In February 1981, Pope John Paul II became the first leader of the Catholic Church to visit Japan.

Thirty-five years on, the Vatican is believed to be considering another papal visit, scheduled around the time Pope Francis plans to attend a Catholic festival in Indonesia between July 30 and Aug. 6 next year, according to comments made in July by Antoine Camilleri, the Vatican’s undersecretary for relations with states, at a meeting with Katsuyuki Kawai, an adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Inspirational visit: Pope John Paul II looks at an exhibit at the Hiroshima Peace Park Atomic Bomb Museum on Feb. 25, 1981. | KYODO
Inspirational visit: Pope John Paul II looks at an exhibit at the Hiroshima Peace Park Atomic Bomb Museum on Feb. 25, 1981. | KYODO

If a papal visit is confirmed, the government would likely encourage Francis to visit Hiroshima, one of the country’s two atomic-bombed cities. Such a visit would mirror a similar trip John Paul II took in 1981.

Outside of Francis’ tour itinerary, what is the likely significance of his visit today? In order to assess this, it’s first necessary to step back and examine the legacy of his forerunner’s visit 35 years earlier.

John Paul II touched down in foggy conditions at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Feb. 23, 1981. The pontiff had flown in after completing a successful six-day visit to the Philippines and a one-night stopover in Guam — both predominantly Roman Catholic patches of the Asian region.

Back in 1981, just 400,000 of Japan’s 117 million population were Catholic. And compared to the 100,000 that gathered in adulation to greet the pope at Manila Airport the week prior, only 100 believers and a handful of government and church officials turned out at Haneda to welcome the pontiff to Japan.

“There was a spike in interest in his visit — a steep curve of excitement,” recalls Father Javier Garralda, a senior priest at Tokyo’s St. Ignatius Church and former principal of Sophia University’s School of Social Service and Welfare. “(Speaking positively), it was something that anyone could appreciate as an epic event. (On the other hand), the response was a kind of fashion — people joined the ‘trend’ of the excitement prior to his visit. After all the excitement, things returned to normal, much like lather or froth, where bubbles build up quickly … then pop and dissipate shortly after.”

Javier Garralda | MARK JARNES
Javier Garralda | MARK JARNES

Garralda’s soft, dry humor suggests that the country’s media at the time treated John Paul II’s visit the same as if the Dalai Lama had visited Japan: Domestic newspapers led their front pages with headlines on the pontiff’s visit, only to replace them the next day with a new set of eye-catching articles.

However, this didn’t diminish the significance of John Paul II’s visit to this largely nonreligious country, an East Asian nation where most people practiced Buddhism and Shinto out of tradition and ritual than true faith. During his visit, the pontiff was able to reach hundreds of thousands with several carefully interpreted speeches, masses and meetings with the people of Japan.

“I think John Paul II’s visit was a seed that would eventually bloom someday,” Garralda says. “It might not have been a religious one, but a seed nonetheless.”

Garralda, 85, came to Japan in 1958 after studying literature and philosophy in Spain.

“I came to Japan in the same year that Tokyo Tower was built,” he recalls. “When John Paul II came to Japan in 1981, I was a professor of Christian humanism and philosophy at Sophia University. A lot of the other professors were priests, too, especially in the early days. Now there are few Jesuit professors left. I retired 15 years ago.”

John Paul II visited the Sophia campus on the morning of Feb. 25, and Garralda was able to meet His Holiness in person. Speaking to approximately 400 people who were packed into a meeting room on campus, John Paul II said he had two dreams that he wanted to fulfill in Japan: The first was to visit the places where Father Maximilian Kolbe, a priest and missionary, had worked in Nagasaki Prefecture; the second was to visit Sophia University.

“We first heard the news that he was coming around two weeks before his arrival,” Garralda says. “We were ecstatic that he was planning to come to the church and campus — of course, the Catholic priests and teachers were, but others were as well. It was a very moving experience for everyone.”

However, the papal visit to Sophia University had not initially been included in John Paul II’s itinerary.

Greeting the pope at Haneda airport, Archbishop Joseph Pittau, then-president and chancellor of Sophia University, had asked about the likelihood of a visit.

“Your Holiness, everyone at Sophia University is longing for your visit,” Pittau is believed to have said. “However, since it is not on your schedule, I suppose such a visit is not going to be possible.”

“On the contrary,” John Paul II reportedly replied with a laugh, “I am in charge of my own schedule for this visit.”

As a result Pittau and the Metropolitan Police Department hastily organized a visit to one of the country’s most established Catholic educational institutions.

“I think Sophia University is significant to the Catholic community,” Garralda says. “It’s still one of the best schools in the country, so it has a lot of influence. In the beginning, there were a lot of believers among the students, but it has now become a larger institution and is, therefore, less religious.

“However, these days even students who aren’t Catholic have been expressing their concerns about losing Christian humanism from the curriculum. They may not have come to the classes … but they realize the importance of the teachings in the course. People who learn them are planted with a seed that will eventually grow and bloom into something worthwhile in the future.”

John Paul II also visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where he spoke of the horrors of nuclear war, as well as peace.

Popular pontiff: Pope John Paul II addresses a crowd at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on Feb. 25, 1981. | KYODO
Popular pontiff: Pope John Paul II addresses a crowd at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on Feb. 25, 1981. | KYODO

“War is the work of man. War is destruction of human life. War is death,” John Paul II said at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Feb. 25. “Nowhere do these truths impose themselves upon us more forcefully than in this city of Hiroshima. … Together, we recall that it is one of humanity’s sad achievements that all across the face of the Earth the names of very many — too many — places are remembered mainly because they have witnessed the horror and suffering produced by war. … Hiroshima and Nagasaki stand out from all those other places, as the first victims of nuclear war.”

A day later, John Paul II performed a large-scale service at what is now the Tokyo Dome. Garralda handed out communion at the ceremony.

“This was before the dome was installed and it was in the middle of winter,” he recalls. “I gave out communion at the Mass and even was caught on TV cameras at the time. John Paul II was very charismatic — he had a good voice and was good looking, too. That’s not really important, but he was a popular figure partly because of that.”

The current pontiff, Francis, is generally held in high regard by both the Roman Catholic community and other religious movements.

According to an opinion poll conducted this year by WIN/Gallup International that questioned 1,000 people in 64 countries, Francis is more popular than any other political world leader.

The poll pegs him at 11 points ahead of his closest rival, U.S. President Barack Obama, and more than half of the world’s protestants — as well as atheists and agnostics — view him in a positive light.

“Pope Francis’ visit would be good for the Catholic community, but also the Japanese people,” Garralda says. “He is special because of his frankness, and his support and prioritizing of the poor and needy. He’s trying to break away from the stiffness and old-fashioned, lofty nature of the Vatican, although this might ultimately be impossible. Nonetheless, he is a shepherd that leads from among his herd.”

The Vatican has been viewed by many around the world in recent times as supercilious and corrupt, with opaque practices and financial scandals revealed by the “Vatileaks” scandal of 2012.

Compounding the matter, Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi’s 2015 book “Merchants in the Temple” fleshes out the city-state’s cash mismanagement in great detail.

“The Vatican is stiff and aloof — and too rich,” Garralda says. “There are so many poor people in the world, and no one can say that this is a good situation for us as a human race. Francis is trying to cut certain budgets — I would like to see more of that — but his efforts are not being accepted well from within the Vatican.”

Politics — and religion — aside, Francis’ visit to Japan could be a catalyst for change in a country that has increasingly more cultural significance on the world stage.

“Japan has more influence in the world than ever before,” Garralda says. “Even on TV in Spain, there are a number of shows that are related to Japan, so it would be nice to have Japan share its spirit with the world through a papal visit.”

As the number of Catholics in modern-day Japan remains small — around 443,000 in a population of more than 126 million — Garralda believes Francis should adopt a broader perspective during his visit. It would be wrong, he says, for Francis to attempt to preach religious teachings to the predominantly Buddhist and Shinto population.

“Will it be possible to make the pope’s visit to Japan a turning point, not only for Japan but also for the world?” an Asahi Shimbun editorial asked in 1981. This question appears to be just as relevant today as it was then.

“I hope that (Francis) doesn’t come and tell the Japanese people to become Catholic and try to convert everyone, or come and give orders to everyone,” Garralda says. “I want him to come and say, ‘Please don’t make money the center of your world.’ In Japan, money is central to people’s lives. Money settles disputes. I would like him to say that money isn’t everything.

“And (I hope Francis) not only gives his attention to the ‘winning group.’ There are many people in need in Japan, so it would be nice to give the more needy a chance. For example, today at our church we are feeding the homeless. There are still so many of them in Tokyo and Japan, so it would be good to give them more thought and attention.”

People pray for peace at an open-air Mass celebrated by John Paul II at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium on Feb. 24, 1981. | KYODO
People pray for peace at an open-air Mass celebrated by John Paul II at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium on Feb. 24, 1981. | KYODO

Although the percentage of Roman Catholics in Japan hasn’t changed much since 1981, the level of connectivity has. A papal visit could potentially have more repercussions in a time when information over the internet is at its most fluid in history. Garralda hopes that Francis shouldn’t be deterred by a lack of faith in Japan, but urges the pope to think of it as a chance to impart wisdom of a more universal kind.

“Even if there isn’t a large number of believers eagerly listening when Francis comes to Japan, I would like him to speak with confidence to the people,” Garralda says. “It’s not an issue of how many believers there are. Even for people who aren’t Catholic, the lessons are the same. People are too swayed by things such as fashion, politics and money, but what is most important is for one to follow their own heart. Money isn’t everything.”

Should Francis’ stopover next year eventually be set in stone — a spokeswoman from the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See in Tokyo told The Japan Times on Tuesday that a trip to Japan had yet to be officially confirmed — Garralda is convinced the pontiff will once again grace Sophia University and St. Ignatius Church with a visit.

“I want to be there — I probably will,” he says. “He’s a Jesuit, so he’ll probably come to the campus or, at least, certainly the church.”

The Japanese population can be sensitive observers and so when it comes to a topic as delicate as religion, it appears necessary to perform an act such as a papal visit with charm and humility. From what we know to date, it appears that Francis has these attributes, so it will be interesting to see if Japan can appreciate them.

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