Missionaries must listen to what young Japanese have in their heart. Volunteering, working with seniors in a hectic society, is the daily toil of many. The Gospel is not "a new foreign religious system" but is "an encounter with a person, Jesus, who can guide one in life." Some young Catholics volunteer and bring along their non-Christian friends.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Fr Andrea Lembo is the parish priest at the Church of the Holy Family, Fuchu, diocese of Tokyo. He is also regional superior of Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Japan.
Over the years, the clergyman has seen many young Japanese wonder "How can I live my everyday life with a different approach in this society that I cannot change?" whilst, at the same time, cope with the challenges of every day with a thirst for change that leads some to Jesus in a country where Christmas is devoid of any religious meaning.
For Fr Lembo, the main task of a missionary in Japan in touch with young people is to listen to them, sitting "in front of a beer or a good sushi".
"In a very hectic society, driven by results, which looks at how much one produces, which has positive and negative sides, it is necessary to find the time to sit down, listen, have someone who can hear what I have in my heart".
This way, “we can discover beautiful experiences: young people who do not know what Christianity is, who Jesus is, but who experience a very evangelical aspect of life”; for example, “the young people who work in nursing homes, in care centres.”
In fast aging country like Japan, caring for the sick and nursing seniors is the safest job, "but it is performed in a difficult environment.”
“For young people, the psychological and physical pressure is great. They have to cope with the job they do every day. This is where the Gospel proclamation comes in. It is not our doing, but it is they who say: ‘Is there something I can discover in my life that can enlighten what I experience every day?” This is where Jesus comes in, a man who met people, the sick, the poor.”
"When people come into the world, from kindergarten and high schools, the path is already set.” These young people do not want to "withdraw" from society – like those who choose isolation (hikikomori) and suicide – but they seek an answer to the need to live within.
"There is thirst. This is where the Gospel proclamation comes in; it is not so much a new religious system foreign to this culture but an encounter with a person, Jesus, who can guide them in life.”
“I remember a young woman I met who endured many romantic disappointments. We introduced her, in a very simple way, to chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, about the Samaritan, as a spiritual and psychological guide. For this woman, who had an inner thirst for love, it was a very beautiful encounter. These stories bring to life the encounter with Jesus."
Such an encounter is possible at Christmas time, despite the festivity’s secular nature.
"In Japan, Christmas is not simply 'secular', but it is totally secular,” an amused Fr Lembo said. “For me, it is Christ-mas without the Christ, in the sense that it is full of life, but a bit like St Valentine's Day, the day of lovers. Some young people come to the evening Mass to be part of the in crowd.”
“There are some positive signs, [showing a certain] a sensibility towards some messages communicated by a great holiday like Christmas. Still, we cannot say that Christmas is seen as a religious holiday."
"By contrast, young Catholics experience it in a very beautiful way. Many have non-Catholic partners or friends, but get them to come to Church. Christmas is also an opportunity to volunteer, which many young Japanese take to heart.
On the afternoon of 24 December, Fr Lembo and some twenty young people will cook onigiri, Japanese rice balls, which they will take to the homeless after the evening Mass.
"We will bring a moment of joy to troubled people, not simply as an act of charity by providing food, but as a way of being with them. It is a way to experience Christmas in its true sense with God's closeness to misery, to human poverty. I see that even among the many young non-Christians and non-Catholics volunteers, this becomes a way of communicating, of being close."
"With the help of children, this year my parish has slowly built a crib to counter a bit the ambiance which is already quite Christmassy but without Jesus," Fr Lembo explained.
In previous years, the missionary had asked parishioners in the Risen Christ parish, Narashino, Tokyo, to set up a crib showing Jesus coming into the world in an ordinary fashion. One built the crib inside the shinkansen railway network connecting Tokyo to Osaka because Jesus "was born to meet the many people who travel" (pictured).