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Pope Francis’ Japan visit fulfills lifelong missionary dream

As a young man, Pope Francis says, he hoped to one day become a missionary in the island nation of Japan, inspired by the Jesuit missionaries who first brought Catholicism there.

A Catholic devotee reads information on Pope Francis's visit during an early morning Mass at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, southern Japan, on Nov. 17, 2019. Pope Francis will start his first official visit to Japan in Nagasaki, ground zero for the Christian experience in a nation where the Catholic leader once dreamed of living as a missionary. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — As a young man, Pope Francis hoped to one day become a missionary in the island nation of Japan, inspired by the Jesuit missionaries who first brought Catholicism there.Soon, the pontiff will see his youthful dream come to pass as he embarks on a weeklong apostolic visit to Thailand and Japan on Tuesday (Nov. 19). 

During his trip, Francis will also cement the legacy that ties him to St. John Paul II, highlighting their shared concern about nuclear weapons. Francis will also reunite with family, visiting a cousin who works as a missionary nun in Thailand. 

Francis never had the chance to be a missionary. But as pope he set out to inspire a “missionary church,” a church that is “on the move” and evangelizes through attraction, not judgment.

Neither Japan nor Thailand has a large Catholic presence. Most Thais are Buddhist, while Shintoism and Buddhism are the largest faiths in Japan. Catholics are a tiny minority, about 0.5 percent in Thailand and 0.3 percent in Japan.

In this context, the Catholic communities in these countries – particularly in Japan – are ground zero of missionary work, with a remarkable history of witness and martyrdom.

The Jesuit order first arrived in Japan in the 1540s, when the Rev. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits, set out to bring Christianity to its people. While initially the mission was a success, quickly converting over 100,000 to Catholicism, the Jesuit efforts soon met a strong resistance and the faith was eventually banned.

Catholics in Japan faced mounting persecution, and some became martyrs for their faith. On Feb. 5, 1597, 26 Christians were martyred in Nagasaki, ushering in two centuries of persecution. During his visit, Pope Francis will visit a memorial site for the now canonized martyrs, where he will give a speech and say the Angelus prayer.

Francis will also visit Sophia University in Tokyo and have a private Mass and meeting with Jesuit members.

“I joined the Jesuits because I was struck by their missionary vocation, of always going to the frontiers,” Francis said in a book-length interview on missionary work released earlier this month. “I have always felt that to proclaim Jesus and His Gospel always involves a certain outgoingness and being on the move.”

Xavier had hoped to go Thailand but died before ever achieving his goal. But another notable Jesuit, the Rev. Pedro Arrupe, visited the country in the early 1980s to work in favor of migrants and refugees, mostly from Laos and Cambodia.

The Rev. Pedro Arrupe led the Jesuits from 1965–1983. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Pope Francis quoted Arrupe in a speech to Jesuits last summer, saying that Arrupe once said Jesuits must have the “bravery, to go to the peripheries, to the intersections of ideas, of problems, of missions.”

Francis mentioned Arrupe’s time in Thailand again on Nov. 7, 2019, while speaking to Jesuits and reminding them of his plea to “not abandon prayer.” Arrupe died shortly after returning to Rome from Thailand in 1983, but the pope urged members of the Society of Jesus not to forget him.

In 1984 John Paul II was the first pontiff to visit Thailand, where he made repeated pleas for the rights of refugees. Francis is expected to do likewise. Thailand currently hosts about 97,000 refugees, most of them fleeing the violence and persecution in Myanmar, according to data from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Francis will likely address the plight of asylum-seekers during his trip’s first Mass, on Thursday, which over 50,000 people are expected to attend.

The pope might address the issues of refugees in Japan as well, especially given the low number of refugees the country accepts every year. The island nation approved only 20 refugees applications out of nearly 20,000 in 2017, according to the Japan Times. 

While in Japan, Pope Francis will visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki (on Saturday and Sunday), where the United States dropped nuclear bombs in August 1945, causing almost 200,000 civilian deaths and many more wounded or sick.

During his visit to the two cities in 1981, John Paul II condemned the use of nuclear weapons and encouraged a path to peace. Francis has spoken strongly in favor of nuclear disarmament in the past and is expected to repeat his appeal during this visit.

Francis is also the author of “Laudato Si’,” his 2015 encyclical on the protection of the environment and the promotion of an integral ecology. In the document, the pope spoke about the damage that nuclear waste has on people and the environment.

Despite opposition in his own government, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains a proponent of nuclear energy, even in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, where an earthquake and a tsunami jeopardized a nuclear energy plant and polluted the surrounding area. Francis will meet with three victims of the disaster on Monday along with local bishops.

“The episcopal conference called for the closure of all nuclear energy plants,” said the Rev. Akira Kirishima, from the Catholic Diocese of Kagoshima, in an interview with Religion News Service last month. “Francis will surely discuss the nuclear issues, but the bishops want to connect these two aspects.”

To promote peace and dialogue, Francis will also meet with high representatives of local religions. According to Kirishima, “there is no interreligious dialogue” in Japan and “it would be not only interesting, but also necessary” to promote it.

The pope’s goal, in this momentous visit to Thailand and Japan, will be “to visit the small flock of Catholics, with deep historical roots, who live among different religions, in order to offer them support and encouragement,” said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni in a meeting with the press last week.