Hero to his valet

September 8, 2009 in General, News

supgen_02Two years ago, when Adolfo Nicolás was setting out for the General Congregation in Rome, his friends suggested that he was on the short list for election to General. “No danger of that”, said Adolfo, “My age is against me. And not everyone agrees with my views. ” But when the Congregation, swiftly and by a massive majority, voted him into the job, he accepted: “I cannot argue with that. The verdict was so clear, I could not refuse.” It is tempting to think of Generals as enjoying universal esteem and encountering few hurdles on the way to high office. That phantasy was quickly dispelled by Fr Dermot Brangan, who acted as Adolfo’s secretary and watched him at close quarters. In the piece below he remembers his time with an extraordinary man.


Dermot Brangan SJ

This is a man of quite extraordinary patience. He is unsurprisable and unflappable in the face of difficulties and provocation, never bad-mouthing those who criticise him, calm when things are going badly, showing astonishing forbearance and persistence. As Provincial of Japan, and later super-Provincial of the Far Eastern Assistancy, he was familiar with the tensions that arise from the mix of very diverse cultures, and the personal and administrative problems that result.

His calmness is not the same as softness. As a student of theology he spoke up for fewer lectures and more time for reading. When a group of angry young parishioners demanded to talk to the Provincial about the running of the Jesuit church in Tokyo, Adolfo met them in the church, with many of the parish watching (including Dermot Brangan). He calmly fielded their rapid, searching, angry questions and complaints, and did not flinch. There is steel there. He is not disheartened by complaints or by the shadow side of life. The third degree of humility, that central issue in the Ignatian Exercises, has stood to him.

Appointed Provincial, he chose to live in a working-class district with a Jesuit engaged in social work, the two of them cooking and cleaning for themselves. Adolfo commuted to his office, and enjoyed rubbing shoulders with fellow -workers on the subway or bus. At one stage some socially involved Jesuits were campaigning: We do not pay our workers enough. Adolfo looked at the evidence and said No, what they are getting is reasonable and in line with the city’s norms. He was not woolly about money, or driven by guilt. He could differ from friends without losing their friendship.

Nor is he woolly about theological and legal issues. He was presiding over the 2007 Provincial Congregation, when a question was raised about the legitimacy of a procedural matter of some importance. Adolfo immediately pointed out the passage that legitimised it in the directives for Province Congregations. He was in total control of the intricacies of the congregation. He is a good linguist, with a sound knowledge of the main European languages and also of Korean and Tagelog. He became so competent in Japanese that when he graduated from language school he was at once co-opted onto the staff to teach other Jesuits.

He will start his Irish visit this coming Thursday.