Tagalog-fluent priest tends to Tohoku flock

Kyodo

The Rev. Antonius Harnoko, an Indonesia missionary in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, is offering psychological and spiritual support to foreign residents in the Tohoku region ravaged by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

Harnoko, 42, is especially helpful to Filipino residents as he speaks Tagalog and celebrates Masses in the language at the churches he visits.

“Masses in Tagalog make me feel calm,” says a 37-year-old Filipino woman working at a nursing-care facility in Ofunato. “I didn’t expect them in Japan.”

Harnoko learned Tagalog while studying in the Philippines and came to Japan in 1998 to become a Catholic priest. Working as a missionary in Tokyo and Osaka, he temporarily returned to Indonesia in December 2004 shortly before a devastating earthquake occurred in the Indian Ocean off Sumatra later in the month, claiming 220,000 lives.

Harnoko was in Java at the time and watched the catastrophe on TV. “As I had to return to Japan for my church work, I could only pray to God,” he recalls.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, Harnoko applied for a transfer to the damaged region from Hyogo Prefecture and was allowed to move to Iwate in November the same year. The regret he felt at doing nothing after the Sumatra earthquake prompted him to seek the transfer.

In the month after the transfer, Harnoko celebrated a Mass in Tagalog at a community center in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture, for the congregation of a local church damaged by the disaster. Throughout the Mass, some Filipino participants were weeping for fear of radiation contamination from the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 atomic plant.

Filipino visitors to a church Harnoko is assigned to in Ofunato are increasing because they can express their worries to him in their native language.

On weekends, Harnoko drives his car to churches in Aomori, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures to celebrate Masses in Tagalog and listen to worries voiced by Filipino residents.