The Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis to Thailand and Japan

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Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Pope Francis / Published Date:9 December 2019/Last Updated Date:14 August 2020


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The trip to Thailand and Japan was the 32nd of Francis’ pontificate and the seventh in 2019. He has now visited 51 countries, 11 in 2019 alone. This trip follows previous Asian journeys to Korea in August 2014 for the Asian Youth Day, to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January 2015, and to Myanmar and Bangladesh at the end of 2017, exactly two years ago.

A culture of compassion, fraternity and encounter

The papal flight took off from Fiumicino airport on November 19 at around 7 p.m. and after 11 and a half hours landed the following day at 12:30 p.m. in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.

La Civilta Cattolica

The visit follows the invitation made during the private audience between Francis and then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Rome on September 12, 2013. The motto was significantly: “Christ’s Disciples, Missionary Disciples.” The occasion for the visit of Pope Francis to Bangkok was the 350th anniversary of the apostolate of the Les Missions Étrangères de Paris (Paris Foreign Missions Society) in the Kingdom of Siam. Today, there are about 380,000 Catholics in Thailand, 0.59 percent of the population, out of approximately 69 million inhabitants. They are heirs to this evangelizing tradition and the Church here is structured in 12 dioceses and 436 parishes.

At 9 a.m. on November 21, the pontiff went to Government House, the office of the prime minister. The palace, of Italian design, is a harmonious combination of Venetian Gothic architecture, with reminiscences of Byzantine and Thai styles. Francis was welcomed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, with whom he had a private conversation. Then there was a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps. The prime minister greeted the pope, referring to his “leading role” in the world, “which inspires everyone, beyond their faith and social context of belonging,” on issues of global importance such as social equity, poverty, the environment and peace.

In his speech the pope paid homage to Thailand as a country that is a “splendid guardian of age-old spiritual and cultural traditions,” capable of “building harmony and peaceful coexistence between its numerous ethnic groups” and between “different cultures, religious groups, philosophies and ideas.” This reference to the country was projected onto a global dimension: “Our age is marked by a globalization that is all too often viewed in narrowly economic terms, tending to erase the distinguishing features that shape the beauty and soul of our peoples. Yet the experience of a unity that respects and makes room for diversity serves as an inspiration and incentive for all those concerned about the kind of world we wish to leave to our children.”[1]

Francis then spoke extensively about the phenomenon of migration, “one of the defining signs of our time.” Finally, he referred, as on other occasions during the trip, to “ those women and children of our time, especially those who are wounded, violated and exposed to all forms of exploitation, enslavement, violence and abuse,” urging action to “protect the welfare of our children.”

Next, Francis went to the temple Wat Ratchabophit Sathit Maha Simaram, the historic home of the Thai monks and their Supreme Patriarch, built by King Rama V in 1869. Inside, traditional Thai architecture meets that of the great European Gothic cathedrals, which the king had seen during his travels in Europe. In the middle of a circular courtyard is the Chedi, a 43-metre-high Buddhist monument covered in gold and surmounted by a relic of the Buddha. Patriarch Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong, who has the task of leading the Supreme Council of the Buddhist community, addressed a very warm greeting to the pontiff, saying, among other things: “Your Holiness’ visit today is not that of a new friend but that of a true and confirmed friend of the Thai people.”

This was followed by the greeting of the pope, who placed this meeting within the “path of esteem and mutual recognition begun by our predecessors.” He then recalled that, “when we have the opportunity to recognize and esteem one another in spite of our differences, we offer the world a word of hope capable of encouraging and supporting those who increasingly suffer the harmful effects of conflict.” Thanks to academic exchanges and the exercise of “contemplation, mercy and discernment so common to our traditions,” continued the pope, “we will contribute to the formation of a culture of compassion, fraternity and encounter, both here and in other parts of the world.”

A private conversation between the pope and the patriarch was planned. It was held in public as an extension of greetings and was accompanied by an exchange of gifts. It should be pointed out that the pope gave the patriarch a copy of the Document on Human Fraternity, signed in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2018, accompanied by the words: “We must work together so that our humanity may be more fraternal.

From the monastery, at 11:15 a.m., the pope moved to St. Louis Hospital, a private non-profit institution founded 120 years ago by the then Archbishop Louis Vey, Apostolic Vicar of the Catholic Mission in Siam. In the Auditorium of the hospital there were about 700 people, including doctors, nurses and service staff of the hospital, but also of other Church care centers. The greeting of the director of the facility was followed by the greeting of the Holy Father, who asked the health workers to open themselves to “a mystical fraternity, a contemplative fraternity, capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor.” He affirmed also that a “healing process should rightly be seen as a powerful anointing, capable of restoring human dignity in every situation, a gaze that grants dignity and provides support.” Then Francis went to meet about 40 patients, some of whom came from other care centers.

In the afternoon, the pope went to the Amphorn Royal Palace (“Royal See in Heaven”), the main residence of the King of Thailand. Here took place the private visit to King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X), who was officially crowned on May 4, 2019.[2] The pope was received by His Majesty and Queen Suthida Tidjai.

From the royal palace, the pope then moved to the Rajamangala National Stadium around 5:30 p.m. Here at 6 p.m. he celebrated Mass. In his homily he presented the Gospel as a text “interwoven with questions that attempt to unsettle and stir the heart of the disciples, inviting them to set out.” The first missionaries who arrived in Thailand set out on their way in an attempt to respond to the demands of the Gospel. “Without that encounter between the culture of the country and those missionaries,” continued the pope, “Christianity today would have lacked your face; it would have lacked the songs and dances that portray the Thai smile, so typical in these lands.”

In his homily, Francis felt the need to remind the Thai Church that the missionary disciple knows that evangelization is “opening doors to live and share the merciful and healing embrace of God the Father, which makes us one family.” And this in particular with the weakest, with “those children, girls and women exposed to prostitution and trafficking, disfigured in their most authentic dignity; I think of young people enslaved by drug addiction and a lack of meaning that makes them depressed and destroys their dreams. I think of migrants, deprived of their homes and families, and so many others, who, like them, can feel orphaned, abandoned.”

The essential path of inculturation and roots

On November 22nd at 9 a.m., Francis went to the Shrine of Blessed Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, the first Thai martyr priest. Between 1930 and 1937 he carried out an important missionary activity in the north of the country, in a distant and partly unexplored area. For this purpose he settled in Chiang Mai, city of the “people of the mountains,” on the border with Laos, Myanmar, and close to southern China. In the area there have been successive waves of migration.

The construction of the Shrine of Blessed Nicolas was completed in May 2003. The octagonal shaped building is a modern design, located in front of the parish of St. Peter, where the meeting with priests, religious, seminarians and catechists was held. After songs and the testimony of a nun who came from a Buddhist family, the pope gave his speech.

First of all, he grafted the ideally fertile life of priests and consecrated men and women on to the roots of the past. The call was to be one which inspired the first missionaries to be generative and “fierce fighters for the things that the Lord loves and for which He gave His life.” How? By inculturation. You have to “let the gospel be stripped of its foreign garb.” The pope urged them “not to be afraid to look for new symbols and images, for the particular music that can awaken in Thai people the wonder that the Lord wants to give us. Let us not be afraid to continue inculturating the Gospel.” The purpose of inculturation of the Gospel is to transmit the Word in such a way that it is “capable of stirring and awakening the desire to know the Lord.”

Instead, he had to recognize “with some pain” that for many the Christian faith “is a foreign faith, a religion for foreigners.” We must courageously seek “ways to confess faith ‘in dialect,’ in the way a mother sings a lullaby to her child and give the faith a Thai face and Thai flesh, which involves much more than making translations,” continued Francis, thus taking up his leitmotif, that the language of evangelization is always the mother tongue.

Then the pope went to the Shrine, where he met the members of the Bishops’ Conference of Thailand (CBCT) and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).[3] In a wide-ranging speech, he framed the bishops as pastors who carry the concerns of their people on their shoulders. It is the memory of the first missionaries that will allow us to evaluate how to act. There are ecclesial structures and mentalities, the pope said, “that can go so far as to negatively condition an evangelizing dynamism.” Instead, it is the Holy Spirit “who goes before us and gathers us together. The Holy Spirit is the first to invite the Church to go forth to all those places where new narratives and paradigms are being formed, bringing the word of Jesus to the inmost soul of our cities and cultures. Let us not forget that the Holy Spirit arrives in advance of missionaries and remains with them.” We want to underline these words. They are an appeal to the conversion of the Church to the Holy Spirit who never abandons the world. The missionary is not a conqueror: he humbly follows the passage of the Spirit with pastoral discernment.

The missionaries did not look for lands capable of giving guarantees of success, but on the contrary, they were convinced that “no person and culture was a priori incapable of receiving the seed of life, of happiness and especially of the friendship that the Lord wants to sow in them.” There are no lands that are refractory to the Gospel, which is a gift to “spread among all: doctors of the law, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, all sinners of yesterday as well as today.”

Subsequently, at 11:50 a.m., a private meeting with the Jesuits of Thailand took place, which lasted about 30 minutes.[4] Then in the afternoon, at 3:10 p.m., the pope moved to Chulalongkorn University, the oldest university in Thailand and also the most prestigious, founded in the early 20th century by King Rama VI. In the Auditorium, the pope met with leaders of Christian denominations and other religions. There were 18 of them, all personally greeted by the Holy Father. The official greetings were followed by the pope’s speech. “Long gone are the days when an insular mode of thought could determine an approach to time and space and appear to offer a valid way of resolving conflicts,” he said. The global crisis requires a global and multilateral approach, to which the great religious traditions with their spiritual heritage can make a solid contribution.

On the other hand, globalization undermines local culture and its values. “With the growing tendency to discredit local values and cultures, by imposing a unitary model,” we are witnessing a sort of homogenization that dissolves differences and transforms especially young people “into a new line of malleable goods.” Francis called it a real cultural destruction. Hence the call to discover the living richness of the past, to meet with one’s roots.

At the end, around 4:20 p.m., the pope headed for the Cathedral of the Assumption, a neo-Romanesque building in red brick. Here he celebrated Mass in English in the memory of St. Cecilia with Thai youth. Francis advised them to be “rooted in the faith of our elders: fathers, grandparents, teachers, not to be stuck in the past, but to learn to have the courage that can help us respond to ever new situations.”

The next day, November 23, at 8:45 a.m., Francis transferred to Bangkok’s Military Air Terminal 2 for the farewell ceremony before flying to Tokyo. There were also 11 Thai children to farewell him.

Japan: the parrhesia of testimony

The papal plane landed at Tokyo-Haneda airport at 5:40 p.m.[5] The pope went to the nunciature, where in the refectory he met the members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan (CBCJ), which brings together the bishops of the three metropolitan archdioceses and the 13 suffragan dioceses of Japan. After the welcome speech of its president, Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki, the pope gave his speech, recalling the 470th anniversary of the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in Japan, which marked the beginning of the spread of Christianity in the country. He also recalled the figures of the martyrs Paul Miki, Justus Takayama Ukon and the so-called “hidden Christians.”[6]

Francis highlighted the specific features of the missionary commitment in Japan, a country of 126 million inhabitants, which counts 540,000 Catholics, that is, 0.42 percent of the population: “Faithful sowing, the witness of martyrs and patient expectation of the fruits that the Lord gives in his time, have characterized your apostolic approach to Japanese culture. As a result, over the years you have developed a form of ecclesial presence that is for the most part much appreciated by Japanese society.”

Trust, patience and rhythms not linked to results distinguish an ancient commitment marked “by a powerful search for inculturation and dialogue, which allowed the formation of new models, independent of those developed in Europe.” In particular, Francis noted that, from the beginning, in evangelization “writings, theater, music and all kinds of instruments were used, for the most part in the Japanese language.” This reveals “the love that those first missionaries felt for these lands,” and how indispensable it is to bring the Gospel, because “only that which is loved can be saved. Only that which is embraced can be transformed.” A love that has often resulted in martyrdom in this land. But it is precisely “a martyr Church that can speak with greater freedom, especially in addressing pressing questions of peace and justice in our world.”

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: raising your voice

On Sunday the 24th, at 7:20 a.m., Francis went to the airport to fly to Nagasaki.[7] At 10:15 am, in heavy rain, he arrived at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter, the place of the explosion of the atomic bomb dropped on August 9, 1945, which is located inside Peace Park, whose emblem is the Statue of Prayer for Peace, the work of sculptor Seibo Kitamura. In this context, Francis was able to strongly reaffirm his commitment against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which our magazine has already amply reported.[8]

At the hypocenter of the atomic bomb explosion, the pope was welcomed by the governor and the mayor of Nagasaki. Near the podium, two victims offered flowers to the Holy Father, who placed them at the foot of the monument. Then Francis lit a candle and spent some time in prayer. He delivered a strong message. His starting point was “one of the deepest longings of the human heart,” which is “the desire for peace and stability.” But what is the best answer to this desire? The answer was clear: it is not possible to guarantee peace and stability on the basis of “a false sense of security sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust, one that ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any form of dialogue.” Peace and international stability, said the pope, “can be achieved only on the basis of a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility among the whole human family of today and tomorrow.” And so we must “speak out against the arms race.” And in his support Francis also brought the voice of his predecessors: Pacem in Terris of Saint John XXIII and Populorum Progressio of Saint Paul VI.

The “climate of distrust” risks jeopardizing the “dismantling of the international arms control framework.” Added to this is “an erosion of multilateralism,” a very serious matter in a time of strong development of new weapons technologies. For this reason the pontiff expressed his support for the “principal international legal instruments for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, including the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.” And he recalled that “last July the bishops of Japan launched an appeal for the abolition of nuclear arms.”[9]

At 10:35 a.m. the pope went to Nishizaka Hill, the place where, on February 5, 1597, St. Paul Miki – a Jesuit and the first Japanese Catholic religious – and 25 companions were executed, by order of Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. They were canonized by Pius IX in 1862. Their death marks the beginning of a long period of two centuries of harsh anti-Christian persecution in Japan. A red brick monument was erected on the same site in 1962, which displays the life-size bronze statues of the 26 martyrs set in a cross. The place, which overlooks the Oura Cathedral, which is also dedicated to the martyrs, has been designated the Japanese National Sanctuary.

Behind the monument is the Museum of Martyrs, which houses the history of Christianity in Nagasaki. The pope went there. A family offered him flowers, which he then laid in front of the memorial. Then he lit a candle that had been given to him by a descendant of persecuted Christians and paused in silent prayer. He then incensed the relics and said a greeting, in which he defined the place as a “monument to Easter,” because “it proclaims that the last word belongs not to death but to life.” He also made a personal reference, almost a confession: “I have come to this monument of the martyrs to pay homage to these holy men and women. But I also come in humility, as one who himself, as a young Jesuit from ‘the ends of the earth,’ found powerful inspiration in the story of the early missionaries and the Japanese martyrs.” It must be remembered that Pope Francis was always very impressed by the experience of the “hidden Christians”[10] of which he spoke shortly after his election, on April 17, 2013, at Casa Santa Marta.[11]

The message that Francis wanted to give from here is very clear and requires – once again – that we “raise our voices.” And the message is as follows: “Religious freedom must be guaranteed for everyone in every part of our world.” He added: “Let us also condemn the manipulation of religions ‘through policies of extremism and division, by systems of unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women’ (Document on Human Fraternity, Abu Dhabi, February 4, 2019).” It is very significant that the pope quoted here the Abu Dhabi document, because it confirms the desire to open the discourse on human fraternity in the East. He had already done so by giving the Buddhist Patriarch of Bangkok a copy of the document, and he would do so again at the end of the journey. After his greeting, the pope recited the Angelus.

After lunch at the residence of the archbishop,[12] at 1:20 the pope moved to the stadium. Here he celebrated the Mass of the Solemnity of Christ the King. His homily was another occasion to ask us to “raise our voices”: “Nagasaki bears in its soul a wound difficult to heal, a scar born of the incomprehensible suffering endured by so many innocent victims of wars past and those of the present, when a third World War is being waged piecemeal. Let us lift our voices here and pray together for all those who even now are suffering in their flesh from this sin that cries out to heaven.”

At the end of the Mass, he went to Nagasaki airport to fly to Hiroshima, where he landed at 5:45 p.m. From here he went to the Memorial Park of Peace, which stands in the place where the atomic bomb exploded on August 6, 1945, built in 1954 to a design by architect Kenzo Tange. It is a large area of over 120,000 square meters with green spaces, various monuments and commemorative structures. The symbol of the Park is the Genbaku Dome. The building with a characteristic dome, located on the bank of the River Motoyasu, heavily damaged by the explosion but not totally destroyed, has never been restored, to recall the damage left by the bomb. Since 1996 it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At the Memorial, a Meeting for Peace was held in the presence of about 1,300 people. In the dark, in an atmosphere of silence, with the Genbaku Dome in the background, the pope, after signing the Book of Honor, greeted 20 religious leaders and, subsequently, the victims present. Two of them offered him flowers, which he laid before the Memorial. Following this, the “ambassador of peace” offered a candle, and a bell rang out, followed by a silent prayer, shared by all the participants in the form of Mokutò, a minute of reflection and meditation in which everyone – believers of various faiths and non-believers – can share. Twenty-two survivors of the bombing were invited to participate: all are members of the Hibakushya association. Two testimonials were given.

Then the pope addressed his message, beginning: “God of mercy and Lord of history, to you we lift up our eyes from this place, where death and life have met, loss and rebirth, suffering and compassion. Here, in an incandescent burst of lightning and fire, so many men and women, so many dreams and hopes, disappeared, leaving behind only shadows and silence. In barely an instant, everything was devoured by a black hole of destruction and death. From that abyss of silence, we continue even today to hear the cries of those who are no longer.”

The pontiff did not fail to point out that the victims “came from different places, had different names, some spoke different languages.” It was not just a Japanese tragedy. That bomb, as one of the testimonial witnesses said, was dropped on the whole of humanity.

Francis went on: “With deep conviction I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral, as I already said two years ago. We will be judged on this. Future generations will rise to condemn our failure if we spoke of peace but did not act to bring it about among the peoples of the earth. How can we speak of peace even as we build terrifying new weapons of war? How can we speak about peace even as we justify illegitimate actions by speeches filled with discrimination and hate?”

The decision to condemn the possession and not only the use of nuclear weapons follows what Francis had already said on November 10, 2017.[13] The context of the appeal, however, has now made the message stronger and more direct, defining the “immorality” of possession. “How can we propose peace if we constantly invoke the threat of nuclear war as a legitimate recourse for the resolution of conflicts?”

After the ceremony, the pope headed to Hiroshima airport to return to Tokyo.

From the ‘triple disaster’ to the call for the future

On Monday November 25th, at 9:50 a.m., the pope moved to the Bellesalle Hanzomon, an important conference center. Here he met the victims of the magnitude 9 earthquake that generated the tsunami and the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011. According to Caritas Japan, there were 19,689 victims and 2,563 missing. In addition to these deaths, 3,723 people have lost their lives in the last eight years due to the poor living conditions of refugees. Some people have committed suicide because of depression, loss of hope and loneliness.

Let us remember that at that time Benedict XVI, in his speech to the diplomatic corps in 2012, said that we cannot forget the serious natural disasters that have affected various areas of Southeast Asia, and environmental disasters such as that of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Japanese bishops had asked the government to eliminate nuclear power stations and to look for new sources of renewable energy.[14] Environmental protection and the synergy between the fight against poverty and the fight against climate change are important areas for the promotion of integral human development. Francis continues on this path of reflection. The link with the general theme of the journey and the connection between the meeting with the victims of Fukushima and the message of the encyclical Laudato Si’ is very clear.

The pope was received at the Bellesalle Hanzomon by the Archbishop of Tokyo and the Bishop of Sendai, the diocese most affected by the threefold disaster. There were 300 victims present. Francis greeted 10 of them personally. Three witnesses told of their experiences. In his speech the pontiff made a broad appeal to seek shared and global solutions: “We need to work together to foster awareness that if one member of our family suffers, we all suffer. Real interconnectedness will not come about unless we cultivate the wisdom of togetherness, the only wisdom capable of facing problems (and solutions) in a global way. We are part of one another.”

Francis also clearly understood that the disasters brought with them a sense of stigma and rejection of the victims as if they were people to be discarded, to be removed because they were contaminated by the disaster: “Until social bonds in local communities are re-established, and people can once more enjoy safe and stable lives, the Fukushima accident will not be fully resolved.” To this appeal was added the support of the bishops of Japan, who “have asked for the abolition of nuclear power plants.” There was a strong appeal to think about the future, to be responsible for the legacy that “we want to leave to those who will come after us.”

At 10:50 a.m. the pope went to the Imperial Palace, located near the Central Station, on the same area where the Castle of Edo once stood, home of the Shogun of the Tokugawa family, who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. Emperor Naruhito welcomed the pontiff at the entrance to the Palace. His accession to the throne took place on May 1, 2019. On October 22, 2019, the day of the official coronation ceremony, he was proclaimed 126th Emperor of the Rising Sun. The encounter with the Emperor was the encounter with the heart and soul of the Nation. The Japanese people love the Emperor, feel him close especially in the most difficult moments, consider him the symbol of their land.[15]

After this meeting, the pope moved to the Cathedral of Santa Maria, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Designed by architect Kenzo Tange and inaugurated in 1964, it has a modern structure consisting of eight curved walls with a dynamic shape. Inside the cathedral Francis met the young people, who welcomed him with great enthusiasm. Young people of all social and religious backgrounds were gathered together. Among them were migrants.

After the testimonies of three young people – a Catholic, a Buddhist and a migrant – and a song, the Holy Father delivered a speech. “As I look out at you, I can see the cultural and religious diversity of the young people living in Japan today, and also something of the beauty that your generation holds for the future. Your friendship with one another and your presence here remind everyone that the future is not monochrome; if we are courageous, we can contemplate it in all the variety and diversity of what each individual person has to offer.”

In his speech the pope kept Japanese society well in mind. Secular traditions are intertwined with technological modernity. One has the impression of a country that lives at a frenetic pace and without frequent opportunities for interaction. The phenomenon of bullying emerges, a sign of the weakness and fragility of those who inflict it. And it is also a clear sign of the growth, within society, of fear: just as it shapes international relations, it also shapes communal living. On the other hand, the phenomenon of young hikomores, who lock themselves up at home for years, is well known. Relationships are based on the computer and the mobile phone: “We have invented all sorts of gadgets, but we still can’t take selfies of the soul. Thank God! Because to be happy, we need to ask others to help us, to have the photo taken by someone else. We need to go out of ourselves toward others, especially those most in need,” said Francis.

The growing inner emptiness, especially in the younger generations, is an appeal to the Church’s commitment: “More and more we see that a person, a community or even a whole society can be highly developed on the outside, but have an interior life that is impoverished and underdeveloped, lacking real life and vitality; they seem like ready-made dolls that have nothing inside. Everything bores them; there are young people who do not dream.” We need to rebuild a living social fabric and family life that do not succumb to the excessive competitiveness of the economic and social system. And it is necessary to maintain a sense of research, of inner vitality: “A wise teacher once said that the key to growing in wisdom is not so much finding the right answers but discovering the right questions to ask.”

In the afternoon, at 3:20 p.m., the pope moved to the Tokyo Dome, a multi-purpose stadium that was able to hold only 50,000 of the people who had requested to participate in the Eucharist. Here he celebrated Mass. In his homily, he took up the themes of the previous meeting, indicating decisively a perspective of faith: “In Jesus, we encounter the summit of what it means to be human; he shows us the way that leads to a fulfillment exceeding all our hopes and expectations.” And the Church itself must be “a field hospital, prepared to heal the wounds” that are found in society.

After Mass, Francis went to the Sōri-daijin Kantei, a complex within which are located the offices of the Cabinet of Government. Here he met Prime Minister Shinzō Abe privately. The meeting with the authorities and the diplomatic corps followed. After the prime minister’s greeting, the pope delivered his speech, expressing “esteem and admiration” for Japan, recalling the words of the famous Jesuit Alessandro Valignano who, in 1579, wrote: “Whoever wants to see what our Lord has given us should come and see it in Japan.”

Francis resumed the nuclear theme, which he said should be addressed “on the multilateral plane, promoting a political and institutional process capable of creating a broader international consensus and action.” Multilateralism, as is well understood, is a key point in a world in which, according to Francis, global problems must be tackled. A truly just and human society is one that recognizes a fundamental human brotherhood. It is significant that also on this occasion the pope quoted once again the Document on Human Fraternity, signed last February: “Our shared concern for the future of the human family impels us to the ‘adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.’” Another key point of Francis’ speech to the authorities was introduced by the image of cherry blossoms. Their “delicacy” reminds us of “the fragility of our common home, subject not only to natural disasters but also to greed, exploitation and devastation at the hands of human beings.”

On Tuesday, November 26, at 7:30 a.m., the pope went to Sophia University, a Catholic university founded by the Society of Jesus in 1913. We recall that on October 18, 2017, the pope held a videoconference conversation with a group of 700 students from the University, who asked him various questions live. The pope celebrated Mass with the Jesuits in private.[16] He then had breakfast with them in the refectory of the community and then met the elderly and sick priests, including Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 2008 to 2016.

Afterward, Francis visited the university, going to the Auditorium. Among other things, he observed that, despite the efficiency and order that characterize Japanese society, he has sensed “a yearning, too, for something greater: a profound desire to create an ever more humane, more compassionate, more merciful society.” The university, with 29 departments in nine faculties and exchanges with about 300 universities in 59 countries, is currently considered to be among the best Japanese universities. The teaching staff consists of about 1,400 professors from 21 countries. The pope stressed that “since its foundation, the University has been enriched by the presence of professors from different countries, sometimes even from countries in conflict with one another.” This bridging role is one of the focal points of the mission of the academic institution, which at every level “should always be open to creating an archipelago capable of connecting what can be considered socially and culturally separate.”

At the end of the meeting the pope went to the airport of Tokyo-Haneda. Around 11:35 a.m., after the farewell ceremony, the papal flight took off for Rome Fiumicino airport, where it landed around 4:30 p.m.


[1]. The italics within the quotations of the pope’s speeches are ours.

[2]. Cf. M. Kelly, “Thailand” in Civ. Catt. 2019 IV 269-276.

[3]. The CBCT is composed of the bishops of the two archdioceses and nine suffragan dioceses of the country. Its current president is Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, Archbishop of Bangkok. The Thai Bishops’ Conference is a member of the Federation of Bishops’ Conferences of Asia, which brings together the ordinaries of the Bishops’ Conferences of South, South-East, East and Central Asia, based in Hong Kong. It has 19 members. Its current president is Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar.

[4]. The text of the conversation is published here: https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/our-little-path-pope-francis-with-the-jesuits-in-thailand-and-japan/

[5]. The pope was invited to visit Japan by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in June 2014. On January 23, 2019, Pope Francis announced his trip to Japan on the flight to Panama for the celebration of the 34th World Youth Day. This was the second trip of a pope to Japan, after that of John Paul II in February 1981.

[6]. Cf. T. Witwer, “Justus Takayama Ukon. The Great Japanese Missionary of the Sixteenth Century” in La Civiltà Cattolica English Edition laciviltacattolica.com/justus-takayama-ukon-great-japanese-missionary-sixteenth-century/; R. De Luca, “The discovery of the “hidden Christians” of Japan” in La Civiltà Cattolica English Edition laciviltacattolica.com/the-discovery-of-the-hidden-christians-of-japan.

[7]. On May 2, 2018, Tomihisa Taue, mayor of Nagasaki, sent a letter to Pope Francis signed by him and the mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, inviting him to their two cities, which were the target of the atomic bombs in August 1945.

[8]. Cf. D. Christiansen, “The Church’s “no” to nuclear weapons. Moral and pastoral implications” in La Civ. Catt. English Edition laciviltacattolica.com/the-church-says-no-to-nuclear-weapons-pastoral-and-moral-implications/  Id., “Time for the Abolition of Nuclear Arms” in ibid. 2019 IV 156-162.

[9]. Cf. www.cbcj.catholic.jp/2019/07/18/19260/ It is worth remembering that in January 2018 Francis released a heartbreaking photograph, taken in 1945 in Nagasaki, depicting a young Japanese boy with his dead brother in his arms. While the final song was being sung, the pope greeted the son of the photographer who took that photograph, asymbol of the atomic explosion.

[10]. Cf. R. De Luca, “The discovery of the ‘hidden Christians’ of Japan” op. cit.

[11]. On that occasion Francis expressed his admiration for the testimony offered by the Japanese Church, which remained alive despite the persecution suffered between the 16th and 17th centuries. He also recalled that testimony in the General Audience of January 15, 2014, and then met the Japanese bishops in 2015.

[12]. Before getting into the car to go to the archbishop’s residence, the pope was offered an image of Blessed Julian Nakamura (1568-1633), who in 1858 took part, along with three other young people, at the behest of some feudal lords who had converted to Christianity, in a historic diplomatic mission to Rome. He later became a priest of the Society of Jesus, and during the persecution of Christians Julian died a martyr. He was beatified in Nagasaki on November 23, 2008, together with 187 other Japanese martyrs.

[13]. This is the speech that the pope gave to the participants in the Conference, entitled “Perspectives for a world free of nuclear weapons and for integral disarmament.” On that occasion Francis said: “We cannot help but feel a lively sense of unease if we consider the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that derive from any use of nuclear devices. Therefore, even considering the risk of accidental detonation of such weapons by mistake of any kind, the threat of their use and their very possession must be strongly condemned, precisely because their existence is related to a logic of fear, which concerns not only the parties to the conflict, but the entire human race.”

[14]. Cf. www.cbcy.catholic.jp/2011/11/08/10367

[15]. Cf. G. Sale, “Japan in the New Imperial Era ‘Reiwa’” in Civ. Catt.

[16]. The text of the homily is available here: laciviltacattolica.com/our-little-path-pope-francis-with-the-jesuits-in-thailand-and-japan/