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Confessions of a priest . . . sort of

by Thomas Dillon

Meet “Father Smith” — silver hair, gentle smile and a voice so mellow that it flows with a grace from beyond. Maybe there is a God and maybe there isn’t, but when you’re with Father Smith, you tend to believe that maybe there is.

There’s just one thing. He’s as phony as hell.

“I’m an English teacher,” he says. “I marry people at a hotel chapel on weekends. I wear the robes, a cross, the whole nine yards. Nobody knows. And nobody cares.” He smiles his smile. “Except for maybe me.”

It’s show time! The No. 1 job for Westerners in Japan is certainly language teaching. But No. 2? Here’s a guess — it might be “acting.”

The curtain rises at wedding halls and hotel chapels all across the land on each Saturday and Sunday, and most holidays too. The “gaijin” performer on center stage is sometimes a legitimate man of the cloth, but more than often he is not. He’s just a regular Joe out to pull in some extra yen by playing a minister at a fancy Japanese wedding.

Somehow this fits Japan, where most people take the a la carte approach to religion. Want a blessing? Shinto shrines will happily douse you with good fortune. Need a funeral? Fine, the local Buddhist temple has an ongoing special on eternity.

And a wedding? With gorgeous gowns, romantic ring swaps and a lovely reading from First Corinthians 13, what can beat a Christian church? The whole scene might be clipped from a Hollywood love story. So why not be movie stars on this most wonderful of days?

Japanese marriage ceremonies don’t count anyway. They’re just icing on the wedding cake. The true tie is bound in front of a clerk at City Hall. Ceremonies are only for show and, as such, anything goes.

So some Japanese opt to marry underwater wearing scuba gear in Hawaii. Others choose to tie the knot at Disneyland with Mickey Mouse as their best man. Or in whatever other colorful manner one might imagine.

But the majority select a church-style wedding with a foreigner as minister.

Meet “the Rev. Jones.” He leans against a wall at the ritzy Tokyo hotel where he weds people on weekends. He taps ashes from his cigarette, careful not to drop any on his robes.

“Me ‘n’ this other guy applied here at the same time. The other guy spoke good Japanese and even led Bible studies at his church. Yet the hotel liked my qualifications better.”

Which were?

“I was taller. I had a beard.”

Meaning he looked the part. His relation to the church?

“Well . . . I consider myself a believer. Sort of.”

Besides, he says, no one ever asks if he’s qualified. Yet, just to be careful, he did take part in a program that — for a price — furnished him with a certificate of qualification. But he’s never had to show it.

As for the ceremony itself . . . each chapel is different, but the pattern is basically the same — short and sweet.

The pseudo-minister reads the Bible, delivers a brief message, leads the couple through their vows, presides over the ring exchange and then pronounces the two man and wife — all this punctuated by hymns sung by a bouquet of choir girls. The whole affair lasts but 20 minutes, with incoming brides and grooms sometimes waiting outside as if on a conveyor belt.

Some services also employ a healthy sprinkling of English, as for many Japanese the foreign tongue seems to add sanctity. Regardless, the pseudo-minister need memorize only a smattering of the local language. There is but one real fear . . . that he would flub the names.

For only the names seem to be holy. Other legendary goofs — like intoning God’s vengeance instead of his blessing (a miss of “shukufuku” and “fukushu”) or imploring the couple to exchange their lust rather than their vows (“seiyoku” and “seiyaku”) — seem more readily forgivable. After all, even Japanese admit their language is difficult.

But for many true clergy and believers, the entire Japanese wedding industry is shameful. Marriage is a sacrament, they argue, and bogus ministers are only conning instead of consecrating.

However, a large number of missionaries also participate, and Japanese clergy do too. And more, perhaps, would if they could. Why?

At this point, switch your background music from Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to Abba’s “Money, Money, Money.”

For in Tokyo hotels and wedding halls, a minister — legit or not — usually earns 15,000 yen per show . . . sometimes more. And some of the busier ministers perform a dozen ceremonies a weekend . . . sometimes more. Add it up and it is a heavenly amount of income for two days of work. Enough to fund a missionary’s tiny church or put a struggling English teacher’s kids through college.

“But that doesn’t make it right.”

The speaker is Father Smith, who for all his involvement has never convinced himself that his part-time employment is justified.

“I believe in the sanctification of marriage before God, but I also have bills to pay.”

So his believer side cringes, while his workingman side whistles off to the bank. He is able to rationalize his efforts only one way: “I marry people with all my heart.”

Through the years he has seen genuine ministers rush in, perform cardboard ceremonies and then rush right out. If ordination makes a difference, he says, not all of them show it.

“So maybe I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I’m just an opportunist.

“Yet, when I look that couple in the eye and speak those words, I mean what I say. And those that look back at me know I do.

“Maybe that doesn’t make it right. But it does make it meaningful.

“At least to me.”

And then he smiles his smile. And you cannot help but believe.