Elisabeth Hellenbroich

At the end of November Pope Francis made an apostolic trip to Thailand and Japan (November 19 to 26). It was the longest papal trip ever – a signal for the increased importance and attention which the Catholic Church is giving to Asia. As a young Jesuit in Buenos Aires, father Jorge Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) had the dream to serve as missionary in Japan, but due to health reasons, this dream could not be realized. The significance of his Asian trip is underlined by the fact that Asia is the largest continent of the earth, with more than 60% of the world population living there. The Catholic Church both in Thailand and in Japan is only represented by a tiny minority – yet the motto chosen for the papal trip to Thailand “Let Love be the Bridge”, and for Japan “Protect All Life”, indicates that the Pope sees a lot of spiritual potential there that could give new impulses to the West. A real highpoint of the Papal trip was his visit to the cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan, where in the footsteps of his predecessor, Saint John Paul II, he called for a world without nuclear weapons – a relevant topic in the context of US President Trump’s recent cancellation of the INF disarmament treaty and his threat to abandon the START treaty.

In order to get a better insight into the significance which Asia has for the Catholic Church and what challenges the Church is confronted with in Asia, it is worthwhile to look at a press conference that was given by the Pope on his flight back from Tokyo to Rome (November 26). One should also study carefully two interviews which were conducted by Vatican correspondent Deborah Lubov as prelude and in the context of the papal trip to Japan. The interviews were conducted with the Archbishops from Nagasaki and from Tokyo.

At the press conference the Pope was asked by Japanese Catholic Father Makoto Yamamoto (from the Catholic Shimbun newspaper), whether the Church and society in the West had anything to learn from the Church and society in the East. The answer by the Pope was very striking: “The saying lux ex Oriente, ex Occidente luxus” inspired me a lot,” the Pope stated. “Light comes from the East; luxury, consumerism, come from the West. There is this type of Eastern wisdom, which is not only the wisdom of knowing, but of time, of contemplation.”  He emphasized that it would be very “helpful to our Western society, which is always in too much of a hurry, to learn contemplation, the act of stopping and looking poetically at things too. This is a personal opinion, but I think the West could do with a little more poetry. There are some beautiful poetic things, but the East goes beyond. The East is capable of looking at things with eyes that go beyond. I don’t want to use the word ‘transcendent’ because some Eastern religions don’t mention transcendence, but have a vision that goes beyond the limit of immanence, but without saying transcendence. That is why I use expressions like poetry, superfluous (gratuità), the search for personal perfection through fasting, penance, reading the wisdom of Eastern sages. I believe it would do us Westerners good to stop a bit and give time to wisdom.”

In Deborah Lubov’s interview with Archbishop Joseph Takami of Nagasaki, who is also President of the Bishop’s Conference in Japan and who addressed the Pope before he spoke to the Japanese Bishops in the Apostolic Nunciature after his arrival from Thailand, the Archbishop was asked about the motto chosen for the papal trip. Despite the fact that Japanese people have a high respect for life, the Archbishop spoke about various problems that are occurring in modern Japanese society: These include abortion, suicide, the death penalty system, domestic abuse, bullying at school and in the workplace, murder committed for selfish motives and environmental destruction. As he stated in the interview, aside the fact that in 2017 there were 160.000 abortions in Japan, there were for many years about 30.000 suicides annually in Japan, many suicides among young people in their teens and twenties which are actually increasing. In Japan approximately 60% are in favor of continuing the death penalty, the Archbishop also underlined, while a mere 9% are in favor of its abolishment. The amount of domestic violence and abuse is also not negligible. There are cases where children have died as a result of parental abuse, therefore it was necessary for people to understand the “dignity of life.”

Another insight into the various problems which Japanese society is facing, was given by Archbishop Kikuchi of Tokyo, who gave an interview to Deborah Lubov from the Vatican newsletter Zenit, in which he emphasized that the “gospel of life” is truly needed in Japanese society where human life is not respected, and where human beings are valued by how much they could contribute to the development of society. “Disabled people are marginalized or sometimes even the right to live for disabled people is not protected,” he stated.  Many people would would feel isolated or marginalized and the economic boom is a tale of the past, he underlined. “With few exceptions, the majority of the youth and old are isolated in the society because no one cares for them(..) especially in big cities where population is growing rapidly,” the archbishop stated, while in rural areas the population is ageing and communities are facing danger of extinction, isolation, poverty, no respect for human life. “That is why we have to promote and protect life.” Being asked about the challenges for Japanese society, he referred to a very shocking story that happened, when in July 2016 the killing of 19 disabled people in Tsukui Yamayurien occurred, demonstrating that “respect for human life is missing from our society”. The young man, who had killed 19 disabled people, was claiming that “those disabled people have nothing to contribute to the society and, therefore should be terminated. Adding to this atrocity we found out that quite many people show their approval to this action and expressed their appreciation to the crime through Internet. That was shocking to me who has been talking about the importance of protection of human life.”

He expressed hope and underlined the importance of the papal trip, as “tremendous encouragement for all of us in Asia.”

Pope praises Thai youth: You show esteem for your elders!

In Thailand, a country which has the capacity to create harmony between different ethnic and religious groups, the Pope visited hospitals, charity institutions and education centers. He had the opportunity to meet his Majesty King Rama X, the government and other religious leader, like the supreme patriarch of the Buddhists. In Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, Pope Francis spoke at the Catholic Assumption Cathedral, the main Cathedral of the Archdiocese, where he called on the Thai Youth to “carry out their mission”: “This beautiful cathedral,” he said, “is a witness to your ancestor’s faith in Jesus Christ. Here in Thailand, a country of great natural beauty, I would like to highlight one distinctive feature that I consider crucial and in some way a part of the wealth that you can ‘export’ and share with others of our human family. You show esteem and concern for your elders, respecting them and giving them an honored place. This ensures that you preserve the roots necessary so that your people do not lose their bearings by following certain slogans that end up emptying and mortgaging the soul of new generations (…) I express my hope that you will continue to assist young people to discover the cultural heritage of the society in which they live.”

On November 22nd Pope Francis also visited the Bangkok Chulalongkorn University. In his address Pope Francis referred to the former Thai King Chulalongkorn and reported how the founding of the University came into being: “122 years ago, in 1897, King Chulalongkorn, after whom this university is named, visited Rome and met Pope Leo XIII (the famous Pope Leo XIII known to be the founder of the Catholic Church’s Social Doctrine E.H.). It was the first time that a non – Christian Head of State was received in the Vatican. May the memory of this significant encounter, as well as that of his reign, whose virtue included the abolition of slavery, challenge us, in our own time, to pursue the path of dialogue and mutual understanding. And to do so in a spirit of fraternal solidarity that can help end the many present- day from of slavery, especially the scourge of human trafficking,” the Pope stated. He focused attention on the great challenges which humanity is facing: economic and financial globalization and the grave consequences at a local level; rapid advance of technology which seemingly promote a better world and the tragic persistence of civil conflict resulting in movements of migration, refugees, famine and war. He underlined that we are confronted with  “degradation and destruction” of our common home and urged that it is time to envision the “logic of encounter and mutual dialogue as the path” , “common cooperation as the code of conduct”, and “reciprocal knowledge as a method and standard.”

Papal trip to Japan: Strong warning about the use of nuclear weapons

After his arrival in Tokyo the Pope had a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, followed by a meeting with the authorities and members of the Japan Diplomatic Corps.

In his welcome address to the Pope, Prime Minister Abe underlined that Japan “is the only country to have experienced the horror of nuclear devastation in war. A country with the mission of leading the international community’s efforts to bring about ‘a world free of nuclear weapons.’ This is my steadfast belief and the firmly- established principle of the Japanese government. We will continue to work to build a bridge between nuclear – weapon states and non- nuclear weapon states. I declare here that we will be utterly tireless in our efforts to promote dialogue while obtaining cooperation from both sides.”

In his address Pope Francis referred to the theme of his trip “Protect all Life” and stated that in the footsteps of his predecessors, he had come to Japan to invite all persons of goodwill to encourage and promote every necessary means of dissuasion, so that “the destruction generated by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never take place again in human history. History teaches us that conflicts and misunderstandings between peoples and nations can find valid solutions only through dialogue, the only weapon worthy of man and capable of ensuring lasting peace.” The Pope spoke about the “the precious cultural heritage that Japan throughout many centuries of its history has been able to develop and preserve, and the profound and moral values that characterize this ancient culture.” He stressed that “human dignity needs to be at the center of all social, economic and political activity; intergenerational solidarity must be fostered and at every level of community life concern must be shown for those who are forgotten and excluded.” The Pope also had a private meeting with the Emperor of Japan, Naruhito, at the Tokyo Imperial Palace November 25 for 30 minutes, whose mother, according to the Vatican newsletter Zenit, Empress Michiko, comes from a catholic family and went to catholic schools.

Visit to Nagasaki and Hiroshima

Pope Francis had his first public mass in Japan (November 23) in the baseball stadium in Nagasaki. “This land has experienced, as few countries have, the destructive power of which we humans are capable,” the Pope said in the beginning of his address, in which he underlined that “Nagasaki bears in its soul a wound difficult to heal, a scar born of the incomprehensible suffering endured by so many innocent victims of wars past and those of the present, when a third World War is being waged in piecemeal. Let us lift our voices here and pray together for all those who now are suffering in their flesh from this sin that cries out to heaven.”

He concluded his first day in Japan at the “Hiroshima Peace Memorial” where he decried in strong and passionate words the use of nuclear weapons. One should recall that at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, the first wartime atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, destroying it completely. More than 70.000 people died instantly. Another 70.000 died later from radiation burns. The only building to survive the blast was the Genbaku Dome. Today its iconic ruin stands at the heart of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The Pope stated that he felt a “duty to come here as a pilgrim of peace, to stand in silent prayer, to recall the innocent victims of such violence, and to bear in my heart the prayers and yearnings of the men and women of our time, especially the young, who long for peace, who work for peace and who sacrifice themselves for peace.”

In his very compassionate homily the Pope called basically for the abolishment of all nuclear weapons and a new initiative on disarmament: “With deep conviction I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, “a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. (…) The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral (!), as I already said two years ago. We will be judged on this. Future generations will rise to condemn our failure if we spoke of peace but did not act to bring it about among the peoples of the earth. How can we speak of peace even as we build terrifying new weapons of war? How can we speak of peace even as we justify illegitimate actions by speeches filled with discrimination and hate? I am convinced that peace is no more than an empty word unless it is founded on truth- built up in justice, animated and perfected by charity, and attained in freedom.” (Saint John XXIII, Pacem in Terris 37).

Pope to Youth: To bully others is cruel –and those who do so- are weak

On November 25 the Pope met with young people and celebrated a mass in Tokyo Dome Stadium. During his homily he recalled his meeting earlier in the day with young people,

who had expressed their concern that many people feel socially isolated and often bullied. In his answer the Pope advised: “Japan needs you and the world needs you to be generous, cheerful and enthusiastic, capable of making a home for everyone. I pray that you will grow in spiritual wisdom and discover the path to true happiness in this life.” He underlined that the culture of encounter is possible in a society with diverse religions.

In terms of those young who bully others he told the youth that the cruelest thing about bullying is that “it attacks our self- confidence at the very time we most need the ability to accept ourselves and to confront new challenges in life….Yet paradoxically bullies are the truly weak one, for they think that they can affirm their own identity by hurting others.”

The Pope’s last stop was at Sophia University in the center of Tokyo whose origin can be traced back to more than 450 years ago when the Spanish missionary Francesco Xavier came to Japan 1549 to spread Christianity in Japan. As the Pope underlined, the Sophia university had always “been marked by a humanistic, Christian and international identity” and from its foundation, the university has been enriched by the presence of professors from various countries, even at time from countries in conflict with one another. (…) Quality university education should not be the privilege of a few but constantly informed by the effort to serve justice and the common good.”


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