The first time I did not meet him, really. I saw him. It was late 1952 or early 1953. I was 17, in my last year of high school in Madrid. He gave a lecture on his experiences at Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. The special auditorium was packed. I had to sit on a stairway. At that time I had already decided to become a Jesuit. Fr Arrupe was the great missionary, a national hero, a man on fire.
The second time was in Japan in 1961. I had him as Provincial for almost four years. I remember his talks to scholastics. He was still on fire. He tried hard to protect us against the dangers of Japan at the time, and he was trying even harder to build the Japanese Province. He had to raise funds, recruit Jesuits from all over the world. That kept him away from us, except for Visitation time. I was his personal barber at those times; so little to cut, but so much to hear. He was a warm person and a great conversationalist.
Then it was Rome, 1970. He was already Father-General and I was struggling through a doctoral thesis at the Collegio Bellarmino. Tradition had it that the General would speak yearly to the candidates for the doctorate. The first 30 minutes were the talk of a visionary. Magnificent and inspired: the signs of the times, the post-Vatican Church, and the challenges of an emerging new world. The second half of the talk was anti-climatic; he felt that he had to justify theologically what he had presented to us, and he could not. Like Ignatius, Arrupe's vision and intuition went ahead of his theology, thank God.
We met again in Hong Kong in 1972. Colloquium II was an effort to bring together 28 ‘promising' young Jesuits from East and West and look ahead to the future of the Society. Actually it did not work like that. But it yielded fruit. Arrupe parachuted into the experience and stayed three days with us. He had been changed by Japan. He wanted the East to have an impact on the rest of the Society. He shared with us his concerns and, once again, he expressed very clearly his Ignatian heart and his passion for the Jesuit vocation and life.
In his key address to us, he spoke of Obedience and stated emphatically: ‘If there is no Obedience, we will have "chaos" in the Society'. In his enthusiasm he pronounced ‘chaos' in Spanish, which sounds very much like ‘cows'. You can imagine now the confusion of the English-speakers among us. The question going around during the break was: ‘Where did those cows come from?'
Next was Peninsular Malaysia in 1980. The high point of the Meeting of Major Superiors was the celebration of the Eucharist in the Church of Francis Xavier, in Malacca. The stage was perfect: a roofless and dilapidated Church with a dilapidated empty space where the body of Francis Xavier had been and from where it had been stolen (or so the story goes). Arrupe had gone through the years of misunderstandings and distrust with the Holy See. GC32 and the years after it had been rough sailing. The Homily of Arrupe on that day concentrated on the last months of Francis Xavier, his experience of abandonment, failure, loneliness in the Shangchuan Island. The Saint was going nowhere and experienced in his body the mystery of the Cross. That homily gave us all a glimpse at his heart and at the Ignatian Spirituality we had learnt in the early years incarnated in Don Pedro. It was also a prophetic anticipation of things to come.
In 1981 he visited the Philippines. He charmed staff and participants at the EAPI who had the privilege to listen to him. The fire was still there, as well as his openness and imaginative vision of evangelisation. I had a chance to share with him a few minutes walk during one of his very few breaks. It was in Angono. He shared his concern for the Society and summed it all in his last letter on Love. This was his last word. He was ready to go. The next day he flew to Bangkok and from Bangkok to the infirmary.
I visited him in Rome three years later, 1984. I could see Francis Xavier on the shore looking at China. Don Pedro was still burning, eager to communicate, to inspire, to encourage, to continue his mission in each one of us. His warmth came through in spite of speech inability, the frustration of being in chains, the pain of the moment.
The last time was very short, in Rome again. We had a Congregation of Procurators, 1987. We could not speak with him. His light was going away, although it took still another four years to do so completely. We could only witness his passion, quietly, in prayer, in thanksgiving. We were seeing the end of a life of total consistency, of great love, of a dedication that knew nothing of conditions and reservations.
It was after this last visit that I heard the story. An old Japanese man who had received ‘instruction' and baptism from a younger Fr Arrupe was sharing his memories: ‘I asked to be baptised, not because he was a good catechist; not because I understood what he said (in fact I understood close to nothing); not because he tried to pull me in... But because of the Goodness of his person. If Christianity, I told myself, can produce such quality in a person, it will be good for me too.'
By Fr Adolfo Nicolas SJ, President of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania (JCEAO).