“Pray, Alfred! Ask forgiveness from the people you have wronged, and also from the Lord. Ask for his mercy and compassion so that you may be released from this detention soon,” says the Catholic nun consoling Alfred, an apprehended undocumented worker. Hands touching against the glass, the two pray the rosary. End of scene.

Props are cleared away. A choir takes the stage. Celebrated as part of the Roman Catholic Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, launched by Pope Francis last December, the drama-concert sheds light on the significance of his papacy for Filipino Catholics and the Philippines.

Coming from nearly a dozen church communities across the Tokyo archdiocese, Catholics gathered inside Meguro’s St. Anselm’s Church on Oct. 10 for the event organized by the Gathering for Filipino Groups and Communities (GFGC), a Catholic lay organization.

The multicultural and multilingual musical production, which included a prayerful Latin hymn and English and Tagalog gospel songs — and even a rendition of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” during the intermission — underscored the international face of the Catholic church in Japan. Sharply contrasting with the jubilant melodies, vibrant gowns and dance, the short dramas conveyed a more solemn message. Each skit communicated harrowing scenarios migrant workers may face in host countries: domineering employers, financial struggles exaggerated by illness and the detainment of visa “overstayers.”

“Maybe the concert reminds us Filipinos working here to never lose faith in God, because actually our song is to not lose hope,” said James Tagle, who played the part of the detainee. “You are not alone — that’s the story of the song we are going to sing.”

For many of the performers, the dramatized dilemmas must have hit close to home, either resonating with their own experiences or those of people near them. As of 2013, over 10.2 million Filipinos were overseas. The exporting of labor around the world was largely institutionalized in the 1970s under the Ferdinand Marcos regime and the nation has since become dependent on remittances. Filipinos work overseas in a diverse range of industries, from construction, nursing, caregiving and domestic help to shipping, academia and information technology. According to the latest Justice Ministry report, there were 237,103 Filipino residents in Japan as of the end of June, making them the third-largest foreign community in the country.

“In this concert may we find the face of Jesus Christ as the good shepherd in the characters of the migrants and their families,” Father Edwin Corros said from the pulpit, opening the concert.

Congregants act out a skit based in a Japanese immigration detention center at this year
Congregants act out a skit based in a Japanese immigration detention center at this year’s GFGC event on Oct. 10 at St. Anselm’s Church in Meguro, Tokyo. | COURTESY OF CARRIE BUCU

The church has long recognized internal migration and emigration as a basic right to sustain a livelihood, a sentiment found in Pope Pius XII’s “Exsul Familia” decree of 1952 and Pope John XXII’s 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris.” Since beginning his tenure in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly drawn attention to the plight of migrants and refugees. Notably, five months into his papacy, his first trip outside Rome was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, an entry point for African migrants, to pray for those who died at sea. In 2015 he asked every European parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary to open its doors to one refugee family. And in February of this year he visited the U.S.-Mexico border to say Mass and talk of the “humanitarian crisis” of forced migration.

In these papal visits, Francis has called for mercy toward those crossing borders. And mercy appears to be the legacy Pope Francis is striving for. His papacy eludes conservative and liberal labels, remaining doctrinal on abortion, contraceptives and homosexuality yet critical of the church’s “obsession” with sex-related issues. All the while he continues to speak out on global economic inequality, climate change and forced migration — issues most adversely affecting countries of the southern hemisphere, where a majority of Catholics now reside.

Pope Francis commenced the Jubilee on Dec. 8, 2015, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, an event through which many Catholics came to embrace social justice. Speaking of the Jubilee and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy — the provision of food, drink, clothes, shelter and comfort to those in need, visitations for the imprisoned and burials for the dead — in a book-length interview with Andrea Tornielli, Francis asks: “How should we behave with the immigrants who have survived the crossing and who land on our shores?” Appropriately, then, the GFGC concert proceeds will aid Christian refugees who came to the Philippines fleeing religious persecution in Turkey and Pakistan.

Globally, there were 65.3 million people displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015, according to a report released by the U.N. Refugee Agency in June. Much discussion now centers on how climate change is and will continue to exacerbate conditions causing forced migration, such as political instability and lack of resources.

“There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation,” writes Pope Francis in the eco-encyclical “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.” Though debates ensue over the extent of its influence on migration, that climate change will impact movement and disaster displacement is beyond doubt.

The Philippines, an archipelago of thousands of islands, is one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change. President Rodrigo Duterte, who is currently in Japan on only his second trip abroad, remains reluctant to ratify the U.N. Paris climate agreement, saying it would hinder the country’s industrialization. Though the nation produces less than 1 percent of global emissions, it is becoming increasingly prone to stronger typhoons and environmental destruction. Only last week — three years after Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda to Filipinos) devastated the country, killing 10,000 — another super-typhoon hit the Philippines, forcing 100,000 to evacuate.

Rising temperatures also threaten the rich marine life of coral reefs in the Philippines that support local tourist economies. Climate inaction may cause “an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us” warns Francis’ encyclical. Appropriately, then, the ecological message of “Laudato Si” served as the theme of last year’s GFGC concert.

Supporting a ‘Coral Genesis’

Wearing an impressively large crucifix around his neck, Willie Masangkay sits across from me, proudly presenting pages of handwritten notes and photocopies of news articles about the famed Filipino healer and clairvoyant Father Efren “Momoy” Borromeo.

Known as a “walking MRI,” Efren is reputedly able to diagnose a person’s afflictions just by looking at them. Demonstrating the plurality of religious praxis and belief within the Catholic church in the country, the Philippine Daily Inquirer tells Efren’s colorful tale. A grandson of an indigenous healer, he entered the seminary after the local priest died and “parish officials stressed that the town would have to replace the dead priest with one of their own to offset a curse.” Initially Efren embraced the opportunity as a means to study, but he later found conviction in his faith and, subsequently, powers he claims enabled him to heal the sick and see the dead.

Efren now leads weekly healing sessions as part of his Trinitas Integrative Healing Ministry, based in Quezon City. Trained in the Sanbo Kyodan Zen lineage, Efren draws on his Zen training to take a holistic approach to healing, which is “a process to wholeness, restoring harmony in the soul, soil and society,” said Efren by email. To this end, he is active in several ecological projects, including organic farming, reforestation and coral reef preservation, all in addition to tending to people’s physical ailments.

“I can go on until midnight,” says Willie, as he sits with his wife, May, telling stories of miraculous healing one after another over coffee in a marathon interview. In 2009, May was diagnosed with cancer. A Catholic sister introduced them to Efren and then May began attending his weekly healing service. Just days before a risky operation she decided to take Efren’s advice and forego surgery. According to May, Efren told her the cancer was “dormant,” and ever since she has been healthy. The couple now volunteer for him.

Willie, who worked for an engineering consultancy firm before retiring, came to Japan in 1973. He met May in a church in Nagoya. May continues to run a recruiting agency with an office in Tokyo, and the two travel frequently between the Philippines and Japan. Meeting ailing Filipinos in Japan, Willie and May resolved to bring Father Efren to Japan.

Volunteers prepare
Volunteers prepare ‘rosary beads’ fitted with solar cells to stimulate coral growth before the beads are dropped into the Albay Gulf in the Philippines. | JCI LEGAZPI

While conducting his healing ministry here in 2014, Efren had the opportunity to promote an ecological project he is involved in called Coral Genesis. To stimulate coral growth, solar-powered artificial beads were placed in the shape of a huge rosary on the sea bed in the Albay Gulf off the Philippines’ Bicol region in 2013. Emitting electricity through solar panels facilitates coral regeneration. However, Haiyan wrought damage to the project and financing was needed to deploy heavier beads. GFGC came to the rescue, offering to make Coral Genesis the beneficiary of its annual concert. Over 100 new, more durable beads have since been replaced.

Engineer and project coordinator Martin Reynoso said by email that Efren “had the imagination to realize the potential” of Coral Genesis, as he “pushed for the benefit concert and really played the lead role in finding partners.”

Praying for a very special visit

The title of Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical, which translates as “Praise be to you,” comes from the canticle “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” written by Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century mystic, patron saint of ecology and namesake of the current pontiff. Its content seems to signal the shifts Francis is bringing to the church.

Examining global inequality, the disproportionate effects climate change will bring to the developing world and the responsibilities of the developed world, Francis’ message resonates with Liberation Theology, a school of thought emphasizing structural injustice that the church either opposed or remained wary of for decades.

“His preferential love for the poor and the oppressed is a source of hope and inspiration,” says GFGC Chair Maria “Mel” Kasuya. “We may be poor but we are loved by God just the same and will be set free from poverty and oppression in his time and by his grace.”

Whatever the reason — whether it be his personal touch, his calls to compassion for refugees, ecological concerns or scathing critique of global capitalism — one thing is certain: Pope Francis is well-liked. A WIN/Gallup poll found him to be the most popular world leader, and 93 percent of surveyed Filipinos reported having a positive image of Francis.

This makes him arguably even more popular than President Duterte, who once called the pope a “son of a whore” after the pontiff’s presence jammed traffic during a visit to Manila in 2015. Duterte was elected in a landslide partly due to his pledge to launch a crackdown on drug crime, a plan that has triggered mixed reactions from Catholic leaders in the Philippines. Nevertheless, according to two polls this month, more than 80 percent of Filipinos trust Duterte.

Less than a year after Duterte’s visit, which wraps up Friday, Japan’s Filipinos may have the chance to see the immensely popular pope in the flesh. Antoine Camilleri, the Vatican’s undersecretary for relations with states, announced in July that a papal visit to Japan is being considered for next summer.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead a special Jubilee audience in St. Peter
Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead a special Jubilee audience in St. Peter’s square at the Vatican on Saturday. The Vatican announced in July that a papal visit to Japan is being considered for next summer. | REUTERS

Writing in The Japan Times recently, Mark Jarnes suggested that to better understand the significance of Francis coming to Japan, we should look at the last papal visit, by Pope John Paul II in 1981. An equally, if not more important, endeavor is to consider the meaning of such a visit for foreign Catholics in Japan.

A lot has changed since 1981. Starting in the 1980s, waves of Filipino migrants entered the country and international marriages between Japanese and Filipinas rose. Then, in 1989, revisions to the Immigration Act opened the doors to people of Japanese descent, resulting in an influx of Peruvians and Brazilians into Japan.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan counted a total of 443,646 Catholics in 2014. It is difficult, though, to assess how many foreign Catholics participate in the church. According to Takefumi Terada, an anthropologist and longtime observer of Catholicism in Japan, the church does not have accurate statistics by nationality.

Even if Japanese still predominate in terms of membership, in some churches foreign Catholics already outnumber them on Sundays. The face of the church has internationalized with the influx of Filipino, Brazilian, Peruvian and Vietnamese members, not to mention the children of international marriages.

What, then, will be the meaning of Pope Francis’ visit to Japan for concert participants? Kasuya believes a papal visit would inspire Filipino Catholics and be a chance for recognition.

“Well, when he comes here I will make sure that the Filipinos will see him, and he will see the Filipinos move the Catholic Church in Japan,” says Kasuya. “Because the Filipinos help build the Catholic church in Japan.”

And without a doubt, there’s a lot of enthusiasm about the potential visit.

“I’ll be excited if the pope comes,” says concert musical director Teresa “Puchie” Velez. “It’ll be more exciting than the Olympics.”

Jason Bartashius is a doctoral student at Sophia University studying migration and religion. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

Filipinos make up a large chunk of Japan’s Catholic congregation


Filipinos are the third-largest foreign community in Japan after Chinese nationals and South Koreans.

Philippine nationals number 237,103 in a foreign-resident population of over 2 million, which means that more than 1 in 10 non-Japanese living in the country is Filipino.

The Philippines is officially a secular state but 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic and up to 10 percent are members of other Christian denominations. The biggest non-Christian religious minority are Muslims, who make up over 5 percent of the population. The country’s Christian conversion came under four centuries of Western influence as a Spanish and later American colony. Although the country is composed of 7,000 islands where more than 100 languages are spoken, its two official languages are English and Filipino (Tagalog).

Assuming the religious makeup of the Filipino Japan resident population mirrors that of the Philippines as a whole, this would mean that there are at least 190,000 Filipino Catholic residents in the country.

The total number of Japan’s Catholic congregation was estimated at 443,646 in 2014, so it’s conceivable that Filipinos make up around 40 percent of Japan’s Catholic believers, although the church itself does not collect information on the nationality of its followers in Japan.

The Catholic Tokyo International Center estimated in the late 1990s that 53 percent of parishioners were Japanese nationals, and more recent research would suggest that the ratio of foreign-to-Japanese Catholics has increased due to the low birthrate and aging of the general population.

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