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Religion: A Pilgrim for Peace

5 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

In Hiroshima the Pope cries out against nuclear war

“I have come as a pilgrim for peace,” I he announced. Later, clad in white, he knelt before the cenotaph to the 140,000 people killed as a result of the first bomb that fell on Hiroshima. Then he rose, and as the eternal flame burned behind him, the Roma Hoo (Pope) last week spoke forcefully and with an edge of anger reminiscent of the biblical prophets: “The final balance of the human suffering that began here has not been fully drawn up, nor has the total human cost been tallied, especially when one sees what nuclear war has done, and could still do, to our ideas, our attitudes and our civilization.”

Since that “fateful day” in 1945, John Paul II told 15,000 Japanese, “nuclear stockpiles have grown . . . Even if a mere fraction of the available weapons were to be used, one has to ask whether . . . the very destruction of humanity is not a real possibility.” He added: “To remember Hiroshima is to abhor nuclear war. To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace.”

The Pope admitted to Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki when the two met that his appeal for peace was the central reason he included Japan on his grueling twelve-day Asian trip. Japan has only a tiny Roman Catholic flock (406,000 people out of 117 mil lion) and, like the weather, the crowds were cool after the exuberance of the Philippines. But, if anything, the absence of roaring throngs and John Paul T shirts seemed to heighten the seriousness of the Pope’s message.

When John Paul visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, he was obviously stirred by the photographs of bomb victims and the heat-fused chunks of stone and metal. He paused for a full three minutes at the visitors’ book before he wrote, “Ego cogito cogitationes pacis et non afflictionis, dicit Dominus.” (It was a paraphrase of Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction . . .”)

At a nearby auditorium the Pope spoke of the need to harmonize “the values of science with the values of conscience.” To many Pope watchers, it was far more powerful than his two previous major speeches as a world statesman, one to the United Nations General Assembly during his American tour in 1979, the other at UNESCO headquarters in Paris last year. “Humanity must make a moral about-face,” the Pope said. “From now on it is only through a conscious choice . . . that humanity can survive.” He warned against “technological development for its own sake” and “nonstop economic expansion” that leaves the poor behind.

In the dull brick Memorial Cathedral for World Peace, where the Pope prayed briefly, the host priest bore scars from the heat and radiation of the atomic attack. Many in the congregation of 1,800 still suffered ” anemia, sterility or blood diseases brought by the bomb.

When the Pope arrived in Tokyo, there were no military bands or honor guards to greet him. But John Paul dazzled many with his well-rehearsed and easily understood Japanese, his grasp of Asian history and his untiring willingness to belt out Polish folk songs on a handheld mike and dance with kindergartners at a Tokyo youth rally. In Nagasaki, the historic center of Japanese Catholicism, the crowds were larger: 47,000 stoically endured a freak February blizzard to attend an outdoor Mass. Eventually more than 300 people had to be taken to first-aid stations because they were suffering from exposure to the cold and wet snow.

Catholicism was first brought to Japan in 1549 by the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier. It swiftly took root in a few places among the Buddhist Japanese. By 1600 there were nearly 300,000 converts. But the church’s fortunes soon ebbed. Four thousand of the new Christians were martyred in Nagasaki and elsewhere. Some were decapitated, some executed in scalding-hot springs by shoguns and local lords. The ruthless persecution continued over the centuries. Officials forced suspected believers to tread on Christian images. In some places an annual oath renouncing Christianity was obligatory. One reminder of the past: at least 7,000 kakure Kirishitan (crypto-Christians) persist even today in practicing an odd form of Catholicism, just as their ancestors had to do in order to preserve their faith.

The most controversial event of the three-day visit was a 45-minute meeting with Emperor Hirohito, 79. Rabid right-wingers, distressed that Hirohito, a former Shinto god, would deign to meet with a Vicar of Christ, rode about town waving a sign proclaiming POPE IS A BEAST. Some of Japan’s 700,000 Protestants protested the meeting as well. The Pope’s visit, they felt, would en courage a resurgent movement to elevate Shintoism to status as a national religion. About 70 others, including left-wingers, four Japanese Catholic clergy men and some Buddhist priests, accused John Paul of consorting with a “war criminal.”

For all that, when the two met in the Bamboo Room of Tokyo’s stone walled Imperial Palace, Hirohito graciously told the Pope, “Japan a long time ago was benefited a great deal by the Catholic missionaries, who brought their culture to this country.” There are still many missionaries. John Paul had a tearful meeting with one, an 87-year-old Franciscan and fellow Pole named Zeno Zebrowski, who is famed for creating at least 30 of what are called “ant towns,” communities for the poor based on selfhelp.

John Paul left Nagasaki with the new Japanese nickname of Yuki Otoko (Snowman) and flew to equally chilly Anchor age, where he celebrated an outdoor Mass and took a 90-ft. fling at driving a sled drawn by nine rambunctious huskies. “This was great,” said the Pontiff. Then off again, up over the North Pole and back to Rome. To the faithful who braved the Nagasaki blizzard, John Paul had said good-naturedly, “It’s good for the faith.” So, apparently, was the taxing 20,500-mile journey by the most traveled Pope in history.

—By Richard N. Ostling. Reported by Wilton Wynn with John Paul II

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