The Spaniard who was until earlier this year Superior General of the Jesuits has written a series of reminiscences about his conversations with Pope Francis, published in two parts in the Spanish Jesuit publication Mensajero.
Father Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, wrote them while spending some weeks in his native country before heading for the Philippines capital, Manila, where he now lives.
Beyond whatever value for observers of the papacy his recollections contain, they have real historic importance, particularly for the Society of Jesus. They are, of course, the first ever conversations between a Jesuit Superior General and a Jesuit pope.
Nicolás and Francis developed a close bond right from the start, as the new pope sought to re-establish a close working relationship with his order following decades of suspicion and coldness.
In an anecdote that quickly shot round Rome in those first days of the new papacy, Francis directly called Nicolás the day after his election, sending the receptionist at the Jesuit curia into a tailspin of confusion. (“If you’re the pope, I’m Napoleon,” Nicolás says the receptionist thought, but did not say).
After they spoke, Francis promised to call back to arrange a meeting. In an interesting anecdote for historians of the papacy, when he did so, the Sunday after his election, Francis told Nicolás: “Come to the Santa Marta because tomorrow I’m moving to the Apostolic Palace and I’ve got more freedom here.” In other words, says Nicolás, “the decision to stay in the Santa Marta was taken at the last moment.”
This confirms the stories that it was only when he went to the Apostolic Palace and saw it — an endless chain of rooms, each leading into the next — that Francis opted to stay in the more friendly and open guesthouse.
Nicolás was amazed in his conversations by how aware the pope was of how he was viewed, and the criticisms against him. Francis told him on one occasion: “They criticize me, first, because I don’t speak like a pope, and second, because I don’t act like a king.”
In the context of his Jesuit spirituality, says Nicolás, “for me it was obvious that the criticisms did not remotely bother him.”
Jesuits famously vow to spurn high office and ecclesiastical preferment. A key part of the second week of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises involves imagining the way Satan tempts Christ’s followers through “riches, honor and pride.”
The former general intriguingly observes that in Francis’s view what the world at this time needs is “more Wisdom, less dogma, and more meaning, in general, to live and hope.”
This stems, he says, from the pope’s reading of the similarity of these times of lack of faith to the disappearance of faith during Israel’s exile, when the Wisdom tradition took over from the prophetic.
On the reform of the Curia, Nicolás observes that Francis wants to carry it out “in the most Gospel way of which he is capable,” and that the reform “has to do with the credibility of the Church” which “has touched a missionary nerve that for him is extremely important.”
In other words, the purpose of curial reform is to remove obstacles to the task of mission and evangelization, rather than being an end in itself.
His Christmas speeches to the Curia “are a call to everyone to live more in line with the Gospel,” says Nicolás, without the “evasions and excuses” that most of us deploy.
The general and the pope spent a lot of time discussing the priesthood, confirming that for Francis the pastoral conversion of the clergy is a major priority.
Nicolás lists what Francis insists that the priesthood is not: A privileged caste, a source of economic benefit, a career, a means of gaining power over others, etc., while stressing what it should be: A priest is someone whose “central preoccupation” is the suffering of others, and how to relieve it; he is someone in contact with human life, which should be reflected in his thinking and way of life, and so on.
In response to criticisms of Francis heard often from clergy that the pope doesn’t value them because he doesn’t praise them, Nicolás says they should instead be grateful that Francis so clearly identifies the temptations facing priests that produce only distance and misery.
On the question of how long Francis will remain pope, Nicolás says he has no answer, and nor does he.
“The thinking of the pope is fluid” on the matter, he says, “according to his discernment of the state of the Church.”
When Nicolás — who is the same age as Francis — spoke to him of his resignation as Superior General, Francis told him: “I myself am thinking of taking seriously Benedict’s challenge.”
But then, some months later — faced, presumably, with some resistance to his reforms — Francis told him: “I ask the good Lord to take me once the changes are irreversible.”
In other words, says Nicolás, “we are in God’s hands.”
Nicolás has one charming — if perplexing — anecdote. He relates how the then cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires heard that at a liturgical celebration held in freezing temperatures in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, “someone passed around little glasses of brandy” which allowed the liturgy to proceed with warmth and joy.
When he was elected pope, Francis “didn’t long delay in naming this person Almoner of the Holy See”, says Nicolás, “and encouraged him to live in Rome to be closer to the poor”.
The former Superior General must be referring to Francis’s official arms-giver, the papal almoner, Polish archbishop Konrad Krajewski, whom the pope named in August 2013. But “Don Corrado”, as he is popularly known, was already in Rome, having served as Master of Ceremonies since 1999.
But then Nicolás warns at the start of his second lot of reminiscences that his are the memories of an octogenarian, and that readers should expect “the confusions normal at his age.”
If something seems unlikely or odd, he says, “it would be prudent first to verify and then to forgive.”
(Nicolás’s reminiscences can be downloaded in PDF from the website of Mensajero.)