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backs to the future

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jan 22, 2008

The name "Adolf" says nothing about his politics, but it dates him as a child of the 1930s -- born before the war that made the name unbestowable. The Jesuits' choice of 71-year-old Adolfo Nicolás as their Superior General is a conscious return to the past -- ironically (yet markedly) more so than was the cardinals' choice of 79-year-old Joseph Ratzinger as Pope in the 2005 conclave.

In terms of his theology, the Spanish-born Jesuit came of age in the early 1970s, but his academic pursuits, unlike Ratzinger's, gave way to work in formation and administration, and the theological jargon of the 1970s remains audible in those of Nicolás's homilies and interviews available on the Web.

Bouncing around the blogs and the GC-35 website, I'm struck by how often the Jesuit electors mention former General Pedro Arrupe (1965-1983) in congratulating themselves on the election of Nicolás. The symbolic connection was clearly important to them: both Arrupe and Nicolás came from Spain and both had worked extensively in Japan. But the world has changed since Arrupe was elected in 1965, and it's odd that Jesuits think Arrupe's abilities would answer to today's problems. Yet, just as many lay Boomers are drawn to "reunion concerts" given by pop musicians whose heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, by their own account the Jesuit electors were moved by a sentimental attachment to the bygone Arrupe years in their emblematic choice of a General. In fact Nicolás seems to have been summoned to do an Arrupe Nostalgia Tour.

This is not to say that Fr. Nicolás will be disposed to play the role sentiment has projected upon him. He may have his own ideas about his generalship. He is described as a progressive and a man who believes Roman Catholics have "much to learn from Asia," but this tells us almost nothing. His Asian experience includes the Philippines, which is a "developing" country with robust Catholicism and a robust birthrate, and it includes as well Japan, which exhibits all the ills of prosperous secularism and is locked into a demographic death spiral scarcely less dramatic than the Jesuits' own. So what do we Catholics need to learn, and which Asians will be commissioned to teach us? Will the Filipino culture of life be held up for our emulation, or will we be coached in the Japanese art of decorous suicide? One suspects that, as often, the wisdom of the orient will be tailored by what our fellow Westerners are keen to thrust upon us.

As an institution, the Society of Jesus is confronting problems that are more "Japanese" in scope than "Filipino." A photo of a Mass celebrated by the electors last Friday provides an emblematic illustration of the order's bewilderment: we see a single vested celebrant at the altar, with all the other priests scattered in the pews, not concelebrating but garbed as laymen in corduroy and cardigans. Hesitations about the purpose and the value of priesthood, along with uncertainty about the connection of the priesthood to the person of Christ, have contributed to the fuzzy sense of Jesuit identity and that eerie feel of detachment from the Church to which both Cardinal Rodé and Pope Benedict alluded in their communications to the delegates. It seems unlikely that a septuagenarian Arrupe Impersonator would be able to confront the real difficulties. It remains to be seen whether Nicolás will abide by the script or will be his own man.

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