Over half a century since joining the Jesuits with the hope of becoming a missionary in Japan, Pope Francis finally fulfilled the dream of visiting this land, following in the footsteps of the co-founder of his religious order.
Francis previewed the trip himself when addressing the local bishops on Saturday. He said that when he visits Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only cities in the world to have suffered the devastation caused by nuclear weapons, he’s going to “echo” the bishops’ “prophetic calls for nuclear disarmament.”
“I wish to meet those who still bear the wounds of this tragic episode in human history, as well as the victims of the triple disaster,” the pope said, referring to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plan meltdown of 2011. “Their continued sufferings are an eloquent reminder of our human and Christian duty to assist those who are troubled in body and spirit, and to offer to all the Gospel message of hope, healing and reconciliation.”
Evil has no preferences, Francis told the bishops, and it doesn’t care about the background or identity of those affected by it. Instead, it simply “burst in with its destructive force,” as was the case with a recent typhoon that killed hundreds of people and caused much devastation in October.
“Let us entrust to the Lord’s mercy those who have died, their families and all who have lost their homes and material possessions,” the pope said. “May we never be afraid to pursue, here and throughout the world, a mission capable of speaking out and defending all life as a precious gift from the Lord.”
Officially opening his Nov. 23-26 visit to Japan, he called himself a “missionary pilgrim” who’s following the steps of St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuits who arrived in Japan 470 years ago, marking the beginning of the spread of Christianity in the country.
“I don’t know if you are aware of this, but ever since I was young, I have felt a fondness and affection for these lands,” Francis said on Saturday, addressing the Japanese bishops’ conference. “Many years have passed since that missionary impulse, whose realization has been long in coming.”
Upon arriving to the nunciature, the home of the papal representative in Japan and where he will be staying, he addressed the bishops. Francis sat down to give his speech with the help of Argentine Jesuit Father Renzo De Luca, Jesuit provincial in Japan and a former student of then Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
He began the meeting with a joke: apologizing for not greeting each bishop individually before his talk, he said: “You must think, ‘How rude these Argentinians are.”
The pope’s excitement to be in Japan, contrasts a bit with the situation on the ground, where the country’s half a million Catholics represent less than 0.3 percent of the total population.
Though parishes have been announcing the trip at the end of every Mass for months, most people in Japan have had other things in mind recently, from the enthronement of the new emperor and the beginning of the Reiwa era, and even a historic moment in Japanese sports: Reaching the quarterfinals in the Rugby World Cup, which was held in Japan for the first time.
“I don’t think many people know yet that the pope will come to Japan,” layman Kazuto Kano, told Crux in the days ahead of the visit. “As of late, Japan’s good fight at the Rugby World Cup; the enormous damage caused by the super-large typhoon No. 19; the deterioration of Japan-Korea relations; the movements of [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump; the U.S.-China trade friction; and the Emperor’s ceremony of the enthronement; have all featured large in the mind of the Japanese.”
Things were perking up during Francis’s Nov. 20-23 visit to Thailand. Layman Hiroki Joseph Nakanishi told Crux on Friday that TV stations and online news outlets have been releasing news about the pope’s trip, but it was unclear to him if it was having any impact on the “mostly non-Catholic audience.”
“Personally, I feel that the Japanese tend to have reservations about (or even prejudice against) following a particular religion, especially when it comes to a monotheistic religion like Catholicism,” he said.
However, he personally has high hopes for the first visit by a pope to Japan in almost forty years - the last head of the Church to visit the country was St. John Paul II.
“I hope that the pope’s presence and his message to the people of Japan will bring each one of us closer to the poor, the disabled, the refugees and all the ones ostracized by our society,” Nakanishi said. “At the same time, I hope that I myself and all Japanese Catholics will feel encouraged and engage in true evangelization as a result of that.”
During his remarks to the bishops on Saturday, the pope remembered the many Christian martyrs, who dedicated their lives serving the Japanese people and “implanting the Gospel,” being witnesses until their death.
“Such self-sacrifice for the sake of keeping the faith alive amid persecution helped the small Christian community to develop, grow strong and bear fruit,” he said. “We can also think of those ‘hidden Christians’ of the Nagasaki region, who kept the faith for generations, thanks to baptism, prayer and catechesis.”
The history of Catholicism in Japan is deeply tied to the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius of Loyola and six companions, including Francis Xavier. He was the first missionary of the Society, and arrived in Japan in 1549, and became known as the “Apostle of Japan.”
Due to the severe persecution of Christians, all missionaries were either killed or expelled, with Catholicism banned until 1873. For two centuries, the Tokugawa Government implemented thorough measures to eradicate Christians, but in the outskirts of Kyushu, Christians secretly continued to hand down their faith over generations, while outwardly disguising themselves as Buddhists.
The Jesuits returned to Japan in 1908, but the situation of those who follow Jesus was far from easy: After some years of growth, a militaristic nationalism tied to the Shinto religion muted Christianity until the end of World War II. Only after the war was the Catholic Church in Japan allowed to flourish.
According to a report released by the local church ahead of the pope’s visit, there are currently 440,893 Catholics in Japan, that attend 966 churches, with 1,366 members of the clergy including bishops, priests and deacons, and are accompanied in their faith by 4,997 religious brothers and sisters. But the relatively small number of Catholics make the other statistics all the more impressive: There are 764 religious houses, 42 medical facilities, 643 social welfare facilities and over 800 educational facilities, from preschools to universities.
Though steering clear of the statistics, Francis noted on Saturday that although the Church in Japan is small and Catholics are in a minority, the Catholic Church is known and respected for the social footprint it has left in the country.
In addition, the numbers, he said, “must not diminish your commitment to evangelization. In your particular situation, the strongest and clearest word you can speak is that of a humble, daily witness and openness to dialogue with other religious traditions.”
Acknowledging that about half of the Catholics in Japan are in fact, foreigners, Francis said that the hospitality the local church shows to foreign workers who fill the pews “not only serves as a witness to the Gospel within Japanese society, but it also attests to the universality of the Church.”
The pontiff listed several of the challenges of Japanese society in which the Catholic community can be a beacon of hope, being present in the lives of many that are marked by loneliness, despair and isolation, with increasing “suicide rates, bullying and various kinds of neediness” that create “new forms of alienation and spiritual disorientation.”
Suicide is the largest cause of death among young people, and the Japanese suicide rate is the sixth highest in the world.
“I recognize that the harvest is great and the laborers are few, so I encourage you to seek out and develop a mission capable of involving families and of promoting a formation that can reach people where they are, always taking into account the specifics of each situation,” Francis said. “The starting point for every apostolate is the concrete place in which people find themselves, with their daily routines and occupations.”