Fr Luigi Soletta, in Japan where the sun shines at midnight
by Piero Gheddo

The PIME priest, who died a few weeks ago, spent 40 years in Japan translating books, studying the country’s culture, bringing Japanese values closer to the Gospel. Japan’s samurai code and nationalism are part of that experience; so are the ‘temple of unborn children’ and guilt over abortion. The Japanese seek a God who can forgiveness.

Milan (AsiaNews) – On 4 April, Fr Luigi Soletta (1929-2016) died at the age of 86. For almost 40 years, he was a missionary in Japan for the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). After Vatican II, he and two other PIME missionaries were tasked with broadening the dialogue with the Buddhist world, seeking the semina verbi, the seeds of the word, that the Holy Spirit planted among the world’s cultures, religions, and peoples, in preparation for the encounter with God’s word, Jesus Christ.

Father Luigi was qualified in heart and mind for this task, and lived it with passion and dedication. He studied, taught and practiced Zen. He translated a dozen major classical works from Japanese literature, including Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai, a 17th century collection that reflects the ancient wisdom of the Samurai, written in ancient, hard to read Japanese.

Soletta adapted it to modern Japanese, and in 1993 published it Italy with Editrice Ave.  The book was reviewed favourably in the Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper by Mgr Gianfranco Ravasi who recommended it because it helps understand the Japanese and their worldview. The latest edition dates back to three years ago, by Editrice Einaudi.

Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai was already known but after it was adapted into modern Japanese, it became, according to some experts, the best known and most controversial Japanese book of all times, and this for political reasons.

At the start of the Second World War, triumphant Japanese nationalists adopted it as an inspiration and guide for young Japanese to serve the fatherland with their lives (kamikaze). This led more recently to a debate about Japanese militarism, nationalism, and rearmament.

Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai is a collection of aphorisms that underscores the values of the samurai, and the human virtues of Japanese traditions, most notably, love of the fatherland, the ideal of service and obedience (in the samurai’s case to his lord, the daimyo), disinterested love for one’s fellow human beings, control over one’s passions, fighting for a noble cause, a spirit of humility and poverty, love for nature through which the divinity that has created the universe has revealed itself, etc. Interestingly, Va' dove ti porta il cuore (in English Follow your Heart), a novel by Italian novelist Suzanna Tamaro, takes its title from a passage in the Hagakure, as the author herself said during a trip to Japan years ago.

Fr Soletta felt hurt a lot because his "pearls of oriental wisdom", which he read as "seeds of the Word" in Japanese culture, a sort of Little Flowers of Saint Francis (excerpts from the saint’s works), were and are still used in nationalist ideology and militarist propaganda.

After he came back to Italy, he published Il sole splende a mezzanotte (The sun shines at midnight, by Editrice Missionaria Italiana, 2009), an autobiography of his 40 years of studies and inter-faith dialogue in Japan, which reveals a clergyman of profound evangelical spirituality and a missionary open to the human and religious values of the Japanese.

The book’s title come from a Zen monk, and symbolises the enlightenment Father Luigi reached, after a long journey of asceticism and meditation, and made it is possible for him to dream of a sun shining at midnight.

In an interview with Mondo e missione, he complained that the book had been criticised by those who, "seeing the cover, and lazily leafing through it, thought that it was about Zen. Of course, I am passionate about Japan and its culture. But I care above all about Christ and the Gospel, which I have tried to announce to the people of Japan. What is more, I try to show a profound harmony between some aspects of Zen spirituality and Christianity."

In our secularised and materialistic world, to see such a passion for Japanese culture and religion in a missionary may seem eccentric or superfluous, but missionaries are often prophets who prepare bridges for an encounter between peoples and cultures, so as to reach a humanism with commonly held values, which for us Christians have as foundation in the person of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. In other cultures and religions, the ‘seeds of the Word’ exist already; hence, there are values ​​on the basis of which we can meet to reach a shared humanism.

In autumn 1986 I visited Japan for the second time and I met Father Soletta at the PIME house in Tokyo. One night we talked a lot and I expressed my admiration for the passion and the tenacity with which he pursued his dream, i.e. seeking the ‘seeds of the word’ in Japan’s culture and natural religiosity, which will facilitate the encounter between that people and Jesus Christ. I also asked him, “What are the obstacles to such an encounter?” He told me, “Come to see me, and I shall you in actual practice.”

Fr Soletta was the chaplain at a convent in Kamakura, with a small church near the great Buddhist temple to the goddess Kan’non (the goddess of mercy), also known as the "temple of unborn children." On the hill around the temple, hundreds of Buddha statuettes stand along paths in the woods; they symbolise children. Women who had abortions offer them to the temple, dressing them up like children, a toy in their hands or next to them. I saw young couples bring such statuettes, placing them at or near the temple, asking for forgiveness. They burn incense and prostrate themselves. This moving custom is not only a ritual, but the expression of forgiveness that sadly has no answer.

"Abortion is seen as a grave offence” Fr Luigi said. “Non-Christians, who do not know the God of mercy and forgiveness, at times are burdened by a strong sense of guilt. They think that the unborn children have no peace, that they roam the cities and the countryside waiting to be reincarnated in another life. Their parents cannot give them peace.

“Sometimes non-Christian mothers and fathers come to me, tell me they have had an abortion, and ask whether the Christian god can forgive this sin. After so many years in Japan, I believe that nervous illness is more common here than in the West because of this pessimistic view of God, whom they do not know, and whom they think is unforgiving.

“Perhaps, the hardest thing for the Japanese in converting to Christ is the duty to forgive offences one received, because in their tradition, vengeance is a sacred act that is passed on from father to son. Couples who have had an abortion come to me, and I tell them that the Christian God forgives. I also explain how and why. I then give them a solemn blessing, and see them go off in peace."

(Father Soletta is buried in his home village of Florinas, Sassari province (Italy).