11/20/2008, 00.00
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The 188 martyrs, an expansion opportunity for the Japanese Church

by Pino Cazzaniga
On November 24, the martyrs will be beatified whom Cardinal Peter Seichi Shirayanagi calls ordinary people, "exemplary in their observance of social order, who did not hesitate to refuse submission to the decrees of the shogun and of the daimyos when these were opposed to the faith and the dignity of the human person."

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - Ordinary people - craftsmen, shopkeepers, soldiers - persons "exemplary in their observance of social order, who did not hesitate to refuse submission to the decrees of the shogun and of the daimyos when these were opposed to the faith and the dignity of the human person." In a conversation with AsiaNews, Cardinal Peter Seichi Shirayanagi talks about the 188 Japanese martyrs whom the Vatican confirmed today will be beatified on November 24 in Nagasaki, at "Nagasaki Big N. Stadium." The beatification, he explains, although it involves people from four centuries ago, is part of the religious and political situation of Japan today. "The initiative" of the beatification was that of John Paul II, says the cardinal, who is the person best informed on the matter. Currently, he has no juridical responsibilities, having left the leadership of the archdiocese of Tokyo in 2002. But the cause of this beatification has lasted a quarter of a century, and over that time the cardinal has played a leading role and has been its most enthusiastic supporter. But "it would be superficial to exclude the Church of Japan," he adds, referring to what happened during the papal visit in February of 1981. On that occasion, the pope, possibly emotional over the religious enthusiasm of the Japanese Christians, told the bishops: "The Church of Japan has a great spiritual heritage: the richness of its martyrs. Why don't you proceed with another beatification?" "The Pope's exhortation," the cardinal explains, "fell on fertile ground. The Japanese bishops for a long time had nourished the desire for a new beatification, but they did not dare to express this."

John Paul II's to visit to Japan took place a little more than two years after the beginning of his pontificate. At the time, his knowledge of the Japanese Church must have been fairly generic. Can it therefore be assumed that his exhortation was somewhat improvised, the result of pastoral intuition?

Shirayanagi: I would not call it spontaneous. It is known that John Paul II carefully prepared his visit to our Church and to our country, in a pastoral perspective, but also, and not secondarily, "political." He came above all as a "Pilgrim of peace." While not underestimating the religious meetings in Tokyo and Nagasaki, the focal event was his speech against nuclear weapons and the prayer for peace he made in Hiroshima.

Last year, the bishop of Nagoya, Agostino Jun’ichi Nomura, announcing the decree of beatification, wrote: "I think that this is not only a happy event for the Japanese Church, but also has an important meaning for our nation as a whole."

I agree. I would even go so far as to say that it is providential for the time. For some time, currents of thought have emerged in our nation, in political and social circles, bringing into question principles that we as Christians have the duty and mission to defend without compromise. I am referring to that which is clearly expressed in articles 9 and 20 of the Constitution. The first concerns pacifism. There it is written: "Aspiring sincerely to international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people renounces forever war as a sovereign right of the nation, and the threat or use of force as a means for resolving international disputes." We the Japanese bishops solemnly emphasized the exemplary nature and importance of this in the message published in 2005, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war, entitled "The way of peace and of nonviolence. Now is the time to be prophetic." In reference to the principle of nonviolence, we wrote: "This spirit appears in article 9 of the Constitution, in the form of the renunciation of war as a means for resolving international disputes, and in the renunciation of weapons." And we added: "Do we not have the right to be proud of the fact that in 60 years, we have not killed anyone in war, and none of us has been killed in war?" Just as important is the principle of the clear separation between religion and the state, sanctioned by article 20: "No religious organization will receive any privilege from the state, nor will it exercise any political authority."

Those who are not familiar with the state Shintoism that deified the imperial authority, and with the Yasukuni shrine, which conferred sacred status on that horrible war, will have a hard time understanding the motivation and importance of this article. We know that you have openly criticized the visits that some members of parliament and of the government make to this temple. But when the federation of Asian bishops' conferences held its meeting in Japan, you asked for forgiveness both as the leading authority of the Catholic Church in Japan and as a Japanese citizen, for the crimes committed by Japan during the war, which has a relationship with the commemoration of the 188 martyrs.

In order to grasp the impact that this commemoration will have on the Church and on society and our country, it is helpful to emphasize the fact that the next celebration will be, so to speak, entirely Japanese. My successor, Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada, has written: "This is the first ceremony of beatification to be held in Japan. And it is also the first ceremony in which all of the beatified martyrs are Japanese." And Bishop Nomura has emphasized that "most of the 188 martyrs were not religious or priests, but people who lived ordinary lives as soldiers (samurai), merchants, and craftsmen." Exemplary in their observance of social order, they did not hesitate to refuse submission to the decrees of the shogun and of the daimyos when these were opposed to the faith and the dignity of the human person. Unfortunately, in the first half of the last century we Catholics did not always have the courage to imitate the consistency of these our ancestors in the faith.

I think you are referring to the thorny question of the Yasukuni shrine, not so much in the context of the political debate underway, but in that of the history that has thrown a shadow over the Church as well. The delicate nature of this matter prompts me to quote word for word what you wrote in the 2007 message in defense of the principle of the separation between government and religion. "While Japan was proceeding vigorously toward war in the Showa era (1930's and '40's), the state was completely integrated with the religion of Shintoism, and the people, not only in Japan but also on the Korean peninsula, were forced to perform (acts of) veneration in the Shinto temples. The Catholic Church asked if it was right for Catholic students to pay homage at the Yasukuni shrine. Given the rigorous control of the government over religion, the question was so crucial that it threatened the very existence of the Catholic Church in Japan. Following the guidelines of the Propaganda Fide (congregation) in those days, the Church recognized that the faithful (could) pay homage at the Yasukuni temple, saying that the rituals that the government required students to perform were not religious (acts), but only a 'social courtesy' to demonstrate loyalty and patriotism toward the emperor. In this way, continues the statement of the bishops, the Church took the path of cooperation in that war."

It is a painful page in our history, but it must be read in its context. Now the bishops, with this and other similar declarations, have carried out a vigorous purification of memory. It is partly for this reason that we bishops are strenuously defending article 20 of the Constitution.

It is a widespread opinion that in Japan, the seed of the Gospel has fallen on sterile ground. The small number of Christians seems to verify this. In this context, what meaning does the beatification of the 188 martyrs have for the future path of the Japanese Church?

I do not believe that the criterion of statistics is the best for judging the value of a Church. Having said this, I do not hesitate to affirm that the upcoming beatification is not only significant, but even providential for the future of the Church in Japan. The Catholic Church, in fact, has been slow here to welcome the doctrine and reforming energy of Vatican II. The process of its effective implementation has been underway since the 1980s. The first result came in 1987, with the convocation of a sort of national synod, called the NICE (National Incentive Convention for Evangelization). In the image of the Japanese Church, which was reflected in that synod as in a mirror, a fracture was seen, not doctrinal, but pastoral. Geographically, the line of division corresponds to the strait that separates the island of Honshu (northeast) from that of Kyushu (south); in the north, there was a Christianity open to social activism, represented by the archdiocese of Tokyo; in the South, a Christianity involved in interior growth, represented by that of Nagasaki. During the two decades that followed, we have tried to overcome this division through the combination of these two tendencies. At the level of the bishops, the fracture has been overcome. Now we must proceed on the level of the faithful. The beatification ceremony will be a strong moment of communion, and could be the beginning of a new path for all sectors of the Church in Japan.

Will this also be true in the area of catechesis? In the book "Sails spread to the wind of grace," recently written by the Salesian Bishop Francis Osamu Mizobe, to explain to young people the meaning of Christian martyrdom, we seem to see a model of a new method of catechesis.

We owe Bishop Mizobe, now the bishop of Takamatsu, a great debt of gratitude. A specialist in the history of the Japanese martyrs, from the very beginning we appointed him to the commission of inquiry, where he has played a key role. This book is the latest expression of his activity, and, it is hoped, the beginning of a new path of catechesis.

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