12/04/2008, 00.00
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Fr Riccardo Magrin, martyr of hope among Japan’s sick and elderly

by Pino Cazzaniga
The PIME missionary from Italy died at the end of November after 54 years in Japan. During his long stay in that country he successfully grasped the local worldview and culture. In his last years he lived among the sick in a Catholic-inspired hospital in Kurume. True globalisation is achieved through prayers and bearing witness.
Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Bishop Dominic Miyahara did not hesitate to compare Father Riccardo’s character to that of the 188 Japanese martyrs, who were beatified last 24 November. In its original meaning, “martyrdom” meant giving one’s life totally for the love of Christ. And this, according to the bishop, was the sense of Fr Riccardo Magrin’s life. The PIME missionary passed away on 26 November at the age of 84.

Hundreds of people filled Kurume Church (Fukuoka, Kyushu) to pay their last respect to the Italian missionary. Most of those present were hospital officials, doctors and nurses; some Christians, all from the “Sei Maria Byoin’, the big ‘Santa Maria’s Hospital” where Father Riccardo spent his last seven years as chaplain.

Father Magrin was born in 1924 in S. Pietro in Gu (Padua Province). In 1954 he was assigned to the missions in Japan where he remained until his death, working in the small towns of Saga, one of Japan’s least known prefectures. In 2001 he decided to retire and leave his posting in the Catholic church of the city of Tosu and return home to rest and devote his remaining years to contemplation. But Dr Nichio Ide, director of the Kurume Hospital, asked him to become its chaplain, which Father Magrin did.

Some months later he wrote a letter to his superior. “By mysterious ways Providence directed me here to spend the last years of my life. For me it is a new life full of spiritual and physical initiatives,” the letter said. He was 77-years-old.

“I am realising that the church inside the hospital is very, very important because people need a place and someone that can help them meet God. Suffering often brings people closer to God. I am finding out every day how important it is to bring solace and hope.”

Santa Maria Hospital

Officially Kurume’s Santa Maria Hospital is not a Church institution. It was founded about 90 years ago by Dr Ichiro Ide, father of the current director and a fervent Catholic from Nagasaki, to serve the poor who could not afford adequate medical care.

The small health facility of the early years is now an impressive clinic, with a hospice for the elderly with impairments and a renowned university-level nursing school. Most staff and patients are not Christian but its principles and spirit are.

“Medical care for the sick and technical training for future nurses are based on the Catholic values,” says a brochure detailing the purpose of the institution. At the entrance of the building housing the facility three ideograms encapsulates what it stands for: “Faith, Hope, and Charity.”

When 30 years ago the bishop of Fukuoka decided to rebuild the cathedral, the director of the ‘Santa Maria’ asked that the old church be moved and rebuilt inside the hospital compound so as to become a place of solace and hope. This became reality when the old missionary accepted to take charge of it. With no ulterior motive to proselytise Father Riccardo spent mornings visiting “patients that I knew,” and through “them I got to know many others.” This way consolation walked out of the door of the small church like a small but lively “river of hope.”

In a letter he wrote at the start of this new job he said: “I did not have a clue about hospital matters. But as a man I’d like to be close to those who like me work in hospital; I’d like to share with them joy and sorrow. We all have happy moments and others that are no so happy. I would like to see the people who work in the hospital feel free to talk to me, when they are unhappy, so that I might be for them a light that brings hope.”

And he was increasingly so towards the end of his life after doctors found a tumour in his lungs. Conscious that he only had a few months to live he did not resign himself to his fate but continued instead to bring solace to the elderly patients in the hospice.

In mentioning all this during the funeral, Bishop Miyahara urged those present “not to be overcome by grief but joyfully thank God instead for the gift he made to the Church of Fukuoka and to Japan through Father Riccardo. He added however that “our grief is justifiable since we lost a great life.”

Fr Ferruccio Brambillasca, current PIME Superior in Japan, said that Father Riccardo led a fruitful and successful life. “What is sad is not the fact that we must die, but that we may ‘waste’ our life. Father Magrin was a missionary who did not ‘waste’ even a second of his life, and for this reason he has left fond memories to one and all. Even when Father Magrin was sick he never stopped his apostolate but continued instead to visit the sick with care and dedication.”

Mission and globalisation

Another important aspect of his life was that of outsider, a European in Japan. Globalisation, which now defines our age, is not built on computers, financial systems and even less on military force, but on dialogue between people from different cultural background. For a Western diplomat or businessman living in a Japanese metropolis is not hard. This is not the case for a European who chose to live for 54 years in an area of Japan where Europeans and Americans are rare. Finding one’s place and life in such an environment means sharing the existence of ordinary people, speaking their language and adopting their customs. This way one can communicate not only a doctrine but also the values one embodies. If people in Saga Prefecture learnt anything about European culture, it was not through TV shows but by observing the life of a small and humble missionary.

In order to achieve such a high level of cultural communication Father Magrin required a great deal of moral energy which he got from high above through constant prayer. The fact that European Union decision-makers chose not to include Europe’s Christian roots in that body’s charters can only be cause for sadness. Of course, Immanuel Kant, seen by many as the father of modern Western philosophy, piled insult upon insult on praying, which he called a “desire for madness’, ‘a visceral cult’, ‘religious fanaticism’, ‘hypocrisy’, according to Protestant theologian Oscar Cullmann. But as a European Riccardo Magrin achieved through regular praying the religious intuition and energy that allowed him to respect, love and console many Japanese and received in return their love, an experience that gives the lie to the German philosopher’s crazy idea.

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