Recently, an Italian newspaper published a lecture given by a Euro-Japanese intellectual more a century ago in Tokyo. He highlights how the West knows very little about the world and the culture of the Rising Sun. Many books have been written on this fascinating and mysterious country, yet a general opinion is that the distance between the two worlds is apparently insurmountable.
For some years, I go to Hiroshima to lead the Spiritual Exercises of the Movement. In fact, the first sensation that I had arriving in Japan for the first time, was a profound extraneousness surely due to my ignorance, but also due to an immense wealth of humanity. Everything seemed perfect and well organized. On the streets, enormous number of cars, every one of them small and square, that moves in silence, respecting every traffic signs and traffic lights. People walk swiftly, elegantly dressed for work, and they do their best to greet others with a gentle bow, with infinite gest of thanks that leaves you a bit embarrassed.
The author whom I cited, affirms that in order to get to know a culture, it is not enough to read books that scholars publish regarding it, but one needs to get to know local literature through which one can get in touch with the spirit of the people.
It happened to me just like this. Even though I already knew some Japanese met in various occasions, a local literature definitely has been what triggered my curiosity about the Japanese culture. A Song for Nagasaki, written by P.Glynn, an Australian missionary. It contains various texts and letters of Tagashi Nagai, a Japanese doctor who, after his conversion to the Catholicism thanks to his wife Midori, had to face the drama of the atomic bomb dropped in Nagasaki on the 9th of August 1945: the event that slowly led him to his death.
Struck by his letters, I decided two years ago to go and ‘get to know’ Nagai San. After the Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of CL, I was gifted by the community of Hiroshima with a ticket to go to Japan, so I when on a pilgrimage to Nagasaki where I got to know more about the story of this man and about the local Church – a small flock that has been soaked in the blood of many martyrs for centuries.
I have been profoundly impressed by what I saw and experienced, so much so that I decided to present the pilgrimage to the parish community back in Taiwan. This past May, together with Father Paolo Costa, seminarian Gabriele Saccani and thirty parishioners, I was able to revisit and spend five days, to discover Japanese saints.
The inspiration also came from the document Gaudete et Exsultate in which Pope Francis reminds all of us about the common vocation to the sanctity of every Christian, which is not the fruit of a personal, particular heroism, but of the common belonging to the Church. We prepared for eight months, organizing monthly meeting in which we read and discussed about the Apostolic Exhortation. At a later stage, I presented the story of people whom we would encounter along “the journey towards sanctity”, the title that we advanced to the event: Saint Francis Xavier, first 26 Japanese Martyrs, Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Tagashi Nagai. These are people who lived in Japan in different settings, but who gave their lives for Christ in various different forms of witness. The period of preparation proved to be important, in order to deepen the sense of the call to the holiness which is meant for everyone, and to prepare ourselves to meet these magnificent witnesses of Christ.
The day of departure arrives: getting up at the hour of dawn and on the bus that drops us off at the airport. Then we realize that two passengers are missing. We pass by their house to wake them up: they were so excited that they were not able to fall asleep until an hour before they had to leave for the airport. With that joy of those who prepare for an important event, we have a good laugh, and finally we board the plane.
The days have been exceptionally beautiful, and everyone stuck by different saints. We were at the places where Saint Francis stayed in 1549, with a secret desire to go to China. We went up the hill where, 50 years later, 26 Japanese protomartyrs would be crucified for not renouncing their Catholic faith. We walked the same path Kolbe used to pass, beginning from 1930 for six years, in order to bring the journal of the Militia of the Immaculata, founding a convent there. Lastly, we prayed over Nagai San’s tomb and house where he contributed until his last breath, for the good of the Japanese people doing research as a medical doctor, and witnessing his faith in full view of people as a Christian. The beauty of those days was born for several reasons: the possibility to spend together some meaningful time that is not so obvious in Taipei where everyone is busy running after many things to do; the realization that that which had struck me two years ago, impressed also our Taiwanese friends.
During the final assembly, everyone shared something. Concerning Saint Francis Xavier, they were impressed by his passion for missions which became for some a personal question regarding their life: “And me? How much and in which way am I to desire to communicate the beauty of the faith that I have received?” Concerning the martyrs and the persecutions that the Japanese Church had to face, many asked where could the martyr’s joy have come from, which allowed the Japanese witnesses of Christ (including children!) to accept the martyrdom rather than to renounce their faith trampling on the icon of Jesus or Mary. One of the parishioners asked, “How did the persecuted Christians (known as the hidden ones) safeguard the faith for over 250 years without any priest who could celebrate the sacraments?” Becoming familiar with Nagai San, almost everyone recognized in him the actualization of one of the sayings of Saint Paul, the Patron of our parish: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”.
We came back to Taipei, full of curiosity and gratitude. But also with the same certainty of the two Japanese of whom we heard about their splendid stories. In fact, the original number of the group of martyrs was 24. They were arrested near Kyoto and were forced to travel almost 1000 kilometres, for more than a month in extremely harsh conditions, before arriving at Nagasaki, the Japanese ‘Rome’, where the sentence would be carried out in full view of the public. In midst of the crowd, two men who desired to assist the condemned men by offering material and spiritual comfort were also present. Towards the end of their journey, the attractiveness of Christ had won them: the two asked to join the group to participate in their suffering and joy. “I thought the true Christianity was in the West”, one of the parishioners said, “but near my home in Taiwan, I rediscovered that Christ is truly the Lord of time who leads the history, overcoming human weakness and tragedy. I’m grateful to be part of His body, and I desire to bear witness to him every day of my simple life made great by His presence.
(Father Donato Contuzzi, priest from 2013, is the pastor at St. Paul Xinhuang Parish in Taipei. In the picture, with a group of parishioners during a trip in Italy.)