Fr. Adolfo Nicolas SJ: An Easter Remembrance
Fr. Roberto EN Rivera SJ
Ignatius House Chapel, Ateneo de Naga
21 May 2020, Thursday of the 6th Week of Easter
Friends, we celebrate this mass for Fr. Adolfo Nicolas as part of the usual suffrages that Jesuits are called to offer for one who was Superior General in the Society. But tonight we also celebrate his memory. And in remembering, we give thanks.
We remember Fr. Nico in the spirit of this Easter Season. We can remember him, for instance, from the vantage point of Paul in our first reading from Acts of the Apostles. Paul is at the tail end of his second missionary journey, truly determined after his confrontation with the Jews to dedicate his remaining days to preaching among the Gentiles. Fr. Nico was at heart a missionary, and considered Asia, and most especially Japan and the Philippines, his home. We can also remember him, as we prepare for Ascension and Pentecost Sundays, in the light of the Spirit. Fr. Nico was the Spirit driven General who inspired us to rediscover fire, friendship, frontier, to work for reconciliation with God, with others, and with creation. We can even remember him while proclaiming today’s psalm about the Lord’s power made manifest before all the nations. Fr. Nico was truly a world citizen, the leader manifesting God’s love and friendship to Jesuits and our partners all over the globe.
But tonight, in these brief reflections, I choose to remember Fr. Nico in the context of conversation, akin to the many conversations Jesus had with his apostles, as in today’s Gospel. These conversations would have been recalled and recounted over and over again by the apostles after Jesus’ Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit. “So that is what Jesus meant when he said … you will grieve, and your grief will become joy.” And in remembering, they were inspired.
Please indulge me as I share three conversations I had with Fr. Nico. The first one was at Xavier School back in 2007. I was there finishing up my dissertation research on the Couples for Christ, which back then had their headquarters just up the road along Ortigas. Fr. Nico would frequent Xavier because of treatments he would have at Cardinal Santos for prostate cancer. I recall distinctly one afternoon when Fr. Guy Guibelondo, minister of the house, asked me to drive Fr. Nico to the hospital and then bring him back to the Ateneo where he lived. He said I should be the one to drive since “I was just sitting in my room in front of the computer, while everyone else was busy.” I was not to keen about being disturbed from my dissertation work. But Fr. Nico, perhaps sensing my annoyance during the trip, started telling stories about his treatment. He recounted his struggles with his health, with a serenity that caught me off guard. There and then my heart melted, and embarrassingly my own work concerns seemed so petty. Here was a man who was facing a dreaded disease with so much calm, peace, and equanimity. And despite his ailment, he was still serving the Society fully. Little did I know then of course that more, much more, would be asked of him.
The next conversation I would have with Fr. Nico was in the Jesuit Curia in Rome in 2008. He had just been elected Superior General a few months before by the 35th General Congregation. I was visiting Italy after finishing graduate studies, a dream I was finally able to fulfill by scrimping and saving on the dissertation fellowship grant I got from Notre Dame. Fr. Joe Quilongquilong, who was working with the General’s staff at that time, kindly arranged for a lunch meeting and a short chat afterwards at the General’s office. I was nervous, not only because I would be speaking with the General, but also because I was a bit afraid he would remember how annoyed I was at driving him to the hospital the year before. But there was none of that. Fr. General took a keen interest in my lowly research, and made the conversation all about me rather than him. He asked many sharp and incisive questions about my study. He even promised to forward an article to me about faith-based service communities that he felt would interest me greatly. He never did, but his genuine concern for me and my work never left me.
The final conversation was not really a face to face one. In my first year as a missionary in East Timor in 2014, I was faced with the task of leading the team that would establish the Instituto São João de Brito, or the St. John de Brito College. Upon my arrival I was given reams and reams of documentation on the prospective project. Apparently planning for the school had begun years before. And among the earliest documents I discovered were elegantly handwritten ones from Fr. Nico himself during his time as Regional Superior of Timor, detailing a vision of the future College that would totally inspire me. He wrote about building up people as the main work of the school, even if the first classes of the college would be in makeshift huts. He wanted the College to be built from the ground up, so it would truly be a school by the Timorese, of the Timorese, for the Timorese. Inspired by this “conversation,” we went about trying to fulfill this vision, despite opposition from some quarters who wanted us to focus on getting as much money as we could from the government to put up school buildings, and to draw on foreign expertise to guide the College in its infancy stages. St. John de Brito College just last year produced its first batch of graduates. It is the first Jesuit higher education institution in East Timor, led and staffed largely by Timorese Jesuits and their collaborators, true to the vision of Fr. Nico.
These may seem like small, perhaps insignificant conversations to some. Many of you here, I am sure, recall your own encounters with Fr. Nico. For those of us who remember, these privileged times with him and the nuggets of wisdom that we received are a fitting reminder of why he was elected Superior General. His abiding trust of God even in the face of mortal danger. His genuine concern for his brothers. His sincere commitment to the poor and the outcasts. We celebrate his memory. We remember, and we give thanks.
Lastly we recall, in the words of the Jesuit Constitutions, that the Superior General is chosen as a man “… closely united with God Our Lord and intimate with Him in prayer and all his actions, that from God, the fountain of all good, the General may so much the better obtain for the whole body of the Society a large share of His gifts and graces ….” Just as the Superior General is tasked primarily with praying for the least Society, we now ask Fr. Nico to remember all of us before God. Amen.