No More Hiroshima: A pilgrimage of sorrow and hope to a country scarred by war

On March 11 an earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, releasing radioactive contamination in a country all too aware of the horrors of nuclear fallout. The heartbreaking images of loss brought back vivid memories of a visit to Japan last August.

Originally I had not thought of my trip as a pilgrimage, but that was what it became. This proud son of a World War II veteran of the Pacific theater embarked on a journey of sorrow and hope to a country I knew little about.


The church of Japan was marking the Ten Days of Peace, which begin each year on the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. In an instant those bombings took the lives of over 200,000 men, women and children, the great majority innocent civilians; over the years tens of thousands more died from the effects of radiation. 

Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, the archbishop of Nagasaki, had invited me to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my capacity as director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop Takami is a kind man who radiates the peace he seeks to build. The archbishop was in his mother’s womb in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing. He lost family members the morning of August 9, 1945. But he also found something—a passionate commitment to peace and a world without nuclear weapons. 

This is the paradox of Nagasaki and Hiroshima: people have turned the agonizing pain of the events of 1945 into a vibrant mission for peace. Just consider the names of places in both cities: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum, the Children’s Peace Memorial, the Peace Bells, Hiroshima Memorial Cathedral for World Peace, Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. The examples go on and on.

Testimony to Horror

At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Miyoko Matsubara, a hibakusha or atomic bomb survivor, offered a moving testimony. This frail woman, speaking in labored tones due to a stroke, gave witness to her experience as a 12-year-old girl in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Only 50 of the 250 girls at her junior high school survived the attack. One of her companions perished as they struggled toward safety; she still feels guilty for not being able to help her friend. Scarred and a victim of discrimination, Miyoko painted a haunting picture of devastation and desperation. Despite her experience, she spoke of the kindness of Americans she later met. By her own account, she came to recognize that the real enemies were war and nuclear weapons. 

Miyoko’s story reminded me of that of another girl, Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was two years old at the time of the bombing of Hiroshima. Ten years later, like so many others who died of radiation illnesses, she contracted leukemia. Following a Japanese tradition, she set out to fold 1,000 brightly colored paper cranes in the hope of being granted a cure. Sadly, she died at age twelve, but inspired by her story each year countless paper cranes are folded in the memory of the victims of the bombings. They are displayed all over Hiroshima and Nagasaki as signs of hope for world peace and a world without nuclear weapons.

At the Children’s Peace Memorial we watched a group of smiling Japanese kindergarten children arrive with their brilliantly colored cranes. Tears came to my eyes, remembering images of the incinerated kindergarteners of 1945. In the faces of these very lively children there was hope for a different future. That hope was also evident in high school students from Hiroshima and Okinawa who were collecting signatures on a petition for peace and nuclear disarmament in the shadow of the Hiroshima ruins. Last year they collected 45,000 signatures from visitors from countries all over the world. Their message was simple: “No more Hiroshima. No more Nagasaki.” Another sign of hope was a meeting of students from South Korea and Japan at the Catholic Center in Nagasaki, where they were building bridges of understanding between former enemies.

The situation in Japan should not be idealized. As we marched from the Hiroshima Peace Park to the Cathedral for Mass on the eve of the anniversary, some groups shouted counter messages, which my translators were embarassed to translate, but these hecklers were a small minority. More troubling was learning that the majority of people in Japan, like the majority of Americans, are uninformed or apathetic on issues of nuclear disarmament and peace. While thousands take part in memorial events and peace activities, many more thousands go about their daily lives without much thought to the events of 1945. I wonder if the Fukushima crisis will shift more attention to the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

This apathy makes the mission of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that much more important for the people of Japan, the United States and the world. As I said to youth gathered for a concert sponsored by the Archdiocese of Nagasaki’s Justice and Peace Commission, “The young people of Japan have a special mission to keep the memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima alive.  … [Americans] need to be reminded of the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons. The world needs to be reminded.”

From Suffering to Peace

In addition to destroying Urakami Cathedral, the bombing of Nagasaki devastated a Christian community that had kept the faith in the face of great persecution. In 1550 Saint Francis Xavier sowed the needs of Christianity in Japan. The church flourished in Nagasaki until the faith was outlawed for two and a half centuries. Many were martyred. When Japan reopened itself to the world in 1864, hidden Christians were discovered, descendants of an underground church.
Perhaps it was this experience that helped the church in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to turn their terrible suffering into a mission of peace. Those who died in the bombings were victims of war, but their memories are being kept alive in a way that makes them martyrs to the greater cause of a world free of the nuclear threat. 

The church in Japan works with other religious traditions and many people of goodwill. Though Christians make up just .5 percent of the population, they are strong in faith. The liturgies I attended in both cities were spiritually moving and the singing was vibrant. The commitment to peace was evident—in prayers, on posters and banners, in the veneration given to a scorched head of a Statue of Mary, the only piece of the once magnificent high altar of Urakami Cathedral to have survived the atomic blast.

In several presentations, I was asked to share the work of the church in our own country and the teaching of our bishops on nuclear disarmament. In my reflections, I quoted Cardinal Francis George, former President of the U.S.C.C.B.:

The horribly destructive capacity of nuclear arms makes them disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons that endanger human life and dignity like no other armaments. …  Although we cannot anticipate every step on the path humanity must walk, we can point with moral clarity to a destination that moves beyond deterrence to a world free of the nuclear threat.

The response of these Japanese audiences was always the same: gratitude.

There is much work yet to be done if we are to honor the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Last year the U.S. Senate ratified the New START Treaty to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals as a step toward mutually verifiable nuclear disarmament. Now the Senate must take the next step and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Longer term, our nation should work for a world free of the nuclear threat, but we also need to embrace the sorrow that is necessary to ensure that we remain faithful to that task. As the U.S. bishops wrote in their pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, we must shape “the climate of opinion which will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing in 1945. Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of finding a way to repudiate future use of nuclear weapons....”

Last year, Archbishop Leo Jun Ikenaga, president of the Japan Bishops' Conference, reminded the Catholics of his nation: “In the Peace Message After 60 Years from the End of World War II, the bishops of Japan stated, ‘We Japanese are being called to honestly accept our history, a history which includes the violent invasion and colonization of other countries, reflect on it, and share the historic recognition among ourselves. We believe that to do this will be to promise not to repeat the tragedy and also to commit oneself to the future.’ To courageously admit one's failures and implore forgiveness before God is not to belittle oneself, but rather to approach the real human figure as Christ desires.” 

If the bishops of Japan can call their people to repentance, perhaps U.S. Catholics can respond to the call of the bishops to express sorrow for the deaths of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In doing so, we need not “belittle” or minimize the sacrifices of those, like my father, who served our nation and a just cause with honor.

My pilgrimage to Japan was one of both sorrow and hope. I grieved for the many lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the people killed on both sides during the war. But I also found hope in the people of Japan who are working to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons.

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TM Lutas
6 years 5 months ago
The Allied forces locked in war with the Empire of Japan had two plans for bringing the conflict to an end. Operation Downfall was a meat grinder of a conventional invasion. To the best of our knowledge at the time the projected casualties far exceeded the total populations of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. The atomic bomb plan that was adopted as a last ditch attempt at avoiding Downfall with its projected massive carnage. It was successful, but only barely.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the kinder face of war. Downfall would have killed many more, even when you add long-term cancer deaths from radiation. And yet Downfall itself was planned as an operation that would be better than the even worse option of blockade and endless air raids. 

It is not wrong to hope and pray for no more Hiroshimas. But if we do not understand what Hiroshima was and that there were worse alternatives, we misplace our efforts for peace and end up with what is worse than Hiroshima.
john ryan
6 years 5 months ago
I understand the point of your article. Nuclear weapons are a horror. As regards "The young people of Japan....special mission...memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki..."
How about they include Nanking and a long sad list of atrocities perpetuated from 1937 onwards until brought to a screeching halt on 15 Aug. 1945. My contacts with Japanese people over the years shows a very selective memory or usually no memory at all concerning these events. The Japanese people would be better served by removing the plank from their own eye before pointing out the cinders in the eyes of others which includes nuclear weapons.    Lets pray they are never used again!
Robert and Susan Bulger
6 years 5 months ago
Most Reverend Colecchi, thank you very much for your pilgrimage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and your personal sharing of the experience.  It is amazing how people of extremely different cultures, but similar circumstance, can share the same viewpoint.  For example, Europeans old enough to remember their experience of WW2 bombings, the Japanese mindful of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Jews and  Muslims who have personal war experiences, all tend to be more firmly opposed to civilian war killings, "collateral damage", than the rest of us.  This past weekend an American Muslim woman on PBS (BBC World News - America) told of surveys that showed both American Muslims and American Jews were statistically more opposed to civilian war killings, than the rest of the American people.  Doesn't it make perfect sense?  C.S. Lewis wrote in Screwtape Letters, that either the decision to fight in the war or to abstain from the fighting could be damning.  (He was talking about Britain's fight against the Nazis.)  If rage were part of the reason to fight, it would be damning.  If cowardice were part of the reason not to fight in a just war, it would be damning.  I have not experienced war.  However, I feel great sorrow at the lack of empathy that we have for the people who have experienced war, whether they are our returning soldiers, or people who lost limbs, loved ones, and sometimes their lives as their hometowns were torn apart.  I accept C.S. Lewis' point that sometimes as individuals and as citizens, we are forced, by the imperfection of the world we live in, to make a choice between two evils.  Sometimes, we cannot be blameless.  I am convinced that the Lord would not have us use statistics, but instead discern His will, before deciding which action or inaction was more damaging to ourselves and the rest of mankind.  There are things worse than praying for mercy and allowing for the possibility of a protracted war.  Again, thank you.


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