The Jesuits, a Roman Catholic order known for intellectual pursuits and missionary work, chose a 71-year-old Spanish theologian with top academic credentials and extensive experience in Asia to be their new leader.
The Rev. Adolfo Nicolas was chosen Saturday to serve as superior general, the 29th successor to St. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, as the order is formally known, in 1540. With nearly 20,000 members worldwide, it is the largest Catholic religious order.
The choice of Nicolas followed four days of prayer and discussion among 217 electors who came to Rome from around the world, the Jesuits said.
Pope Benedict XVI was informed of the choice and immediately gave his approval, Vatican officials said. Papal approval is required.
Nicolas succeeds Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, a Dutch priest who was elected leader in 1983 and who was widely credited with improving the Jesuits' often tense relations with the Vatican.
The Vatican appeared to express optimism the new Jesuit leader would show some of Kolvenbach's ability. The Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano noted that Nicolas has been described as a man "open to dialogue."
Jesuit leaders traditionally serve for life, but Kolvenbach, who turns 80 this year, had asked to retire because of his age.
Nicolas ordained in Tokyo
A native of Spain, Nicolas was ordained a priest in Tokyo in 1967 after studies in theology in that city and earlier in philosophy in Madrid. He received a masters degree in sacred theology in Rome's prestigious Gregorian Pontifical University.
He then embarked on nearly four decades of work in the Pacific, taking a theology professorship at Sophia University in Tokyo in 1971 and directing a pastoral institute in Manila, Philippines, from 1978 to 1984. In the 1990s he held leadership positions in the order in Japan and from 2004 to 2007 served as moderator of the Jesuit Conference for Eastern Asia and Oceania.
He also has had experience in Korea.
Nicolas' Asian experience will help him "understand the world, and the church, from a non-European perspective," said James Martin, a priest who is associate editor of America Magazine, a New York-based Jesuit publication, in an e-mailed comment.
In a profile last year on an Australian Jesuit Web site, Province Express, Nicolas expressed the conviction that the West does not have a monopoly on meaning and spirituality.
"Asia has a lot yet to offer to the church, to the whole church," Nicolas was quoted as saying.
The new leader in his Asia positions has been responsible for training young Jesuits as the order grapples with a drop in a number of new priests, a problem affecting Catholic religious orders in general.
In the same profile, Nicolas said he was wary of missionaries who are more concerned with teaching and imposing orthodoxy than in having a cultural exchange with the local people.
"Those who enter into the lives of people, they begin to question their own positions very radically," Nicolas said.
Tense relationship with Vatican
Intellectual challenges have long characterized Jesuits.
The Jesuits have had a tense relationship with the Vatican on issues of doctrine and obedience. The Vatican occasionally disciplines Jesuit theologians and issues reminders of the their vows of obedience to the pontiff.
In past decades, aspects of their work with the poor in Latin America left the Vatican with the perception that some Jesuits were embracing liberation theology and Marxist political movements.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II named a temporary replacement to lead the Jesuits after its superior, the Rev. Pedro Arrupe, suffered a crippling stroke, brushing aside Arrupe's chosen successor. Paolo Dezza, an Italian who later was made a cardinal, guided the Jesuits until 1983, when Kolvenbach took the helm.
Arrupe, who died in 1991, had pushed for the church to move for a more socially just world while remaining faithful to papal authority.
For many, the Jesuits are synonymous with higher education. In the United States alone, the Jesuits run 28 colleges and universities, including Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Fordham in New York and the University of San Francisco, and dozens of middle schools and high schools.