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Posted: January 21

Gratitude for good leadership

Monday means not just the start of a new week, but also the start of the second half of the general congregation now that we have a new Superior General. Yesterday we had a grand celebration and Mass of Thanksgiving at the Gesù. The opening Mass in the same church seemed like so long ago, even though it was just 13 days earlier that the electors were greeting each other loudly and a buzz of energy and anticipation ran though the corridor where the vested priests waited to start the liturgy. Sunday’s Mass, by contrast, was much calmer, maybe even more prayerful. People were thankful for and pleased with the choice of Adolfo Nicolás to lead the Society.

I was privileged to witness a simple ceremony that took place before the liturgy started. Father General and a dozen priests climbed up the stairs from the sacristy to the rooms of St. Ignatius, where he had composed the Constitutions for the newly approved Society of Jesus. In Ignatius bedroom, the very spot where he died and where the first congregation to pick his successor took place, Father Nicolás was ceremonially presented with a copy of the Constitutions and the Complementary Norms and exhorted to devote his energies to fulfilling their spirit and guiding us to follow them. Then he returned to the sacristy and went out into the small plaza in front of the church to come in at the end of the entrance procession. Less than two weeks before he walked out of the same door, one of over 200 electors in a long file of priests all vested in the same alb and stole. Except for his Jesuit friends, he enjoyed a sort of anonymity in Rome, so far from Japan where he worked for many years.

Yesterday he walked out the door into a phalanx of video and still cameras, all the journalists waiting to get their own picture of a suddenly important church leader. Of course, Father Nicolás remained calm and unperturbed by the attention. He went in and impressed me by preaching in Italian, no mean feat if you do not live here all the time. It’s true he mixed some Spanish words in with the Italian, but I am not complaining since I do that all the time. He was very pastoral and direct in his homily, very clear. He commented on all the nations represented by the Jesuit electors around him, and he urged us to remember the new “nation” made up of the poor whom we must remember and serve.

His warmth came out very clearly in the homily, and even more in the reception for all the Jesuits in the city after the Mass. A Jesuit who had known him in Korea years ago remarked that Father Nicolás has “contagious courtesy.” That was clear to all of us. His courage and keen insight are also clear; he was elected the secretary to lead the work of the last general congregation, so his leadership abilities are well known. I discovered that last week when he dropped into my office and asked me to fix his email account; many people get grumpy when their email does not work. He could not have been more polite and unassuming. He was the same way in Manila when I visited there a few years ago soon after he took the position as head of the provincials’ conference for East Asia and Oceanea. He was even endlessly patient this morning at our photo-op on the roof. Don Doll set up two cameras on a scaffold so he could get all the faces of the whole group of electors. Then we took a picture of the new Father General with delegates from each assistancy. Then the preparatory commission…on and on it went. He was much patient than I was, so I finally told all the photo-takers that it was time to go. Then Don and I took him into my painting studio, which is a separate room up on the roof. Don had a strobe lighting setup with backdrop all set up. Father General followed all Don’s directions, better than most men do. Earlier I had taken Father Kolvenbach into the same room to get out of the cold while he waited to be called for a portrait with the planning commission in which he had participated. He was surprised that I am a painter and wanted to see the paintings I have stacked up in storage. I was happy to show him a few then I scooted back to help Don. When I came back to get him for the photo, Father Kolvenbach was quietly praying the rosary. How fortunate we are in both these men, the one who has led us so well and the one who is now taking up mantle.

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