Karatsu (AsiaNews) - For more than ten years, I have participated in the Easter celebrations in one of the Catholic churches in one of two major cities: Tokyo and Seoul. Unlike Christmas, Easter in Japan and Korea is not a feast integrated into the popular culture. It is, instead, lived with intense spiritual participation inside the churches.
But if we consider the two countries from a geographical perspective, the paschal panorama is different between the one and the other. In Korea, no difference in participation can be seen in the various churches, whether they are in the city or the countryside. But in Japan, the situation is different.
Attendance at the countryside churches, all of them created after the war, has dwindled year after year, and the sense of duty seems to prevail over the enthusiasm of faith in the celebrations. An exception is the diocese of Nagasaki, where Christian identity is strong and the fervour of the faith can be seen everywhere. Nevertheless, I believe it is a mistake to use statistics as the element of reference for judging the status of a Christian community. And the experience of Easter this year confirmed this conviction in me.
Because of a serious pastoral need, I spent Easter in Karatsu, a little town 1,200 kilometres from Tokyo. There I participated in a celebration of uncommon quality, thanks to the engagement of the local Christian community, small in number but great in faith. Although the city is not far from Nagasaki, it is not known whether small Christian communities were formed here as well during the first evangelisation (1549-1630). But if they were formed, persecution and systemic anti-Christian propaganda must have quickly swept them away.
Up on a hill, at the centre of the city, stands a castle built at the beginning of the 17th century, on the ruins of an immense encampment that Hideyoshi Toyotomi had built as a launching point for the invasion of Korea. Hideyoshi was the first persecutor of the Christians.
The present structure of the parish is the work of the missionaries of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), who have managed it for more than half a century. It currently does not have a fixed pastor. It is regularly visited by Fr Marco Villa, a 41 year-old missionary skilled in the language and in human relations. But recently, the diocese of Fukuoka entrusted the care of four communities to him, two of which are on islands. This led to the request for my temporary transfer.
I found myself at ease with both the parishioners and the local people. One day, walking near the castle, I met two women who greeted me as if I were an old acquaintance. To my expression of surprise, they responded: "You are the priest of the Catholic child care centre, no?". They were two teachers at a respected kindergarten in the city. One of them had attended the Catholic child centre as a girl, where she had received her early character formation.
The Christians participated in all of the ceremonies of Holy Week, for which they had prepared very carefully. The pastor "on loan" did nothing; or better, he tried to carry out his function of being the "hinge of the fan": an element that is not visible, but holds all of the parts together.
There was also a prelude and a coda to the liturgy, in communal preparation and in a shared agape meal afterward. I knew that many of those Christians had suffered greatly. But that evening, their faith and the sense of peace that appeared on their faces made me happy.
But a memory suddenly interrupted my happiness. Fifteen years earlier, in the same place and after the same feast day celebration, I had been assailed by a sense of sadness. It had seemed to me that the participation had not been fervent. The "hinge of the fan," I told myself, had not done its job.
Toward midnight, in solitude, a telephone call had freed me from my gloomy thoughts. "Father, my mother will not make it to the morning. Can you come to the hospital?", the man on the telephone asked me. I did not know the son or his mother. When I came into the tidy little hospital room, the young doctor on duty and the nurse (neither of whom was Christian) stepped aside, participating respectfully in the ceremony. I had brought the Eucharist with me. "Sensei (master)", I said to the doctor, "we Christians usually give a little piece of holy bread to the sick person. May I?". "O negai shimasu (please do)", he answered me.
The elderly woman, who was probably a Christian from one of the islands, had desired to encounter the Risen One by participating in the Easter vigil for the last time. The sadness of the minister gave way to a profound peace.