Thursday, August 15, 2013

Francis Xavier in Nagasaki.

Today is the sixty-eighth anniversary of a radio broadcast by Emperor Hirohito announcing Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers, bringing the deadliest war in human history to a close. This anniversary seems like an opportune time to share this arresting image from a 1949 Life photo essay by Carl Mydans, recently reproduced with commentary by Henri Adam de Villiers on the website of the Schola Sainte Cécile. In this photo, we see a relic of St. Francis Xavier - his right forearm, long preserved at the Church of the Gesù in Rome - carried in procession during a celebration held in Nagasaki in June of 1949 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Xavier's arrival in Japan. Sent halfway around the world for the event, this relic had an undeniable significance: here was the arm that Xavier raised in blessing and the hand with which he conferred the sacrament of baptism, newly presented to the spiritual descendants of the people to whom Xavier had preached four hundred years earlier. The visit of the relic provided Japanese Catholics with a particularly tangible connection to their ancestors in the faith, a connection that they may have cherished all the more following the destruction of the Second World War.

As I study the above image, I wonder what the appearance of this relic might have meant in an immediate postwar context. In 1949, the atom bomb's effects on Nagasaki were still very visible: another of Mydans' photos (shared below) reminds us that the Pontifical Mass celebrated to mark four centuries of Christian faith in Japan took place within the ruins of a destroyed Catholic cathedral. Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint's hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb's victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier's body and the bodies of their kin? I can't know for sure, but I also can't help but wonder whether they might have done so.

What are we to make of all of this theologically? Looking at the image of the Xavier relic in Nagasaki, I find myself thinking of the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who served as a missionary in Nagasaki in the 1930s and later lost his life at Auschwitz, having volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had been chosen for execution. As Kolbe once wrote, "Hatred is not a creative force. Love alone creates." For Maximilian Kolbe, self-sacrificing love represented the only effective response to the horrors of which humankind is capable. This kind of love led Kolbe to give his life for another; the same love led Francis Xavier to leave his home and everything that was familiar to him to preach the Gospel in faraway lands. Underlying these and all other examples of self-sacrificing love is the more fundamental action of divine love, the love that led the Second Person of the Trinity to embrace our humanity and to accept death on the Cross for the sake of our redemption.

Though the arm of St. Francis Xavier was sent to devastated Nagasaki to commemorate a particular historical event, I believe that this image also serves to remind us of a deeper lesson. The roots of human conflict remain as strong as ever, making the choice between love and hatred as real for us today as it was in the past. In a 1991 essay reflecting on the end of the Cold War and the move towards greater economic and political integration in Europe, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed that "history is marked by the confrontation between love and the inability to love, that devastation of the soul that comes when the only values man is able to recognize at all as values and realities are quantifiable values." In response to this reality, the future Pope Benedict XVI urged that "we should not hesitate to oppose the omnipotence of the quantitative and to take up our position on the side of love." As we remember the end of a global conflict that now seems very distant to us, let us be heedful of Benedict's words - and of the silent message borne by a relic that once appeared in Nagasaki. AMDG.


At 8/16/2013 12:09 AM, Blogger Lynda said...

In order to be true followers of Jesus the Christ we must "take up our position on the side of love" as Pope Benedict XVI urged. We really have no choice. May God give us the courage to do that.

At 8/16/2013 2:06 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

Brings back memories of Japan and my visit to Nagasaki. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the most Catholic of areas in Japan and the cathedral destroyed by the bomb was the largest in Asia, I believe, at the time. It is perhaps the intercession of Francis Xavier that allowed the faith to be transmitted by the laity for two hundred years after the horrific persecution of Christians and expulsion of foreign missionaries. The shrine of the Japanese martyrs on the hill overlooking the picturesque city is stunning.
I have never experienced any hostility in either place. Christians are only 1% of the population and only half of them Catholic. There was a Jesuit boys' school and parish not far from where I lived in Hiroshima which held Mass in English a couple of times a month.


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