01/07/2010, 00.00
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The spiritual legacy of Card. Peter Shirayanagi

by Pino Cazzaniga
A man who lived to sow the Catholic faith in the apparently barren soil of his country. The visit of John Paul II and the beatification of the martyrs in Japan. At his funeral, the speech of Niwano, head of Risshokoseikai, a lay Buddhist association of which the cardinal was spiritual director.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - Two days ago, the Catholic Cathedral in Tokyo filled with faithful, hundreds of priests and 18 bishops led by Archbishop Pietro Okada, for the funeral of Cardinal Peter Shirayanagi, who died Dec. 30. The Apostolic Nuncio Msgr. Alberto Bottari de Castello represented Benedict XVI; Mgr. John Tong, bishop of Hong Kong, the churches of Asia and msgr. Manfred Melzer, auxiliary bishop of Cologne, and many missionaries, representing Europe. In testifying affection and gratitude to the deceased bishop, the assembly was an icon of the Japanese Church, as it has been forming over the last 30 years.  

The service of evangelization and of dialogue    

On 15 December 2007 the bishops Japanese were received in audience by Benedict XVI, who said: "Your task today is to find ways to bring alive the message of Christ in the culture of modern Japan. Even though Christians form only a small percentage of the population, faith is a treasure that must be shared with the entire 'Japanese' society.    

 Shirayanagi was not present at that audience, because for reasons of age and health he had asked to be released from the leadership of the Church in Tokyo, but the pope's words would have echoed his heart like a balm of consolation. From the day of his ordination (May 1954) until a few months before his death he has done nothing other than commit himself to "making the message of Christ alive in the culture of Japan through evangelization and dialogue.    

 During the funeral there were only two speeches: that of the Archbishop Okada and that of Dr. Niwano, son of the founder of the Buddhist lay organisation Risshokoseikai. Shirayanagi for many years was requested and accepted to be the spiritual director of that association. Niwano concluded the brief but emotional farewell by reciting the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, the same that 10 years earlier bishop Shirayanagi had recited during the funeral of his father. Perhaps the Catholics in Tokyo have never really have understood the importance and fruitfulness of dialogue as proven by Niwano’s speech.    

 Three events summarize the spiritual heritage left by Cardinal Shirayanagi; the visit to Japan of Pope John Paul II (February 1981), the National Convention for Evangelization (NICE: Short for National Incentive Convention for Evangelization: Kyoto 1987) and beatification of 188 Japanese martyrs (Nagasaki 2008). In all three events Shirayanagi played a leading role.  

Shirayanagi and evangelization    

It is generally considered that the seed of the Gospel in Japan falls on a barren land. The small number of Christians seems to endorse it. After more than half a century of missionary activity, Catholics are about 400 thousand out of a population of over 122 million inhabitants. Shirayanagi has always rejected the temptation of defeatism. "I do not think - he said in an interview - that the statistics is the best criterion for judging the value of a church." However, he admitted that the Catholic Church here has been slow in accepting the doctrine of energetic reform of Vatican II. The process of actual application was set in motion only in the 80s.    

 The event that favoured change was Pope John Paul II’s visit to Japan of during his first trip to Asia: February 1981. The Pope came to this country primarily as a "pilgrim of peace". Consequently, the city symbol and centre of that visit was Hiroshima, where in the immense square that has the cenotaph to atomic bomb victims in the centre, the pope uttered a prayer for peace that moved the world.    

 But the effectiveness of the pope’s pastoral visit on the Japanese Church was no less strong. In this respect Tokyo and Nagasaki were protagonists cities. Archbishop Shirayanagi was always beside him helping him to read the reality. At the end of the trip, John Paul II left the Japanese indications and an exhortation to the Church: he indicated evangelization as the primary commitment of the whole Church of Japan, including lay people, and urged the Catholic Bishops' Conference to proceed in a new beatification of the martyrs.      

 From that day Shirayanagi concentrated his activities and leadership for the realization of these two goals. The implementation of the National Convention to promote evangelization took six years of preparatory work that was fruitful: it has helped this church to make evangelization a key element of their identity.  

  The beatification of 188 martyrs

On 24 November 2008 in the stadium of the city of Nagasaki the solemn ceremony of beatification of 188 martyrs was held. It was an all Japanese beatification ,the first time that a beatification ceremony took place on its soil and that the beatified martyrs were all Japanese.    

 By the decision of Benedict XVI, the ceremony was presided over by Card. Shirayanagi, who at the time was no longer president of the Bishops' Conference of Japan, nor the archbishop of Tokyo. But on the existential level was the best person. It is true that the movement for the beatification of the martyrs began with the exhortation of John Paul II, but it is also true that exhortation coincided with the desire of Shirayanagi and other bishops who did not dare express it.    

 That ceremony was the ideal culmination of Shirayanagi’s life’s work, not just for the honour that was granted him but also because the cause for beatification coincided with the ideal of his life: the evangelization of his country. In an interview with AsiaNews some time ago, when talking about these martyrs had said: "They were normal people, artisans, merchants, or warriors, exemplary people in the observance of the social order but who did not hesitate to reject submission to the decrees of the shogun or daimyo when they opposed the faith and dignity of the human person. "    

 Those 188 Japanese martyrs were beatified because they gave their lives for the same values that are now threatened by the creeping relativism in Japanese society: this was the conviction of Card. Peter Shirayanagi.  

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