Japan: keeping alive the flame of hope

Bishop Hiraga of Sendai is worried - and exhausted. His diocese has taken the brunt of the recent earthquake, tsunami and potential nuclear disaster. He told Missio: "The situation is very difficult. We are not yet able to comprehend the enormity of the disaster. The news is fragmented. My diocese is very large and covers four civil prefectures, over 500 km of coast, in the North of the Island of Honshu, the largest Japanese island. The tsunami affected over 300 km of coastline. In the prefecture of Aamori two parishes were affected, four in Iwate, another two in Miyagi and two in Fukushima. We still do not know how many people have died, how many have been displaced and how many are missing. And of these we have no idea how many are Catholics.

"Given the uncertainty, it is still difficult to say what can be done to help. The people are exhausted and disorientated. The emotional and financial impact on society is enormous. Helpers and volunteers are arriving from all over Japan. We need unity and goodwill from everyone. We Catholics in the Diocese of Sendai are few more than 10,000, a little flock. However, we continue to pray for the victims and we will do everything possible to bring relief, to testify, at this time of suffering, to the message of the Christ's love."

On behalf of millions of Catholics across the world, Pope Benedict sent over £62,000 ($100,000) to the Japanese bishops as a token gesture of solidarity and help as they begin to come to terms, not only with the cataclysmic tragedies that have hit Japan.

Millions of people, who have never been to Japan and have had little or no communication with the Japanese, have seen the film footage of the relentless tsunami and resulting devastation.

In his Angelus Message of Sunday, 13 March, the Holy Father attempted to put into words the thoughts and prayers of an appalled world: ‘The images of the tragic earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan have left everyone extremely shocked. I wish to renew my spiritual closeness to the dear people of that land, who are facing the effects of these calamities with dignity and courage. I pray for the victims and their families, and for all those who are suffering due to these tremendous events. I encourage those who, with commendable promptness, are working to bring assistance. We remain united in prayer. The Lord is near!’

Missio has a deeply personal interest in the Catholic Church in Japan because it was through Bishop Jules-Alphonse Cousin of Nagasaki that the Society of St Peter the Apostle (SPA) was born. The SPA is the branch of Missio that supports every seminary and seminarian in countries where the Church is young or poor.

The Society worldwide currently supports over 30,000 major seminarians and 10,000 novices in indigenous religious Congregations... and it all happened because, in 1889 a desperate Bishop of Nagasaki wrote to two French women, Mme Stephanie Bigard and her daughter, Jeanne, saying: "Might I interest you a little in my seminary? At the moment it holds more than fifty students. Despite all our economies, even these fifty mouths are a burden on our meagre resources. At the beginning of last year, we had to announce that we could only admit twelve new students, two from each district. Well, from one district alone fifteen presented themselves. We had to invent a thousand pretexts for sending them back to their families - boys who would have made excellent priests."

Thanks to that letter from Nagasaki, every mission diocese is assured, through the SPA, that financial concerns will not cause them to refuse applications from young men and women who feel called to dedicate themselves to God through the priesthood and religious life. In 2010, the SPA in England and Wales contributed £314,600 to 27 seminaries across Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Today’s Japanese Church, although small and amounting to approximately 0.5% of the country’s population, is extremely generous. The Catholics of Japan contribute more than £600,000 annually through Missio-worldwide to help the Church in places where people are in greater need.

The Japanese Bishops were due to gather today in Sendai for an emergency meeting to decide the strategies they should adopt in order to face the future. Many churches and institutions were destroyed in the relentless power of the earthquake and the tsunami.  With limited means of communication, the bishops of the affected areas have found it difficult to assess their needs and available personnel. Inevitably local church community leaders will be amongst the dead and injured.

Speaking befire the meeting, Bishop Hiraga said:  "We will consider how to go forward. Meanwhile, we trust in God and ask for the prayers of all Christians throughout the world. We received the Holy Father's message and we thank him for his words that instil courage and hope. Today this is our specific mission: to help the nation to raise its eyes to heaven, and to keep alive the flame of hope."

For more information about Missio see: www.missio.org.uk/

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