06/11/2013, 00.00
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Fr. Ferruccio Brambillasca: The Pope’s invitation to “move out to the margins” and PIME’s mission

by Bernardo Cervellera
The new Superior General of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, a former missionary in Japan, presents himself and the challenges of evangelization for the institute, for the Churches of Asia and the world. The fundamental value of reaching out to non-Christians and Massmedia.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Fr Ferruccio Brambillasca is the new Superior General of PIME.  He was elected on May 20 at the Institute's General Assembly, held at the Vatican from May 5 to 29. The General Assembly had as its theme: "Together at the service of the Church to proclaim the Faith today and ad extra." The topics discussed included the  increasing presence of non-Italian members in the institution (Brazilian, Indian, African, ...), the momentum towards ad gentes mission, formation, communion and lastly, the economy in the current crisis.

Fr. Brambillasca, born in Monza (MB), on June 11, 1964, was the regional superior of Japan, where he had lived since 1998. A graduate in dogmatic theology from Naples, he has been a priest for 24 years. He spent several years in formation in Italy, Ducenta (1989-1993) and in India at the seminary in Pune. A few weeks after swearing his oath as Superior General, Fr. Brambillasca,  gave us his overview of the current situation.

As Superior General, what is your vision of PIME and its mission. What struck you most about the recent General Assembly?

I was struck most by the level of participation of those present. It was a really brilliant assembly, with a wonderful atmosphere.  Each participant played a part. It was a very active gathering, in no way passive.

The second thing that struck me was the fact that it was an international assembly.  This was not only apparent in the faces present but above all in the ideas. For some time now PIME has been welcoming members from other nations. But a few years ago, when I took part in the previous General Assembly (GA), I was left with the impression that it was dominated by an Italian mentality and Italian problems. This was an international Assembly, which reflects PIME's work today: working for internationality.
What do we expect and what are our future prospects? We are still somewhat green behind the gills in terms of our General Direction (GD) and this needs further reflection, but a desire to renew our Institute has emerged from the GA. Not because it is tired or old: the charism of the PIME ad gentes mission remains, but precisely because there are new members from other nations we need to help them absorb this charism from our witness. Our job as a GD is to infuse this charism among the younger generations, especially those who have never lived in Italy. It is almost like a handing down, a transmission of our spirit. I was very impressed with what Card. Joao Braz de Aviz said to us on the last day of the meeting. "For any Institution, what's important is not holding onto structures - he said -  but keeping the charism alive". Everyone was deeply touched by this statement and I think for all the members of the institute the time has come for us to work in this direction: it is our aim over the coming years. To work less on the structures, such as projects and finances, which are important in themselves, but to concentrate more on keeping our charism alive, on rekindling our missionary identity. Perhaps we have been so absorbed by our increasing internationality that our identity has been somewhat diluted. The PIME ad gentes charism is highly relevant to today: if the Church were to lose it, it would lose momentum  and vitality.

Pope Francis continues to emphasize that Christians should "move out to the geographical and existential margins".

This 'moving out'  is such an important thing to do,  wherever you may be, even in Japan, where I was a missionary for 15 years. Even in the Churches where we work, sometimes find it difficult to reach out and encounter another culture, to move out from its structures and this slows down the missionary zeal. Our job is to help the Churches not only in Italy, but also missionary Churches to become more evangelizing in their nature. In this day and age we are no longer mere servants of the local Church, but animators of missionary effort and we do this by helping her not to worry too much about structures, administration, finances.

You can see this discrepancy in several churches in Asia. We too in PIME, are in danger of locking our charism up in founding the church, building structures, organizing parishes. Instead we need to help the churches to become more missionary.
PIME was always at the service of the local Church, but in all these places it drags the Church to the outposts of mission, in moving out like Pope Francis says. We are only just beginning in this effort, but it is increasingly urgent: it is one of the purposes of our institute.

An example?

As PIME superior in Japan, I sometimes attended the meetings of the Japanese Bishops' Conference as an observer. It is interesting that the agenda of these meetings always focused on running facilities, managing economic problems,  organizational issues. But there was no mention of evangelization, of how to draw close to non-Christians, of catechesis. If a church is drowning under the weight of structural problems it loses momentum. Of course, the Japanese culture tends to  give prominence to efficiency and thus the need to constantly review the functioning of structures. But it is not enough.
Even in pastoral work, in our parishes,  we organize ourselves, build efficient structures, but this is not enough, you cannot stop at just this. How do we proclaim the Gospel to non-Christians, how do we renew catechesis, how do we proclaim the Gospel to those who do not come to church. This is not a judgment: it is a question of a mentality that has spread in Asia, where the growing concern with structural issues  is likely to kill the soul of the Gospel.
This is not a cultural issue, but a way of seeing the Church, more concerned about making things run smoothly. I would regularly say to my Japanese Christians that we often see the Church as a factory, where there is the manager, who is the parish priest and the section heads who are the parishioners. They all work like managers concentrating on the smooth running of their organization, but lose sight of the point of proclaiming the Gospel.
On the other hand, I see that the young Japanese Catholics are inclined to "move out" take part in World Youth Days, in voluntary groups, etc ... The elderly are more closed in on themselves. We must help these young people and nurture this momentum. It is important to enhance the contribution of young people to the Asian Churches. The Asian Youth is a huge force: 50% of the continent's population is below the age of 25.

This PIME GA took place during the Year of Faith, in which we are invited to return to the center of the faith, our encounter with Jesus, and not structures. How has Japan been marking this year?

The Year of Faith has been well received and has also brought many good results. For example, many Japanese have discovered and read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Not all Japanese people had read it. It can be difficult for them to approach a text produced in the West, not because of translation issues, but issues related to the structure of thought. Thanks to many priests who have been reading the Catechism along with their faithful, they have rediscovered the catechism, and this is important because faith needs insights and motivation.
It was important to listen to the bishops in preparing for the Year of Faith. Some pointed out that it was essential to understand the importance of faith in our lives, especially today with the high number of suicides, where there is a lot of pain and suffering, the post-earthquake question ("Why does God allow so much pain?") ... In all this, what does it mean to have faith? The bishops feel that it is important to answer these questions and help others to understand the answers. In this way we can plug the faith into everyday life: faith is not just something learned from books, or something theoretical, but a fact that affects  our life, something we feel, that we feel in our everyday life.
Although it is an advanced society, Japan is marked by very deep wounds: suicides, the aftermath of the earthquake, but also the economic crisis that stifles many people. What is the meaning of faith in the midst of all this pain that Japanese society is experiencing? The Year of Faith helps us understand that  the Church is called to give the answers through the faith.

Your mission in Japan ...

I arrived in Japan in 1998, after working for four years in the seminary of Ducenta and 4 others at the seminary in Pune (India). In the first two years I learned the language, and then I was put alongside a Japanese priest in a parish. Then I became pastor in a parish in the suburbs, the Choshi, dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, where there was a small mixed community of 10-15 Japanese and 20 Filipinos. After three years I have moved to the city as a pastor of a large parish with 2 thousand Christians, Seiji, dedicated to St. Jude Thaddeus. I even had an assistant, first Burmese, then Japanese. I had always worked in the field of education, so this was my first experience of pastoral work and I must say it was very exciting. Unfortunately, after only three more years, I was elected Regional Superior and this really came as a blow to my work as a pastor. I accepted it as a call from Heaven and in the blink of an eye I went from a parish with 2 thousand Christians to a regional house where I was all alone! The facilities in Japan are not like, say ... in Africa, where there is someone calling almost every day. In the Land of the Rising Sun, if there is the parish, people come, but in a house or a religious missionary institute, hardly ever anyone pays a visit: a few phone calls, a few visits, it's almost like a cloistered monastery. You must also keep in mind that the Japanese are very, very discreet ...

After a while I began to appreciate my work as regional superior: I could visit with other fathers, my sick brothers, the elderly thus rediscovering the sense of being part of a PIME family. I really have to thank God that I found this unity and beautiful relationships. I had a community that helped me a lot. I received a lot from them.
Another work that began during this period was the call to preach and teach in schools. Finally, I got the assignment as a teacher of Christianity at Junshin Catholic university in Tokyo. It is not a very big university and is run by some nuns. But it is very important because its students are mostly non-Christian. And it is exciting to teach our faith to young non-Christians. This opened a door to me in a field that is usually difficult to approach.

I remember after the first lesson, four students approached me. I thought they needed further explanation of the lesson, or maybe wanted to start studying the Bible, or something along those lines. Instead they asked, "Professor, do you watch Japanese TV sitcoms about Japanese young people?" As if to say, "Are you attentive to our problems?". A real lesson for me and for all missionaries: be attentive to the problems of the country where we work to know and love that country. Our mission begins, I think,  in getting to know and forming friendships with the people to whom we are sent to be true prophetic signs.
In the parish you do not have the time or you build relationships that are more or less close with people; at the university I was able to draw near to a non-Christian world to proclaim the Gospel. I had 40-50 students and there were only one or two Catholics.
Here again we find Pope Francis' call to "move out to the margins": we must have the courage to leave our structures to meet those who seek Jesus Christ in the world.

Are the Japanese interested in Christianity? Why would a Japanese convert to the faith?

There are several reasons why a Japanese would want to embrace the Christian faith: from an encounter with a Christian friend, with a priest, a trip to Italy, through the study of the Bible ... Others, with Christian parents, follow the testimony of their parents. But what I discovered while in the parish, is that they discover answers to their questions in Christianity. For example, many people become Christian after attending a Catholic funeral. Maybe one is married to a Catholic wife, who dies. By participating in the funeral, they find an answer to the meaning of death and life. We priests prepare funerals and sermons carefully because they are an opportunity for proclamation. In my parish there are many who have followed this path. This is not a mechanical thing: the death of a loved one has questioned them about the meaning of life, if there is life after death, if there is hope, etc ... And they have found the answer in Christianity. In general, other religions such as Buddhism and Shintoism do not give a response to pain.
Even weddings are an occasion for proclamation. In Japan there is therefore a great hunger  for religion and an interest in Christianity. Maybe we should have the courage to proclaim the faith. It must be said that even if many do not become Christians , they are deeply influenced by Christianity: many people read the Bible, come to Mass, live in charity, but for their family ties or tradition do not make the final step.
Of course, if you look at the statistics, there are more funerals than baptisms. But perhaps this is also our responsibility: the time has come to move out beyond the parish. In Brazil or Africa, people go to the parish, in Japan you have to go out to meet non-Christians: through school, university, cultural groups, hospitals, charitable work. One of our fathers, for example, in agreement with the bishop, left the church and started to work in a listening center, meeting non-Christians in their own environment.
For three years Fr. Marco Villa has worked in this center that responds to a great problem present in contemporary Japan: loneliness. People feel abandoned and look for someone to talk to. Three or four times a week, he and his volunteers are available to meet with anyone who comes to see them. This problem is felt not only in the Catholic Church, but throughout the country. There are many counseling centers, such as "phone a friend", but also as a meeting point, they are present even at railway stations. It is charity through listening. It's only just beginning, but already there are many volunteers. Material help is not that urgent in Japan, but help through listening is.

Why should a young person become a PIME missionary?

I think if the young man sees an enthusiastic missionary, content with his vocation, then he will become a PIME missionary. I myself decided to become a missionary on hearing about the adventures of Fr. Clemente Vismara. I do not know the situation of young people in Italy, given that I've been away now for almost 20 years, but I find that witnessing the enthusiasm of our vocation, the desire to communicate the Gospel to everyone will also attract many young people to follow this example.
Even the witness to poverty, in the joy of sobriety, is of value. If we are overly concerned about PIME, our facilities, our internal problems, we will lack this enthusiasm.

Is the mass media an instrument of evangelization?

Let's talk first of all about AsiaNews. I started to read it in Japan, driven to do so by my brother Pino Cazzaniga, which is a correspondent, and I saw that many people appreciate this service, even in the Nunciature. It is a tool that has helped me to have a more open and universal mind on the Asian Churches. Missionaries risk becoming closed in on the problems and life of their Church. More generally, I think that the media is a great tool for evangelization. The media in Japan, in society and in the Church, have a great function: if cared for and supported, they are a means with which we can penetrate into difficult areas such as China or other countries to evangelize. Our relationship with the media, even secular media, helps us to understand the mentality of people and hints at as of yet unexplored tracks of evangelization. The power of the media is to evangelize and shape the mindset. Maybe 50 years ago this problem was believed to be particularly urgent. Today the media is a necessary tool for proclamation and this should be supported and cared for. In PIME we need to nurture some specialized areas and certainly AsiaNews must continue.

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”