News Analysis

Pope Francis realises lifelong dream of walking in footsteps of Japan’s martyrs

Pope Francis greets the crowd at the baseball stadium in Nagasaki (CNS)

Pope Francis’s four-day visit to Japan coincided with the 100th anniversary of the first diplomatic ties between Japan and the Holy See. In 1919, Rome sent the future cardinal Pietro Fumasoni Biondi to Japan to serve as the apostolic delegate, marking the beginning of a formal relationship between the Empire of Japan and the Vatican. Relations grew as the first apostolic nuncio to Japan, Cardinal Maximilien de Furstenberg, was named in 1958, following further dialogue between Emperor Hirohito and Pope Pius XII.

Francis’s arrival in Japan was long-awaited. It was the first time that a Successor of Peter had stepped foot on the island of Honshu or any other territory of Japan in 38 years. Pope John Paul II visited Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in the middle of a half-month journey in 1981 that also took him to West Germany, the Philippines and stopovers in Guam, Pakistan and Anchorage, Alaska.

Pope Francis’s trip was an extraordinary opportunity, given the incredible centuries-long struggle of Japan’s small Christian population. Christianity’s growth has been stunted for several reasons. They include the harsh laws against Christians and strict isolationist policy enacted by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), as well as wars and a marked cultural indifference towards religion. According to Vatican News, Catholics make up only 0.42 per cent of the population, or around 600,000 faithful (a significant number of these are migrant workers). In recent years, the Catholic faith has not grown significantly. Conversions are not common, and it is safe to say the Church has limited growth potential as Japan retains its strict immigration laws and the Catholic Church fails to place a greater emphasis on missionary efforts.

But although the Catholic population in Japan is small, its adherents are strong and faithful. I’ve travelled throughout Europe and Japan, and when visiting Nagasaki and other Catholic centres, I saw an intense devotion and reverence for a Christian heritage unlike any other.

Christians were beginning to rebuild their churches when World War II broke out. The war ended in the near-complete destruction of many of their holy sites, including the famous Urukami Cathedral. These events are still fresh in the minds of Japanese Catholics today.

Greeting the challenge of evangelising with great hope, Archbishop Isao Kikuchi of Tokyo told the Catholic News Agency recently that “since the Church is a small community … I see it as an opportunity
for the Good News to be preached everywhere, a potential to yet expand evangelisation activities.”

Pope Francis has a special place in his heart for the Japanese Church. As a young Jesuit, he dreamed of visiting the country as a missionary, following in the footsteps of Francis Xavier. However, due to health problems, he never made the shortlist of the Society of Jesus missionaries. “Many years have passed since that missionary impulse, whose realisation has been long in coming,” the Pope said last weekend. “Today the Lord gives me the opportunity to come among you as a missionary pilgrim in the footsteps of great witnesses to the faith.”

The Pope’s first stop was Nagasaki, where he visited the epicentre of the atomic bomb that exploded on August 9, 1945. The original target for the next atomic bomb after Hiroshima was the ancient castle town of Kokura, not Nagasaki. Cloud cover prompted the crew to select Nagasaki instead. Pope Francis said that the city had “witnessed the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of a nuclear attack. This place makes us deeply aware of the pain and horror that we human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another.”

The centre of the blast was about 1,500 feet from the rebuilt Urukami Cathedral. Observing the remnants of that historic church and fragments of every type, from rosaries to vessels used for Mass each day, Pope Francis said that these “remind us once more of the unspeakable horror suffered in the flesh by the victims of the bombing and their families”.

He continued: “Convinced as I am that a world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary, I ask political leaders not to forget that these weapons cannot protect us from current threats to national and international security.”

From Nagasaki, Pope Francis continued his journey with a stopover in Hiroshima to the south, and then travelled to Tokyo for the remaining two days of his visit. There he met victims of Japan’s “triple disaster” in 2011, when a major earthquake struck, unleashing a tsunami that triggered a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in the town of Okuma in Fukushima. He also celebrated Mass in the Tokyo Dome and met Shinzo Abe, the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

Time will tell if the Pope’s visit will spark the growth of the Church in Japan – which he might have helped achieve decades ago as a missionary. For now, however, the media are dwelling on his call for denuclearisation and his message of ecological stewardship.