The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Japan, Tragedy, and the Sacred Heart

Back in my Navy days, I visited Japan on a number of occasions and spent a total of perhaps 40 days in the country. During these visits I did many of the touristy things that most visitors do. I took advantage of some of the tours offered by the Navy and saw the sights in Osaka, Kamakura, Yokosuka, Tokyo, Sasebo, and Nagasaki. I also visited castles and museums and absorbed a bit of the nation's long and varied history. When I wasn't on a tour I spent much of my free time simply wandering around whatever area in which I happened to find myself. I took lots of pictures, strolled through marketplaces and shops, bravely sampled some (only some) of the food, enjoyed the regional beers and an occasional cup of sake, and tried to engage the locals in conversation. Despite my constant use of a handy Japanese phrase book and a form of sign language developed on the fly, the language barrier prevented all but the most basic communication. I was surprised, though, at the general willingness of the people I encountered to try to communicate with this lone American. As in most countries, I found the folks in Japan's rural areas to be friendlier and more hospitable than the city people. There were, however, exceptions.

On one visit, back in the mid-70s, I spent almost two weeks in Sasebo while our ship was having some work done at the naval base. Sasebo is a mid-sized city in southwest corner of the country surrounded by some of Japan's most scenic countryside. It's only about 50 miles south of Nagasaki where the second atomic bomb was dropped back in 1945.

Early one Sunday morning I left the ship and went in search of a Catholic church. I could have attended the scheduled Sunday Mass at the naval base chapel, but thought it might be interesting to experience Mass in a Japanese church. Although there are less than a million Catholics in Japan, many of them live in the Nagasaki Prefecture in which Sasebo is located. I had been told that there were several churches in the area and had received some vague directions which I hoped would take me to one of the churches in time for Mass. After a half-hour of more or less aimless wandering, I finally decided it might be wise to ask for directions.

There weren't too many people walking the streets early on a Sunday morning, but I eventually overtook a well-dressed older man, bowed, and, using my phrase book, tried to ask for directions. He returned my bow and smiled one of those I-didn't-understand-a-word-you-said smiles. And so I stuffed the phrase book in my pocket and tried my sign language. Describing a Catholic church in Japan using only hand signs isn't as easy as you might think. Finally, as a result of divine inspiration, I simply made the Sign of the Cross and placed my hands together as if in prayer. He smiled and said, "Hai! Hai!", and then motioned me to accompany him.

It didn't take long to see that I'd been walking in the wrong direction. For the next 15 minutes the two of us walked alongside each other at a brisk pace as my companion led me through the streets of Sasebo. While we walked he provided a non-stop commentary in Japanese, pointing out various buildings and other presumably interesting things along the way. Of course, I didn't understand anything and simply nodded and smiled because it seemed the polite thing to do.

The Miura Catholic Church (Sasebo)
Finally, he pointed ahead and said something that sounded a bit like, "Jesus", but not quite. And that's when I saw this beautiful Catholic Church on top of a hill with steps leading up from the street. The church had been painted black during Word War II to make it less of a bombing target. In recent years it has been repainted in its original colors. (See photo at left.) 

My guide seemed genuinely thrilled that he had been able to take me to the church, and so I thanked him profusely using one of the few Japanese phrases I actually knew. After exchanging another bow with him, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my wallet. I suppose he thought I planned to pay him for his help, because he shook his head rather violently, apparently insulted. But I just continued to smile and pulled a laminated card out of my wallet. The card depicted the Sacred Heart of Jesus and included an attached medal. (A Navy chaplain in Hawaii had given it to me a few months earlier.) I thanked my Japanese guide once again and held the card out to him, hoping he would accept it. He did. He turned it over in his hands, looked intently at the picture of Jesus, and fingered the medal as if it were a holy relic. Once again, resorting to my sign language, I asked if he, too, were Catholic. (I simply made the Sign of the Cross and pointed to him.) It took a moment but he finally understood what I was asking and shook his head. 

And so we said our Sayonaras and I began the long climb up the steps to the church. When I reached the top I turned around and glanced back at the street far below. My new-found friend was still standing there, holding the holy card in his hand. He waved. I waved. And I entered the church just five minutes before Mass began.
The Miura Catholic Church in Sasebo as it appeared at the end of WW2, before the construction of neighboring buildings. Note the wartime black coloring.
I've always wondered about that man and the holy card I gave him. I'm guessing he was in his 50s at the time, and might well have been a veteran of World War II. Some of the older Japanese I encountered back then, those who had lived through the war, were not always friendly toward Americans, especially American servicemen. I could certainly understand their feelings. After all, they were not personally responsible for the war and had suffered much during those years. And so, when I came across such people, I usually just smiled and moved on. But this man in Sasebo had actually gone out of his way to help me. Perhaps he was simply talking his Sunday morning walk, and so it mattered little to him which way he went. But he had shown me a true kindness nevertheless. As a result, whenever I think of the Catholics of Japan, I think of him, who was not a Catholic. And given the tragedy that struck his country this month, he's  crossed my mind on several occasions during the past few weeks.

Of course, Catholics are a rarity in Japan. Religiously, the country is unique. Although most Japanese are vaguely connected to various forms of  Buddhism and Shinto, the vast majority claim no actual religious belief. According to many recent studies, most Japanese do not even believe in God (or Buddha), even though a slightly smaller majority practice Shinto. From our Western perspective, then, the religion of most Japanese is a confusing mixture of Shinto's mythological nature worship, combined with some Buddhism and atheism. They are, however,  a religiously tolerant people and allow religious freedom. And surprisingly, in the past 100 years or so, Japan has had three Catholic prime ministers.

Although the number of Christians has been growing in Japan since World War II, they still represent only a tiny percentage of the population. Despite this, I've long thought the Japanese, who seem to be even more materialistic than Americans and Europeans, are ripe for Christian evangelization. I base this belief on two things: my 35-year-old sample of one Japanese man who seemed enthralled by a holy card depicting the Sacred Heart; and the fact that materialism never satisfies and always leads to a search for that which does.

The combined tragedy of earthquake and tsunami and possible nuclear catastrophe is not something one wishes on any people. But one thing it makes clear is how powerless we humans really are. Just when we begin to believe our technology can control what God has created, we are taught a hard lesson in humility. I don't know enough about the Japanese people and their culture to make any hard and fast predictions, but I hope and pray they will come to know and accept the love and mercy of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just maybe they will see their salvation in the face of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Oh, yes, the Mass I attended in the Sasebo church was wonderful. Although everything was in Japanese, I could follow the liturgy using the the Sunday Missal I had brought with me. The only thing I couldn't follow was the homily, which was actually quite long by our standards. I've included a photo of the church's interior below. It was taken recently and shows a somewhat different interior than the one I remember. I suspect the church has undergone a renovation or two since my visit.

The Miura Catholic Church interior as it is today
Let me close with a prayer for Japan and its people that I came across this morning on the website, Pray Tell:
We approach the Father in confidence and pray...
that all the lives that have been lost may find their eternal rest in You

that those grieving the loss of loved ones, especially their children, and the loss of entire families and communities, may find glimpses of hope and life

that those injured and those fighting for their lives may find solace, hope, and healing

that a nuclear catastrophe may be averted

that those searching for loved ones may be sustained in their turmoil and struggle

that those waiting for water, food, and the basic necessities of life may be able to strengthen each other and share meager resources

that those who are especially vulnerable – the children, the elderly, the women waiting to give birth, the sick – may find others to care for them

for all aid workers, that they may discover within themselves deep reservoirs of strength, generosity, and compassion

for the rising up of human beings who know how to heal, to restore, to rebuild, and to birth anew life and hope

for ourselves, that our lives may be strengthened in their witness to God’s holy and ever-healing presence

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