ROME – In a letter to Japanese bishops, Pope Francis urges his brother prelates to use the example of their country’s martyrs as an inspiration to continue their mission of evangelization amid modern-day challenges.
In the letter, dated Sept. 14, the pope recalled the numerous martyrs in Japan, including Paul Miki and his 25 companions, who were killed in hatred of the faith in 1597, during a period of strong persecution in the country.
Published Sept. 17, the letter was sent to the Japanese bishops ahead of the visit of Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, who is on an official visit to Japan from Sept. 17-26.
Japan holds an important place in the pope’s heart. He wanted to be a missionary in the country while still a young Jesuit, but was unable to go due to health reasons after having part of his lung removed due to a serious pulmonary illness.
In his letter Francis also recalled the recently-beatified Justus Takayama Ukon, a prestigious samurai who chose to live in poverty and exile rather than renounce his faith, as well as the witness of Japan’s numerous “hidden Christians,” who from 1600 to the mid-1800s were forced to live their faith clandestinely due to ongoing persecution.
“The long line of martyrs and confessors of the faith, by nationality, language, social class and age, had in common a deep love for the Son of God, renouncing their own civil status or other aspects of their own social condition, all in order to gain Christ,” the pope said in the letter.
With this “spiritual heritage” in mind, the pope addressed the bishops directly, saying they have inherited this witness and “with gentle solicitude continue the task of evangelization, especially caring for the most weak and promoting the integration of faithful from different backgrounds into the community.”
He thanked them for their commitment to the poor, as well as their efforts in cultural education, interreligious dialogue and in caring for creation, as well as the emphasis the Church in Japan places on mission.
“If the Church was born Catholic (that is, universal), it means that it was born ‘going out,’ that it was born missionary,” Francis said, adding that it is love of Christ which compels us “to offer our lives for the Gospel.”
“Such dynamism dies if we lose missionary enthusiasm. For this reason life is strengthened in giving it, and weakens in isolation and agitation,” he said, noting that those who “make the most” of the chances life offers are the ones “who leave the safe shore and become passionate about the mission of communicating life to others.”
Francis then turned to the passage in the Gospels when Jesus tells his disciples they are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”
Both salt and light operate in service, he said, explaining that as salt, the Church has the task of “preserving from corruption and giving flavor,” while as light she “prevents darkness from prevailing, ensuring a clear vision of reality and the purpose of existence.”
Jesus’ words in this passage are also “a strong call to fidelity and authenticity,” he said, and told the bishops that God has entrusted a “great spiritual and moral mission” to the Church in Japan.
While there are “no small difficulties” in the country due to a lack of clergy, religious and a limited participation of lay faithful, the pope stressed that “the scarcity of workers cannot reduce the commitment to evangelize.”
Current challenges, he said, “cannot make us resigned nor defer to an irenic and numbing dialogue, even if some problematic situations arouse considerable concern.”
He pointed examples of these challenges, the pope referred to the high rates of divorce and suicide among youth; the numerous people who live “totally disengaged from social life;” the presence of religious and spiritual “formalism;” moral relativism; religious indifference and “the obsession for work and earnings.”
“In this peculiar context, the need for the Church in Japan to constantly renew the choice for the mission of Jesus, both in salt and in light, becomes urgent,” he said. “The genuine evangelistic strength of your Church, which comes from being a Church of martyrs and confessors of the faith, is a great asset to guard and develop.”
Francis then stressed the need for a “a solid and integral” priestly and religious formation, which he said is “a particularly urgent task today” thanks to the widespread promotion of the “culture of the provisional.”
This mentality also leads youth to believe “that it’s not possible to truly love, that nothing stable exists and that everything, including love, is relative to circumstances and the needs of feeling,” he said.
Because of this, a key step in the formation process is to help those tasked with it to “understand and experience in depth the characteristics of Jesus’ love, which is free, involves self-sacrifice and is merciful forgiveness,” the pope said.
“This experience renders us capable of going against the current and trusting the Lord, who does not delude. It’s the witness Japanese society is so thirsty for.”
Francis closed his letter by pointing to the presence of ecclesial movements in the country. With their “evangelistic impulse and witness,” he said these movements can be of great help “in the pastoral service and mission ‘ad gentes’ (to the nations).”
“These realities contribute to the work of evanglization,” he said, adding that as bishops, “we are called to know and accompany the charisms that they carry and make them part of our work in the context of pastoral integration.”
Francis closed his letter praying that the Lord would “send workers into his Church in Japan and support you with his consolation,” and gave them his blessing.