Adolfo Nicolas, formerly President of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania and now the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, describes his encounters with Fr Arrupe, whom he always saw to be a “man on fire”.
The first time I saw Don Pedro, I did not really meet him. It was in Madrid, in late 1952 or early 1953. I was 17, in my last year of high school. I had already decided to become a Jesuit. Pedro Arrupe gave a lecture on Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. It was mostly about his experience. The special auditorium was so packed that I had to sit somewhere on a stairway. Arrupe was the great missionary, a national hero, a man on fire.
In 1961, I was already in Japan, and would have him as Provincial for almost four more years. When he spoke to Scholastics he was still on fire. He tried hard to protect us against the dangers of Japan at the time, and tried even harder to build the Japanese Province.
This kept him often away from Japan. He had to raise funds and recruit Jesuits from all over the world. Although he did this with great success, it kept him away from us, except at visitation time. I was his personal barber at those times – so little to cut, but so much to listen to. He was a warm person and a great conversationalist.
Those four years were not his best. He was great at trusting his men but poor at choosing them. His long absences from the Province proved less than helpful. The Superiors he left in place and fully trusted did not have his style. So the Province had its share of uneasiness and anxiety.
By 1970, he was already General. I was struggling through a doctoral thesis at the Collegio Bellarmino. The General traditionally spoke each year to the doctoral candidates. The first 30 minutes were the talk of a visionary. Magnificent and inspired: the signs of the times, the Post-Vatican Church, 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, but he could not.
As with Ignatius, vision and intuition went ahead of theology, thank God. After all, he had himself studied theology in the 1930s.
HONG KONG 1972
In 1972 Colloquium II brought together to Hong Kong 28 ‘promising’ young Jesuits from East and West to look at the future of the Society. It did not work like that, but it did bring good fruits. Arrupe parachuted into the experience and stayed with us for three days. Japan had changed him, so that 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 the Spanish way, which in English sounds very much like cows. You can imagine the confusion of the English-speakers among us. During the break they were all asking: ‘Where did those cows come from?’
PENINSULAR MALAYSIA 1980
At the 1980 meeting of the Major Superiors, the high point 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 lain, and from where it had been stolen (or so the story goes). Arrupe had gone through the years after General Congregation 32, with the misunderstandings and distrust with the Holy See they had brought. It had been rough sailing. In his homily he focused on the last months of Francis Xavier, on his experience of abandonment, failure and loneliness on Shangchuan Island. Francis was going nowhere. He experienced in his body the mystery of the Cross.
This homily gave us all a glimpse of Francis’ heart. It also took us into the Ignatian Spirituality that we had earlier seen and now saw incarnated in Don Pedro. It was also a prophetic anticipation of what was to come.
When he visited the East Asian Pastoral Institute, he charmed the staff and participants who had the privilege of listening to him. The fire was still all there, as were his openness and imaginative vision of Evangelisation. I walked with him for a few moments during one of the very few breaks in his visit to the Philippines. It was in Angono. He shared his concern for the Society, which he summed up 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. 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 his inability to speak, his frustration at being in chains, the pain of the moment.
I saw Don Pedro for the last time in 1987 during a Congregation of Procurators. We could not speak with him. His light was going away, although it took still another four years to dim completely. We could only witness his passion, passed in quiet, in prayer and 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.
After the last visit that I heard this 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 the person.
“If Christianity”, I told myself, “can produce such quality in a person, it will be good for me too”.’