Former Jesuit Superior General dies in Tokyo at 84

Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, the 30th superior general of the Society of Jesus, died Wednesday in Tokyo, Japan, at the age of 84.

The Spanish priest led the Jesuits, the world’s largest men’s religious order, from 2008 to 2016. 

In a condolence message May 20, his successor, Fr. Arturo Sosa, said that Nicolás’ time as Superior General was marked by “his sense of humour, his courage, his humility and his close relationship with Pope Francis,” the first Jesuit pope.

“All of us here at the Jesuit General Curia mourn him and a special Mass will be offered here in Rome as soon as we can organize it. Because of travel restrictions just now, I cannot travel to Japan for the funeral but I assure all his many friends there of my closeness, my compassion and my condolences,” he said.

Nicolás, who had been ill for some time, met with Pope Francis for a final time on Nov. 26, 2019, during the papal visit to Japan. 

In 2008, he was elected Superior General of the Jesuits in the second round of voting, succeeding Fr. Peters Hans Kolvenbach.

In an interview that year, Nicolás described his approach to leadership.

“For everything — whether it is spirituality or social apostolate, whatever it might be — there is no shortcut. There is always a long way; real change and real insights come through a long process. The first step in all of them is contact — contact with persons, contact with situations,” he said.

Nicolás was born in Palencia, northern Spain, on April 29, 1936. After entering the Jesuits in 1953, he volunteered for the foreign missions and was sent to Japan. He was ordained to the priesthood in Tokyo in 1967. 

After further studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 1968 to 1971, he returned to Japan, where he served as a professor of systematic theology at Sophia University.

From 1978 to 1984, he was director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Later he served as rector of the scholasticate (house of formation) in Tokyo.

In 1993, Nicolás became Provincial of the Jesuit Province of Japan. At the end of his six-year term, he devoted four years to serving poor immigrants in Tokyo.

The Jesuits in Britain website quoted a prayer that Nicolás had composed during his annual retreat in 2011.

“Enlighten our minds and our hearts, and do not forget to make us smile when things do not go as we wished. At the end of the day, of each one of our days, make us feel more united with you and better able to perceive and discover around us greater joy and greater hope,” the prayer concluded. 

A memorial website has been created to celebrate Nicolás life.