Father Adolfo Nicolás
A conversation is an exchange. It leaves neither participant unchanged. This is something that Jesuits and other Christians working in Asia have found for centuries.
It’s been 46 years since Father Adolfo Nicolás first traveled to Japan as a missionary from Spain. His has been a long conversation, first in Japan, but also in Korea and more recently in the Philippines. It’s left him convinced that the West does not have a monopoly on meaning and spirituality, and can learn a lot from the experience of Asian cultures.
‘Asia has a lot yet to offer to the Church, to the whole Church, but we haven’t done it yet’, he says. ‘Maybe we have not been courageous enough, or we haven’t taken the risks that we should.’
It speaks volumes that when Father Nicolás talks about Asia, he uses the term ‘we’. As President of the Jesuit Conference of South East Asia and Oceania, he’s responsible for bringing Jesuits across the region together to think beyond their own countries, and confront challenges facing the globe.
The group he represents stretches from China and Myanmar in the west, to Korea in the north, Australia in the south, and Micronesia in the east. It brings together an incredibly diverse group of cultures and societies. From countries where Christianity has been strong in the past, but is on the wane, to places where Christians make up a small but vibrant minority.
Asked if people from a culture like Japan experience Ignatian Spirituality differently than those in the West, Father Nicolás says the experience was indeed different, but it had yet to be formulated.
‘I think the real experience of the Japanese is different. And it should be different. But the formulation continues to be very much a Western formulation’, he says.
A Japanese Jesuit, Father Katoaki, has recently translated and added comments on the book of the Exercises from a Japanese-Buddhist perspective. Father Adolfo says there has also been some discussion on whether the Exercises could be presented to non-Christians, and how that might occur.
‘The question is how to give the Ignatian experience to a Buddhist’, he says. ‘Not maybe formulated in Christian terms, which is what Ignatius asked, but to go to the core of the experience. What happens to a person that goes through a number of exercises that really turn a person inside-out. This is still for us a big challenge.’
While some work has been done comparing the Ignatian experience with that of Hindus, he says there hasn’t been a lot of work on finding similarities say in Japanese, Chinese or Korean cultures. He says East Asia has been more slow to do this in India, partly because the East Asians have a strong respect for tradition, and hence a respect for Christianity’s European traditions. However, the region’s remoteness also gives it more freedom to be creative.
‘There is more space for experimenting, for trying, for thinking and exchanging’, he says.
Essentially, he says the Exercises are about letting God guide people. This is something that those directing retreats have been wary of in the past, but something that is important when dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds.
‘The fact is, if God is guiding then the Japanese will be guided the Japanese way. And the same with the Chinese, and with people from other religions’, he says.
‘Then the director simply has to be perceptive, to see signs that here God is saying something that I don’t understand, and be humble enough to say continue as long as you keep sane and balanced etc.’
Others throughout Asia are dealing more directly with questions of cultural difference, working as missionaries in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar. Father Nicolás says he’s wary of missionaries who don’t enter into the lives of the people, but keep the patterns of their home cultures – Europe or Latin America - alive in their mind. For them, it’s not about exchange but about teaching and imposing orthodoxy.
‘Those who enter into the lives of the people, they begin to question their own positions very radically’, he says. ‘Because they see genuine humanity in the simple people, and yet they see that this genuine humanity is finding a depth of simplicity, of honesty, of goodness that does not come from our sources.’
That conversation must continue, if we are to learn from Asia and Asia is to learn from us.
‘That is a tremendous challenge, and I think it’s a challenge that we have to face. We don’t have a monopoly, and we have a lot to learn.’
By Michael McVeigh
COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE
Thanks for providing information on the new General Superior. Congratulations to the Society and to the people of Asia.
This interview maky me hope, that the new General will focus very much on interreligious dialogue, which I feel could be one of the most important and most urgent issues for the church to deal with. He might be able to influence the politics of the present pope, who is not at all feeling the need of theological dialogue and only focusing on dialogue of cultures. And I am hoping, the the General would give more weight to the contribution of lay partners, especially ignatian associates or the associates in other part of the world, who feel the vocation to follow Ignatius and share his apostolic vocation in a new form. Let us pry, that he is open to the needs of the time.
Thank you very much for posting these very timely articles so quickly. Now, I hope they choose a formal picture of Nico that will show is good nature and approachableness.
I like what I hear. We need to have faith that leads to actin for justice. (that is the beatitudes)
But, too oftn we hear, if you don't engage in work for justice you haven't got faith.
In th dynamic of h Exercises, loyalty to Christ the king comes first and apostolic commitment follows.
Commitment, loyalty to Christ deepens and so does our commitment to justice for his people develops.
There is a dynamic interply in the growth pattern of both Loyalty and the commitment to justice.
I hope we who work for justice, never forget that the Holy Spirit must lead us in our self-investment in justice
Inaccuracy regarding the "conversation": Fr. Nico was twice in the Philippines, first for six years as director of EAPI, then as JEAC president since 2003. He was also chaplain of Filipino migrants in Japan and speaks some Filipino. So, the country he has lived in most next to Japan is Philippines, not Korea.
Thanks for the providing the interview on the net. I like the "wide angle" vision of Fr. Nicolás. I especially like his idea of giving spiritual exercises to people of other faiths. Some comparative studies between Hinduism, especialy the BHAGVAD GEETA have been done and there room for giving spiritual exercises to Hindus. They will be acceptable to them given in the language of GEETA and could prove liberative to them too.
A man truly rooted in Asian culture and Asian concerns.
As an asian, I am extremely grateful to fr.nicolas for his comments on what asia can learn and contribute to catholic theology and spirituality. The Holy Spirit definitely speaks to and through all peoples of the world. Our hearts and whole beings also enter into dialogue with God and creation. Big honor and vindication for us. Big challenge too. Few of us deeply reflect and can articulate what we deeply experience.
Thank you for sharing this simple message that creates profound consequences for growth. "Entering into the lives of others" and listening with sensitivity and a desire to understand. I'm elated for the Society and our world.
Congratulation to general superior and society,warm regards.
Father Adolfo will be
the next Pope and the
Holy Spirit will work wonders through him.