On arrival in Japan, Francis recalls ‘the unique face’ of the Japanese church

Pope Francis meets with the bishops of Japan at the apostolic nunciature in Tokyo Nov. 23, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis arrived in Japan, the land of his youthful missionary dreams, on a cold, wet and windy Saturday evening, Nov. 23, after a five and a half hour flight from Bangkok and some 470 years after his Jesuit predecessor, St. Francis Xavier, landed on the island of Kyushu, the country’s second largest, and introduced Christianity to the Japansee people.

A visibly happy Francis recalled this history just one hour after his arrival at the Vatican embassy in Tokyo when he addressed the Japanese bishops. On his arrival at the nunciature, he went straight to the table from where he spoke and then joked saying, “Since I didn’t greet anyone you’ll say, these Argentineans are badly educated!” The bishops laughed. Then, reading his talk in Spanish, he thanked them for “the gift” of inviting him, and said he wanted to send his greetings to their communities and his “embrace and prayers to all the Japanese people.”

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Then referring to his personal history, he told them “ever since I was young, I have felt a fondness and affection for these lands. Many years have passed since that missionary impulse, whose realization has been long in coming, but today the Lord gives me the opportunity to come among you as a missionary pilgrim in the footsteps of great witnesses to the faith.”

“Ever since I was young, I have felt a fondness and affection for these lands.” 

He recalled that St. Francis Xavier’s arrival “marked the beginning of the spread of Christianity in this land” and said “in his memory, I want to join you in thanking the Lord for all those who, over the centuries, have dedicated themselves to implanting the Gospel and serving the Japanese people with great tenderness and love.” This dedication “has given the Japanese Church a unique face,” he stated.

He remembered the “hidden Christians” of the Nagasaki region, where he will go tomorrow, “who kept the faith for generations, thanks to baptism, prayer and catechesis.”

Reflecting on this chapter in the history of the Japanese church, Francis said “the path taken by the Lord shows us how his presence ‘plays out’ in the daily life of his faithful people, who seek ways to keep his memory alive.”

Looking at the bishops, Francis said, “the DNA of your communities is marked by this witness,” which is “an antidote against despair” and “points out the path” to be followed. By way of encouragement, he assured them, “you are a living Church that has been preserved by invoking the Lord’s name and contemplating how he guided you through the midst of persecution.”

“The DNA of your communities is marked by this witness,” which is “an antidote against despair.”

Earlier, welcoming him, Tokyo’s archbishop, Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, the president of the bishops’ conference, recalled that the persecution began in 1614 and lasted 260 years, during which “many martyrs were born.” He told the pope, “during these years, mainly in the Nagasaki region, believers kept their faith in their own way and passed it on through baptism, prayer and teaching.”

Commenting on this history, Francis said “faithful sowing, the witness of martyrs and patient expectation of the fruits that the Lord gives in his time” have “characterized” the “apostolic approach” of the church in this land “to Japanese culture.” As a result, he said, “over the years you have developed a form of ecclesial presence that is for the most part much appreciated by Japanese society, thanks to your many contributions to the common good.”

Francis recalled that the motto for his visit is “Protect All Life” and remarked that it is in reality what every bishop is called to do.

This is Francis’ second visit to Japan. He came here in October 1987 to visit Jesuit missionaries as provincial. 

This is Francis’ second visit to Japan. He came here in October 1987 to visit Jesuit missionaries that as provincial in Argentina he had sent to this land. In his talk when he recalled that “the mission in these lands was marked by a powerful search for inculturation and dialogue, which allowed the formation of new models, independent of those developed in Europe.” He recalled too that “from the beginning, literature, theatre, music and various types of instruments were employed, for the most part in the Japanese language” and said, “this is a sign of the love that those first missionaries felt for these lands.”

His remarks could be seen as significant in the light of the many problems the Japanese bishops have had with the Vatican in recent decades regarding, for example, the translations of liturgical texts into their language on which Rome insisted in having the final say, and the work of the Neo-cathecumenal movement in Japan, which Catholic leaders felt lacked sensitivity and respect for the local culture. Francis made no mention of such in his talk, and at the time of writing we do not know if the bishops raised these issues in the private session with him.

In any case, Francis explained that “protecting all life means, first of all, having a contemplative gaze capable of loving the life of the entire people entrusted to you, and recognizing it, above all, as the Lord’s gift.” He emphasized that “only that which is loved can be saved. Only that which is embraced can be transformed.”

The vast majority of Japan’s 126 million people are Buddhist or Shintoist.

Moreover, he said, “protecting all life and proclaiming the Gospel are not separate or opposed; rather each appeals to, and requires the other.” They both require “being careful and vigilant about anything that could hinder, in these lands, the integral development of the people entrusted to the light of the Gospel of Jesus.”

The vast majority of Japan’s 126 million people are Buddhist or Shintoist. Catholics count for around one million faithful of whom 440,000 are native Japanese; the rest are migrants from other countries. Francis said that although the church in Japan is “small,” and Catholics are “in a minority” this reality “must not diminish your commitment to evangelization.” In their particular situation, he said, “the strongest and clearest word you can speak is that of a humble, daily witness and openness to dialogue with other religious traditions.”

He told them that “the hospitality and care you show to the many foreign workers who represent more than half of Japan’s Catholics, not only serve as a witness to the Gospel within Japanese society, but also attest to the universality of the church.” It “demonstrates that our union with Christ is stronger than any other bond or badge of identity; and can enter into and become part of every situation.”

Pope Francis reminded the bishops that “a church of witness can speak with greater freedom, especially when addressing pressing issues of peace and justice in our world.”

He encouraged the bishops to “never be afraid to pursue a mission capable of speaking out and defending all life as a precious gift from the Lord.”

He told them that when he goes to Nagasaki and Hiroshima on Sunday, Nov. 24, he will pray for “the victims of the catastrophic bombing of these two cities” and will “echo” the bishops’ own “prophetic calls for nuclear disarmament.” He said he wished to meet “those who still bear the wounds of this tragic episode in human history, as well as the victims of the triple disaster.”

In reference to all these tragedies and others too, Francis remarked that “evil has no preferences; it does not care about people’s background or identity. It simply bursts in with its destructive force.” It happened this way too with the recent typhoon, and he invited the bishops to join him in praying for those who died or were injured or suffered material losses.

He encouraged the bishops to “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.” He called on them to ensure that Japan’s Catholic community “offers a clear witness to the Gospel in the midst of the larger society.” In this content, he said its “highly respected educational apostolate represents a great resource for evangelization and engagement with larger intellectual and cultural currents,” at the same time he reminded them that “the quality of its contribution will naturally depend on the fostering of its distinctively Catholic identity and mission.”

Pope Francis urged the Japanese bishops to “pay special attention” to “the grave problems” affecting people in their communities “whose lives are marked by loneliness, despair and isolation,” and especially by “suicide,” “bullying” and “various kinds of neediness” that are creating “new forms of alienation and spiritual disorientation.” He encouraged them to “try to create spaces in which the culture of efficiency, performance and success can become open to a culture of generous and selfless love, capable of offering to everyone, and not only to those who have ‘made it,’ the possibility of a happy and successful life.” Recognizing the fact that “the harvest is great and the laborers are few” in the land of the rising sun, Francis encouraged the bishops “to seek out and develop a mission capable of involving families and of promoting a formation that can reach people where they are.”

He concluded his talk by telling them, “Peter wants to confirm you in faith, but he also comes to walk in, and be renewed by, the footsteps of so many martyrs and witnesses to the faith.” He asked them to “pray that the Lord may grant me this grace” and he promised to pray that the Lord may bless them and their communities.

When Francis finished speaking, he asked if they had any questions and opened up the meeting to a private question and answer session.

Tomorrow morning, Pope Francis will travel to Nagasaki and Hiroshima and is expected to strongly condemn the use of nuclear arms and issue a call to work sincerely for peace.

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