Fr Adolfo Nicolás on Reality and Detachment

(This is Neil) Last year, Fr Adolfo Nicolás, Superior General of the Jesuits, granted an interview with three members of the communication team for the 35th Congregation of the Society of Jesus. A transcription of the interview [PDF] was published in The Way. I didn’t post on the interview at the time because I was sure that other sites would. A quick (inconclusive?) Google search doesn’t find any such sites. The interview, a year late, is still quite interesting. I’ll try to summarize a few points.

Fr Nicolás was born just before the Civil War in Spain and his family had to constantly move, in part because of his father’s Catholicism. Nicolás says, as might be expected, that this nomadic childhood was at times “painful,” but, perhaps more surprisingly, that it proved to be a “blessing.” Nicolás learned about the importance of “adaptation” – that, as the future Jesuit missionary would see again and again, different perspectives exist and one must always be attentive to particular contexts and cultures.  His mother, because she had to constantly adjust to new homes, became a “kind of counselor.” When people came to his parents with problems, “they had the ability to open possibilities, not just to give answers.” They were able to hear “the music of the experience of others.”

Later on, Fr Nicolás became a Jesuit and was sent to Japan (“I never volunteered for Japan and I didn’t know much about that country”). He would later be sent to the Philippines. Now, Nicolás says, “In Asia I am aware that I am a European, but in Europe I am aware that I am not a European.” He goes on to say something that many of us would find very difficult to repeat about ourselves, “I don’t care whether I am a Spaniard, or French, or Japanese.” Nicolás is content to simply be who he is.

Thus, unsurprisingly, when asked about Biblical themes that are meaningful for him, Nicolás mentions detachment alongside “life in the spirit” and the Ignatian idea of service. Nicolás says:

…It is not just detachment from things: I am attached, I like people, and I like working and many other things. But you are detached from whatever happens. It could be close to this famous saying that is attributed to Saint Ignatius: “Do everything as if it would depend on you, knowing that it depends on God, and then relax.” (There are different versions.) It is about detachment: you do your best and you are only a servant, so let the fruits take their own course, let God work. So when I see verses about this in the Gospels, it always touches something inside me; probably it is the Spirit.

Detachment, presumably, lets Nicolás achieve a degree of objectivity. His sees both disadvantages (less energy) and advantages (realism) in aging. He retains the “admiration for simplicity” that he first gained by living in a Spanish village and dislikes a melodramatic view of religious life. “I don’t like it when religious, Jesuits or non-Jesuits, speak of religious life as a cross,” the Superior General says. “I think it is nonsense most of the time because married people have many problems and difficulties. … I have seen people struggling all their life, migrants for instance.”

Most strikingly, Nicolás isn’t possessive over an imagined Jesuit past, nor does he seek to define himself against it. Instead, he can learn from his predecessors:

…Certainly, I have been influenced by Francis Xavier, but my relationship with him has not been so constant. When I was young, of course, Francis Xavier was the hero, the model: his enthusiasm, his fire, his openness to go anywhere in the world, his dreams. I remember that as a young man I liked very much a drama by José María Pemán, The Divine Impatient.

But then, being in Japan, I realized that he is not a universal, popular saint. And he made some mistakes in India. People who are aware of those mistakes have a tendency to put him down, in terms of a model for missions, especially in Asia, maybe especially in Japan, where people are very sensitive to dialogue, to respect for conscience.

I began to look at Francis Xavier with a critical eye. But then, I think he showed me his greatness when I looked at who he became in Japan. In India he was still the son of his theology and of a particular school. But when he went to Japan, he met people. That is something I see as extremely important. He met people and in these meetings he realized that he was not totally right. He began to listen, and to respect, and to admire. As a missionary he changed; he opened a style that was later taken by Matteo Ricci and others. But Francis Xavier was the one who could make the change; and I think that he showed a greatness that continues to inspire me. So, it’s not so much the man of fire, but the man who had the ability to change his presuppositions. You have to learn.

In Japan, for instance, we were preparing a congress on Saint Francis Xavier, and we had a meeting with bishops of the south, where Xavier had lived. The bishop of Fukoka wasn’t very happy. He said, “I don’t know whether we should be part of the celebration because Francis Xavier only passed through Fukoka and the only thing he did there was to quarrel with the local Buddhist monk.”

But that quarrel is extremely interesting. Xavier went to the monk to scold him because he was not giving a good example to his Buddhist faithful. Xavier did not go there to convince him to become a Christian; he went there to tell him: “Look, you are there to help people and you are not helping them, because your life is not good. You have to help your people to become better.” And that’s a tremendous insight into how God works in other people, even in a Buddhist monk, for instance in helping his disciples to become more faithful.

In the interview, Fr Nicolás mentions the late Fr Pedro Arrupe a few times. Arrupe confirmed a lesson that Nicolás perhaps first learned from his wise and peripatetic parents – that, as Fr  Kevin Burke, SJ, writes [PDF] of Arrupe’s theology, “[T]he real trick is finding God and not just our own images of God, our own projections of what we think a god should look like.” Thus, Fr Nicolás distrusts general theories and prefers a “taste of reality.” “I must go deeper into the reality of things,” he says. Nicolás notes that, “Even at the Roman Curia, they had these ‘Arrupe hours,’ times when the members of the staff were supposed to go out to meet people, not to stay within the walls.” (And, of course, see again the quote about St Francis Xavier: “He met people and in these meetings he realized that was not totally right” [my emphasis].)

Nicolás finds these insertions into reality to be “essential.” Otherwise, “We can spend a lot of energy and time discussing theoretically; and it is very often in these contexts that we fight with each other, right?”

If you have a chance, please read the entire interview [PDF].

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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