General Curia. Even if my role as under secretary required that I go every evening to walk the dark corridors of the Curia — this was before the renovations — I did so with a smile because working with Fr. Nicolas was a source of real joy. In his smile I could see the depth of his Jesuit commitment, and it was an honour to work with him. I would add, in all transparency, that by the end of the Congregation, I had an instinctive sense of certainty that this man could be our next General!
My second opportunity to be close to our revered Father Nicolas was during his visit, as General of the Jesuit Province of French Canada, in 2011. As a Socius, I was responsible for logistics as well as being the Father General’s driver.
Again, I had the joy of spending time with a very simple man who radiated by his greatness of soul, his closeness to everyone, his open mind and heart. I remember in particular the breakfast with Cardinal Gerald Lacroix in Quebec, in which the two ‘important’ men, with their trust, spontaneity, and simplicity, shared toast and cheese while helping each other to better understand the secularized world and where the Gospel can cast its beneficent light.
I then offered a guided tour of my hometown, Quebec City, which provided us with pleasant moments of relaxation, laughter, and history. What good memories!
In 1988, after my language training and an internship at Sophia University, I carried out further studies in theology. I was nervous about whether I could reconcile my poor Japanese language skills with the demands of studying. One of my teachers, Father Adolfo Nicolas, exempted me from attending his course on the theology of the sacraments. In contrast, he gave me about twenty books to read. Reading through his booklist, I discovered American, French, and German theology— a diversity of points of view, and a diversity of methods and approaches. Father Nicolas was always available for discussions, which deepened my knowledge and understanding. He was a teacher who liked to debate, who knew how to put himself at my level in order to draw me a little more toward his own. I was struck by his great inner freedom, by his love for the simple and the poor; by his ability to put things in perspective in order to explore new dynamics through his constant search for integration.
You can imagine my joy when, many years later, this same Father Nicolas was appointed to the role of provincial. His inner freedom allowed him to continue his simple life among the people. He preached more by example than by words. It is up to us to let ourselves be challenged by this lifestyle so that we can discover new perspectives for our Japan Province. Our province carried the weight of its institutions. Discernment for the future was imperative. But no discernment can be made without inner freedom, and similarly no discernment can be made without at least having an idea of the perspectives which could be offered. Father Nicolas was not a provincial who wanted to dictate the directions to follow; instead, he wanted us all to understand the challenges. He didn’t present plans to be carried out, but rather he encouraged growth and new dynamics.
Reflecting on the life of Father Adolfo Nicolas, I understand how much he has marked me as a teacher and as a provincial. In my own diocese I humbly seek to create similar dynamics so that the Church can have diverse prospects for the future.
His compassion for the poor, his simple and joyful lifestyle, his radiant fraternity, his joy in God, and his love for Japan will always accompany me.
You can read more testimonials here.
Photos: Jesuit Curia, Rome