By Alessandro Gisotti
"Over time, I felt the desire to go as a missionary to Japan, where the Jesuits have always carried out a very important work”. These are the words of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as quoted in the book “El Jesuita”, published in 2010.
Japan and the Jesuits
Japan has held a particular attraction for the Jesuits ever since 1549 when Saint Francis Xavier visited the country. In the five centuries following that first mission, the Society of Jesus has dedicated special attention to the Japanese people and culture.
This attention was strengthened in recent decades by the last two Jesuit Father Generals, Fr Pedro Arrupe and Fr Adolfo Nicolás, both of whom lived in Japan for many years. Not to mention the important role played by Jesuit Fr Giuseppe Pittau, in terms of the cultural dialogue carried forward between Japan and the West.
The Jesuits have always followed a policy of patient inculturation, one that "does not trust in rapid success and immediate results, because God goes three miles an hour, that is, according to the pace of man", as Fr Nicolás noted in a 2014 article for “La Civiltà Cattolica”, entitled "Living the mission in Japan".
Japan and Pope Francis
A clue to Pope Francis’ own attraction to this particular part of the world can be found in a homily he gave at the Casa Santa Marta at the beginning of his Pontificate. On 17 April 2013, he spoke with admiration of the witness offered by the Japanese Church, which has remained alive despite the persecutions suffered between the 16th and 17th centuries.
What struck the Pope was the strength of the lay faithful, who helped the Church to weather the storm. When the missionaries returned, recalled Pope Francis, they found "all the communities in place, all baptized, all catechized, all married in church".
Pope Francis to Japanese Bishops
The Pope expanded on that reflection two years later when he received the Japanese Bishops on their ad limina visit. On that occasion, he referred to the legacy of the Church in Japan as being based on two pillars: the missionaries who, after Saint Francis Xavier, "offered their lives in the service of the Gospel and of the Japanese people", and what he called the "hidden Christians".
When all the lay missionaries and priests were expelled from the country, said Pope Francis, "the faith of the Christian community did not cool down. On the contrary, the sparks of faith that the Holy Spirit kindled through the preaching of those evangelizers" remained "safe thanks to the solicitude of the lay faithful".
The Church in Japan
The Church in Japan, with its troubled history and abundant blessings, reminds us that Christians are missionaries by nature. "Disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ", to quote the title of the Document of Aparecida, on which Cardinal Bergoglio worked with so much commitment and passion.
It is this missionary Church, which evangelizes by attraction, that Pope Francis has been preaching and witnessing to from the beginning of his Pontificate. One that in "his" Japan finds fertile ground for the small seed of the Good News.