Pope Francis says he will go to Japan in 2019

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures next to Pope Francis during a 2014 private audience at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Alberto Pizzoli, Pool via Reuters)Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures next to Pope Francis during a 2014 private audience at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Alberto Pizzoli, Pool via Reuters)

This morning Pope Francis announced his intention to visit Japan in 2019 as he greeted members of the Tensho Kenoho Shisetsu Kenshokai Association, a group dedicated to the promotion of culture and solidarity between countries.

It will be his fourth visit to Asia, the continent where he foresees growth for Christianity and the Catholic Church in the 21st century. He visited Korea in 2014, Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015 and Myanamar and Bangladesh in 2017.

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He will be the second pope to visit the country. John Paul II went there in February 1981.

It will be the pope’s fourth visit to Asia, the continent where he foresees growth for the Catholic Church in the 21st century.

The pope is highly esteemed in Japan, a majority Buddhist country of 127 million people, for his humility, care for the poor and strong stance on nuclear arms. (Last year Pope Francis declared the mere possession of nuclear arms immoral.)

The Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, went on an official weeklong visit to Japan last year and was informed of the government’s and the Catholic hierarchy’s desire to have the pope visit.

Christians make up about 1 percent of the Japanese population. Catholics total just under one million, and only some 450,000 of these are native Japanese—the rest are migrant workers. Pope Francis brought great joy to the Catholic community in Japan and indeed to the Japanese people earlier this year when he created a new Japanese cardinal, Archbishop Thomas Aquinas Manyo of Osaka. He is the sixth Japanese cardinal in the country’s history.

The pope is highly esteemed in Japan care for the poor and strong stance on nuclear arms.

It will be Francis’ second visit to Japan: He first went there as a Jesuit in the mid-1980s to visit with Jesuit priests from Argentina who were working in the country.

Francis has long been interested in Japan and is well aware of the role played by the Jesuits in introducing Christianity to this country in the 16th century. He felt the desire to go to Japan as a Jesuit missionary after meeting Pedro Arrupe, S.J., superior general of the Society of Jesus, at a conference in Cordoba, Argentina, in the late 1960s. Father Arrupe had worked as a missionary in Japan for many years and survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. But the Jesuit superior turned down his request for health reasons: Some years earlier Bergoglio had undergone surgery to remove the top lobe of one of his lungs.

Greeting the small Japanese group led by Fathers Renzo De Luca and Shinzo Kawamura this morning, Francis recalled that “more than 400 years ago, in 1585, four young Japanese arrived in Rome, accompanied by some Jesuit missionaries, to visit the pope, who was then Gregory XIII. “It was an extraordinary journey, as it was the first time that a group of representatives of your great country came to Europe.”

“I would like to communicate my intention to visit Japan next year. I hope to be able to fulfill this wish!”

He recalled that “the four young people received a wonderful welcome, not only from the pope but also from all the cities and courts that they passed through: Lisbon, Madrid, Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan, Genoa.”

During that eight-year journey, he said, “Europeans met Japanese and Japanese experienced Europe and the heart of the Catholic Church.” He described it as “a historic meeting between two great cultures and spiritual traditions” and said “it is right to preserve the memory, as your association does.”

He recalled the four young people of the Tensho era were “ambassadors of friendship and promoters of great human and Christian values” and showed “commitment and courage.” He remembered, in particular, “their leader Mancio Itō, who became a priest, and Julian Nakaura who, like many others, was executed on the famous hill of the martyrs of Nagasaki and was proclaimed blessed.”

He urged the members of the association to likewise be “ambassadors of friendship and Christian values.” He said they are showing the world “that religion, culture and the economy can work together peacefully to create a more humane world marked by an integral ecology,” something he said he has sought to encourage in his encyclical letter, “Laudato Sì’.” He told them that this is “the right path for the future of our common home.”

He asked them to convey to “your beloved [Japanese] people and your great country the friendship of the pope of Rome and the esteem of the whole Catholic Church.” Then, speaking off the cuff in Spanish, he told them that “friendships are developed over the course of history” and emphasized that “memory is important” in this regard. He urged them not to forget “the things that culture, the country, the language, religion and social belonging” give to us.

He concluded with the surprise announcement: “I would like to communicate my intention to visit Japan next year. I hope to be able to fulfill this wish!”

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