Pope Francis’ trip to Japan this weekend might fulfill a wish he gave up on decades ago as a young man in South America.
The 82-year-old pontiff is set to start a four-day tour Saturday, visiting Nagasaki and Hiroshima on Sunday, followed by Mass at Tokyo Dome on Monday. He will be the first pontiff to visit in 38 years, following St. John Paul II in 1981.
Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was 21 when he contracted pneumonia. He was in critical condition for three days, barely surviving surgery to remove part of his right lung.
This painful experience apparently deepened his faith in God. The disease, however, also forced him to give up on his aspiration as a young Jesuit in Argentina to be dispatched as a missionary to Japan.
Bergoglio’s request was rejected because of health concerns caused by his considerable loss of lung function after the operation.
“For a member of the Society of Jesus, it is very natural to have such aspirations” to go to Japan, explained Toshihiro Sakai, auxiliary bishop of the Osaka Archdiocese, during a recent interview in Tokyo.
“Japan is a very interesting place when you think about the history of (Catholicism),” he said.
Pope Francis is the first pope ever selected from the Society of Jesus, a Catholic order that sent pioneer missionaries to Japan and other parts of Asia in 16th century. Jesuits are bound by oath not to seek higher office in the Roman Catholic Church, which made his appointment all the more surprising.
Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by missionary Francis Xavier, one of the society’s seven founding members. His achievements are widely taught in Japanese history classes. Pope Francis is the first non-European pope in about 1,600 years and the first Jesuit ever given the role.
Baptisms began rising drastically after Xavier’s arrival, and Japan had an estimated 300,000 Christians by the early 17th century.
At first, the Tokugawa shogunate allowed the Jesuit missionaries to continue trading with the Portuguese merchants who frequented its ports. But in 1614 it banned Christianity and began a massive persecution of Christians throughout Japan.
Many survivors, especially in Kyushu, hid their religious beliefs but secretly continued practicing their faith until the late 19th century, when Japan finally ended more than 210 years of seclusion.
After touching down in Tokyo on Saturday evening, Pope Francis will head to Nagasaki on Sunday morning to deliver a peace message, according to the Roman Catholic Church. He will then visit a monument to 26 martyrs who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 at the order of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Nagasaki, one of the main bases for missionaries in the 17th century, was also the place where a group of Japanese “hidden Christians” revealed themselves to a French priest in 1865. Their “rediscovery” over 250 years later is widely considered a miracle by Catholics worldwide. But nostalgia is not the only reason why Francis is visiting the city.
One of the primary purposes of his visit is to send a strong message from Nagasaki and Hiroshima calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The two cities are the only ones in the world attacked by atomic bombs.
“The theme chosen for my visit is ‘Protect all Life.’ This strong instinct that (resonates) in our heart, to defend the value and dignity of all human persons, it takes (on) special importance in front of the threats to the peaceful coexistence that in the present moment the world has to face, especially the armed conflicts,” Francis said in a video message to Japan released earlier this week.
“Your country knows very well the sufferings caused by wars. Together with all of you, I pray that the destructive power of nuclear weapons is never used again in human history. It is immoral to use nuclear weapons.”
Francis is a strong advocate of banning nuclear weapons.
In 2017 he argued that they shouldn’t even be stockpiled for deterrence, going further than any of his predecessors did.
“From his viewpoint, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the starting points” of the anti-nuclear movement, said Kagefumi Ueno, Japan’s former ambassador to the Vatican, during a briefing Nov. 9 at the Foreign Press Center of Japan.
“It seems he believes it is his duty to send out a strong message from the two cities while he is still in good health,” Ueno said.
While Japan has emphasized its unique status as the only nation to have been attacked with atomic weapons, it relies on the nuclear umbrella of the United States as a deterrent against other nuclear states, such as North Korea.
Ueno, echoing other experts, pointed out that the Catholic population in Japan is very small, describing it as “just a peanut” for the Vatican.
According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan, the 440,000 or so registered Catholics here accounted for only 0.345 percent of Japan’s population last year.
But Pope Francis has a reason to focus more on non-European countries.
When Ueno was ambassador to the Vatican from 2006 to 2010, Vatican officials were relatively “Euro-centric” and not very interested in Asia, he said. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’ predecessor, did not visit any Asian countries during his eight-year reign, according to Ueno.
More recently, however, experts say low birthrates and the continuing scandals in the Catholic Church, including the sexual abuse of children, appear to have slowed growth of the church’s population in Europe, while its populations in Africa and Asia are rising dramatically.
According to the U.S.-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the population of Catholics worldwide grew 57 percent to 1.2 billion between 1980 and 2012. But a breakdown by region shows that while the church’s population in Europe edged up 6 percent to 286.9 million in that time, its population in Asia more than doubled to 134.6 million, and its population in Africa tripled to 198.6 million.
With this trend apparently in mind, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere has argued the church should shift its focus “from the North to the South,” Ueno said.
“Likewise, personnel appointments at the Vatican have undergone significant changes. Simply put, the ratio of cardinals from Asia and Central and South America has increased, while that of Italian cardinals has decreased,” he said.
“His visit to Japan this time is happening in that context,” Ueno explained.
The pope has already visited Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and South Korea. This time he will come to Japan after visiting Thailand.
Francis also said he hoped to visit South Sudan next year. He became the first pope ever to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula when he visited the United Arab Emirates in February.
Compared with his predecessors, Francis is often considered more liberal and open to dialogue with those of different religions and values. He is also known for his austerity. While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in a rented apartment instead of the official residence offered to someone of this position. He also cooked his own meals and took the bus when traveling.
Sakai, who briefly met Francis twice at the Vatican, described him as a “very approachable” person.
During an audience with the pope in September last year, he asked the pontiff to give him a hug “for the sake of the whole Japanese people.” Francis happily responded, Sakai recalled.
Sakai made the request because he knew Pope Francis loves to have casual contact with ordinary people.
“He always talks about environmental issues and his anti-war, anti-nuclear weapon stance. His messages are very strong because he often talks about contemporary issues,” Sakai said.