Tokyo (AsiaNews) – A picture of three men, joining hands, the altar of the chapel with the wounded head of the Virgin Mary of Nagasaki in the background, appeared on the front page of Katorikku Shinbun (Japanese Catholic weekly) in its 15 August edition. Taken on 5 August inside Nagasaki’s Urakami Cathedral during the visit of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the photo shows Mr Ban in the middle—on his sides, the city’s archbishop, Mgr Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, and its mayor, Tomihisa Taue. As a snapshot, it is not just the illustration of three men in a photo op but stands as a symbol conveying the religious icon’s message to Japan and the world.
An unexpected diplomatic visit
On 6 August, Ban Ki-moon visited Hiroshima where he took part in the ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city. A visit to the second city destroyed by an A-bomb was not initially planned.
However, in May a group of Nagasaki hibakusha (literally explosion-affected people, i.e. A-bomb survivors), led by Archbishop Takami and Nagasaki Mayor Taue, had visited the United Nations headquarters in New York, where they were received by the secretary general.
More than a trip, that visit was a more of a pilgrimage since the archbishop brought with him the wounded head of Our Lady of Urakami, which, after a stop in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, spent some time at the UN building.
During the visit, Mgr Takami invited Mr Ban to visit Nagasaki. “I certainly will, in the future,” the UN secretary general said. Eventually, he got UN and Japanese diplomats to add a visit to Nagasaki to the first leg of his peace tour.
If the visit in Hiroshima was all protocol, the one in Nagasaki was highly symbolic. “I have come to return the visit,” Ban said as he looked at the icon.
Urakami Cathedral, symbol of martyrdom and hope
The visit by the United Nations secretary general left the archbishop radiant with joy. As he showed his guest old and new photos of the Urakami Church (now cathedral), the prelate also described its history.
“From here, the first Catholic converts in the 16th century spread the Christian faith across the province,” Mgr Takami said. Later, “because of cruel and systematic anti-Christian persecution, the Nagasaki Church became a ‘Church of silence’.”
However, its roots survived. “Once the persecution ban was removed, poor Christian farmers who had fled to the islands to maintain their Christian faith and practices for more than 200 years came back to Nagasaki,” the archbishop said. “Despite their poverty, in 30 years they built the cathedral on Urakami hill. Thirty years later, the atomic bomb reduced it to rubbles.”
“Important. Incredible!” Ban Ki-moon said several times as he listened to what the archbishop was saying.
The Wounded Madonna, pilgrim to the world
“When the atom bomb "Fat Man" devastated Nagasaki 65 years ago on Monday, one of the buildings reduced to rubble was the city's Urakami cathedral, then among the largest churches in Asia,” said an article in Asahi Shinbum, one of Japan’s foremost newspapers.
“The blinding nuclear flash that would claim more than 70,000 lives in the city also, in an instant, blew out the stained glass windows of the church, toppled its walls, burnt its altar and melted its iron bell. But, in what local Christian followers have likened to a miracle, the head of a wooden Virgin Mary statue survived amid the collapsed columns and scorched debris of the Romanesque church flattened on August 9, 1945.”
“The appearance of the war-ravaged religious icon is haunting. The Madonna's eyes have become scorched, black hollows, the right cheek is charred, and a crack runs like a streaking tear down her face.” For many of the faithful, the head’s survival is something of a miracle; for everyone, it is a religious symbol of hope.
“When I first saw (the damaged statue), I thought the Virgin Mary was crying," said Shigemi Fukahori, a 79-year-old parishioner who quietly stared at the statue. “This is a significant symbol of peace, which should be preserved forever."
And so it was. When the bomb was dropped, about 8,500 Catholics were killed, many of them praying inside the cathedral.
Today, Nagasaki Catholics, under the leadership of Archbishop Takami and with the cooperation of Mayor Taue, who represents all the citizens of the city, are spearheading the movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The venerated head of Our Wounded Lady is a source of inspiration and catalyst for prayer.
Yet, the article said, “the powerful relic has also travelled widely as a symbol of peace—most recently to New York for a UN nuclear disarmament conference in May, when it was also taken to a mass at the city's St. Patrick's Cathedral. On their way, Nagasaki religious leaders also carried the statue to the Vatican, where it was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, and to a ceremony in Guernica, Spain to mourn the victims of Nazi air attacks during World War II.”
“We travelled overseas with the statue, with the idea that we would like to ask the Virgin Mary to act for peace," said Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, who lost his parents when the bomb was dropped.
“There are many ways to make such an appeal—through pictures, film or narratives about the horror—but the atomic-bombed Mary appears to have a different power to tell us about it."
For many, Nagasaki’s Catholic community is one of the main factors behind the city’s atmosphere of serenity. In numerical terms, the archdiocese of Nagasaki (65,000 Catholics) is second to Tokyo’s (94,000). However, proportionately, Nagasaki beats the capital hands down (4.3 per cent against 0.5 per cent).
Moreover, if foreigners play a crucial role in evangelisation in Tokyo, in Nagasaki, the work is done essentially by locals. As Tertullian wrote 18 centuries ago, the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The iconic figure of the wounded head of the Virgin Mary of Urakami is the symbol of it.