Jesuits in Japan on Saturday hailed the election of a new leader for the Roman Catholic order that brought Christianity to Japan and is seen as the modern-day church’s most effective missionary force worldwide.

Jesuit leaders meeting in Rome elected for the first time a non-European to head the 16,700-strong team of priests and novices who serve as teachers, lawyers and supporters of the downtrodden in Japan and throughout the world.

The Rev. Arturo Sosa, a Venezuelan, takes the reins of the Society of Jesus at a time when Pope Francis, the first-ever Jesuit pope, has been reshaping church relations with non-Catholics and the economically marginalized.

At Jesuit headquarters in Tokyo’s Yotsuya neighborhood on Saturday, priests expressed enthusiasm for the choice.

“I was very happy to hear the news,” said the Rev. Javier Garralda. “I hope he will get along very well with the pope. They are both South American, so they speak the same language and will have good dialogue.”

The first Jesuits arrived in Japan in about 1549, where they applied their renowned ability to adapt to local cultures and established missions under the shoguns and warlords of that era.

But Japan’s initial warm reception of Christianity swung into brutal suppression. The Jesuits also suffered in Europe, where their preference to operate on the margins of church structures provoked envy and suspicion.

Today, there are 200 Jesuit priests based in Japan, the majority of them Japanese. They minister to parishes and run the flagship Sophia University in Tokyo and Elisabeth University of Music in Hiroshima.

In Tokyo, they also work closely with undocumented migrants, among them Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Africans. Many are lured to Japan for nebulous jobs in bars or factories and years later are left helpless when their papers expire and they have children to support.

The Jesuit mission in Yotsuya operates a migrants’ center that gives legal help and advice for those in trouble before they are snared by the immigration service.

In a report in June, the center’s director compared some of Japan’s migrants to modern-day slaves, adding that they likely outnumber Japanese at the bottom of the heap.

“Our experience at this migrant desk leads us to believe that the majority of such modern slaves are foreign workers living and working in Japan,” the Rev. Isamu Ando wrote in the report. “What interests Japan, Taiwan or (South) Korea is simply cheap young labor. Foreign workers can remain temporarily, but they will have to go back and new ones will replace them.”

Observers say this concern for people in real-world situations is a hallmark of the Jesuits in Japan and elsewhere. They typically shun parish-centered missions and see learning the local language and adapting to cultures in Asia, Africa or Latin America as the way to live their Christian calling.

“Recognition of the human dignity of migrant workers and their families and respect for their human rights are dynamic forces that strengthen our network and offer testimony to our Christian values in non-Christian environments,” Ando wrote.

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