A US bishop who visited Japan for the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki said he is a changed man after coming face-to-face with survivors of the US bombs.
“Anybody can talk about policy. Anyone can read reports and develop positions on issues, and hold them deeply in theory. But to have heard the personal stories of what people experienced during a nuclear bombing has literally put flesh on this issue for me,” Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told Catholic News Service (CNS).
“Pope Francis has talked about a culture of encounter, and I came to Japan to encounter the people here, to listen to the stories of the ‘hibakusha’ (survivors of the atomic bombings) and their wonderful pastors who have stood by their flocks,” said Bishop Cantu, chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.
Bishop Cantu said it was “tremendously moving” to hear the personal accounts of the hibakusha, including Sumiteru Taniguchi, an 86-year old bombing survivor who spoke at a city-sponsored memorial service on August 9, the anniversary of the bombing.
“When the bomb exploded, he was literally blown off his bike, his skin burned off, and he spent many years in the hospital recovering. Today he still suffers from those injuries sustained 70 years ago,” Bishop Cantu said.
“Yet he stands up with a sense of pride and hope and peace and calls the world to peace. How can we not listen to a voice like that?”
In his speech at the main anniversary ceremony, Taniguchi, chairman of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Survivors Council, criticised government proposals that would allow the country to renege on its postwar commitment to peace.
“After the war, the constitution was established, which pledged to the world that Japan would never fight in a war again and would not possess weapons. However, there is now an attempt to return to the wartime era by forcing through approval of the right to collective self-defense and an amendment to the constitution. The security bill the government is pursuing will lead to war,” Taniguchi said. “We cannot accept this.”
Taniguchi’s speech was met with enthusiastic applause.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also addressed the crowd, most of whom greeted him with silence. A few protesters who held up signs or shouted objections were quickly quieted by security agents. Although Abe proclaimed that Japan would lead the movement to ban nuclear weapons — something he’d been criticised for not stating at the ceremony in Hiroshima three days earlier — abolitionists and many of Japan’s neighbours do not trust him.
Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue appealed to Abe at the ceremony to explore “national security measures which do not rely on nuclear deterrence.” He said the establishment of a regional nuclear weapons-free zone would allow Japan’s people to move from living under a “nuclear umbrella to a non-nuclear umbrella.”
Later on August 9, Bishop Cantu delivered the homily during a special Mass for Peace and a World Without Nuclear Weapons in the Urakami Cathedral, which was destroyed when the bomb exploded less than 550 yards away. Despite opposition, local Catholics, who have a long history of overcoming persecution and hardship, insisted on reconstructing the cathedral on the same site, and it was completed in 1959.
“I am inspired by the faith of those who have sustained the Church over the centuries,” Bishop Cantu said in his homily. “I am in awe of the Church in Japan and the mayors and peoples of Nagasaki and Hiroshima who have dedicated themselves to appealing to the world to renounce violence and war, and pursue peace.”
Bishop Cantu said the US bishops “join in solidarity with the Church in Japan in advocating for global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament in the face of the tragedies that occurred here when atomic bombs struck.”
He reiterated a statement from the US bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, saying the bishops remain committed to creating an atmosphere in the US that 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.”
In his homily to an overflow crowd, Bishop Cantu said he shared the position of the Japanese Church “that too much emphasis is placed on military solutions to problems and not enough on dialogue and on funding for programs that help the poorest people, people who live on the margins and who may be most vulnerable to recruitment by extremists.”
In his interview with CNS, Bishop Cantu said the Catholic Church in Japan has been a powerful voice not only for peace, but also for coming to grips with Japan’s own dark side and asking for forgiveness for its mistreatment of other peoples during the war years.
He acknowledged that the Japanese Church suffers rejection in some corners today because of this position, but he compared it to a group of 26 Christian martyrs who were crucified for their faith in Nagasaki in 1597.
“The 26 martyrs were not terribly popular 400 years ago, but they led by example and forgave their perpetrators as they were dying. That is seared into the imagination of people here,” Bishop Cantu said. “It may not be popular now, but the seeds of truth will eventually flower.”
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