The Jesuits were once such a powerful force in the Roman Catholic Church that their elected leader was unofficially called the "black pope," a nod both to his influence and to the order's predeliction for simple black cassocks. Indeed, it is said that the rest of the Church never allowed a Jesuit to be elected to the real papacy for fear of concentrating too much power in the hands of the order. On Saturday, Jan. 19, the Society of Jesus - the order's formal name - elected a new "black pope." Will he be able to help them regain the influence they've lost over the last few decades as their increasingly progressive reputation has clashed with recent traditionalist popes?
The gathering of 217 Jesuit leaders in Rome chose little-known Father Adolfo Nicolas, 71, as their new "Superior General", a position that has historically been a lifetime posting. The leader of the Jesuits has sway over a network of priests, universities, hospitals and other missionary institutions around the globe. Though there was no real white smoke to alert the world that they'd found a new leader, as there is in the conclave of Cardinals that elects the Pope, the vote is nonetheless a sacred and secret affair. An oath of loyalty is recited before the balloting, and tradition holds that all voting members remain closed in the hall after a decision is reached, while a single messenger brings the name of the new leader to the Pope, who must be the first non-Jesuit to get the news.
Once that happened Saturday morning, the Jesuits' modern press operation quickly sent out a press release biography, and a rare photo of the bespectacled new leader. Indeed Nicolas, who has lived almost uninterruptedly in the Far East since 1964, was not on the shortlist of those experts trying to predict who would get the nod. One Jesuit source said, only half-jokingly, after learning of the choice: "He doesn't like Rome."
Still, Nicolas will be trading in his sashimi for spaghetti, as the Jesuit creed requires priests to follow new missions to whatever part of the globe is required. After his early training in Spain, Nicolas studied in Japan and was ordained in Tokyo in 1967. Following four years of study at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, he then returned to the Far East, with subsequent stints in the Philippines and Japan. Nicolas had spent the last three years running Jesuit operations in East Asia and Oceania, an administrative experience that will serve him in his new job of managing 20,000 priests across the globe.
The Asian experience is an old strength of the order: St. Francis Xavier being the Jesuit's great Apostle to the East, who converted hundreds in Japan, died off the coast of China and has his body enshrined in the Indian city of Goa. Jesuits converted the last survivors of the Ming dynasty to Catholicism as they fled the Manchu invaders in the mid-17th century. But Nicolas also brings in another important strand of history: he hails from the northern city of Palencia, not too far from hometown of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century Basque soldier who founded the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits eventually became the shock troops of the Church as it fought the Reformation, terrorizing Protestant regimes from England to the Netherlands to Sweden.
But Nicolas' biography shares a striking parallel with another of his more recent predecessors. Pedro Arrupe, the charismatic and controversial Superior General from 1965 until 1983, was another Spaniard who rose up through the ranks in Japan before being chosen to lead the Jesuits. Arrupe's reign was marked by progressive challenges to the Church establishment, including clashes with both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Arrupe's reign, consistent with order's history of experiments with theology and philosophy, saw the rise of radical Jesuit participation in politics, from the anti-war movement in the U.S. in the 1960s to the liberation theology that swept Latin America. That kind of leftist activism was too much for the anti-Communist John Paul II. The Jesuits were eclipsed by the staunchly traditionalist Opus Dei.
His successor, a low-key Dutch priest named Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, was credited with reestablishing a serene rapport with top Vatican officials. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI accepted Kolvenbach's unprecedented request to retire from what had always been a lifetime posting.
Whether Nicolas turns out to be cut more from the Arrupe or Kolvenbach mold remains to be seen. A Jesuit source in Rome said that the new boss had ruffled Vatican feathers in 1998 with his role in a request by Asian bishops for more local authority for Church decisions. If that is an omen for the nature of his administration, the new black pope may find himself clashing with the regular Pope, who has reaffirmed that ultimate authority lies with the Vatican.
There has apparently already been some papal concern about the Jesuit's relatively liberal perspectives. In a letter last week to Kolvenbach, on the eve of the election of his successor and a month-long meeting of a congregation of Jesuit leaders, Benedict implored the order to hold firm in Catholic tradition on matters of morality and sexuality. "It could prove extremely useful that the general congregation reaffirm, in the spirit of St. Ignatius, its own total adhesion to Catholic doctrine, in particular on those neuralgic points which today are strongly attacked by secular culture," the Pope said.