ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE - Pope Francis announced Wednesday he will visit Japan in November, becoming the first pontiff to do so since John Paul II nearly 40 years ago.
“I will go to Japan in November,” he said on board the papal plane bringing him to Panama for a gathering of young Catholics.
The Argentine pontiff has repeatedly voiced a desire to visit Japan, home to some 450,000 Roman Catholics, and around 510,000 Protestants.
Francis has long expressed his admiration for Japanese culture and history, and famously had hoped to become a missionary in Japan after he was ordained a priest. His superiors dashed his hopes, however, citing his frail health at the time.
But during his five-year papacy he has repeatedly spoken in admiration of the missionary work carried out by his Jesuit order to bring Christianity to Japan in the 16th century, and of the martyrs who suffered from the anti-Christian persecution that ensued.
Any papal visit to Japan would certainly include a visit to the 26 Martyrs Museum and Monument in Nagasaki at the site where 26 Christians were killed in 1597.
Visiting Nagasaki would also allow Francis to draw attention to its devastating atomic legacy.
In January last year, Francis issued a harrowing photograph taken in 1945 showing a young Japanese boy carrying his dead brother. The child, carried on the boy’s back, was killed when the United States dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki.
Francis, who has often spoken of the dangers of nuclear weapons, had written just four words on the back of the image: “The fruit of war.”
The mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have reportedly asked Francis to visit to encourage the survivors. And Japan’s bishops have been urging him to visit since he was elected, in part to honor the “hidden Christians” who kept the faith alive during decades of persecution.
Jesuit missionaries first began spreading Christianity in Japan in 1549, famously led by St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of Francis’ Jesuit order. By 1585 Christianity had spread so much that a delegation of four young Japanese Catholics traveled halfway around the globe to participate in the festivities of the election of Pope Sixtus V in Rome.
The pope has made two trips to Asia since his election five years ago, visiting the Philippines and Sri Lanka in 2014, followed by Myanmar and Bangladesh last year.