Nagasaki Archbishop Proclaims Gospel of Life

Anthony Zimmerman
May 1996
Published in Catholic World News
Reproduced with Permission

Archbishop Francis Kaname Shimamoto of Nagasaki released a strong statement against abortion in a nationally circulated Newsletter on March 2nd. He thereby shattered a conventional taboo in Catholic Japan which frowns on using the "A" word in public. What one retreat master advised is quite typical in clerical circles here: "Priests should better not speak about abortion and contraception." Politically correct clerical behavior sees nothing, hears nothing, and says nothing about abortion and contraception. Standard practice has been in place for some time that priests and bishops ought not "rock the boat" by public opposition to legal abortion and the ubiquitous use of condoms.

When a teacher of midwives known to me had her students do a survey of abortion practice in an area where Catholics are numerous, preliminary results astounded her. Young women, even there as in the rest of Japan, were aborting in great numbers. A priest, overhearing this, advised her to stop the investigation and to suppress any mention of the results. She followed the advice. The skeleton should remain hidden in the closet. Although a vast majority of non-Catholics and Catholics alike deem abortion to be undesirable and at least somewhat evil, the bottom line is usually "shikata ga nai" - "it can't be helped." Whenever contraceptives fail, what other choice do women have?

Jesuit Juan Masia sought to salve the consciences of faithful women caught in a bind. A fetus is not yet a human until the brain begins to develop, he wrote in Koe, a magazine published by the Osaka Archdiocese (August 1987). Priests should be re-educated, he opined in the same article, to advise women that contraception, which is not a sin, is to be used to avoid abortion. For this his superiors banned him from Japan. But his popular book Katorikku Kobore Banashi (Catholic Musings), continued to be sold at Catholic bookstores.

The National Incentive Convention for Evangelization (NICE) held in 1987 at Kyoto was concerned about evangelization in the family; and the follow-up at Nagasaki in 1993 had at its theme "Finding the ideal of evangelization from the realities of family life." Never is abortion or contraception even mentioned in the proceedings and resolutions dealing with family life. Both NICE conventions detoured past these evils as carefully as a cat pads around a pool of water to keep its feet dry.

True, the Japan Conference of Bishops had promulgated a diluted statement discouraging abortion in 1984. "Man's basic right is his right to life," they proclaimed. But it was a muted statement. While decrying the evil, the statement softened its impact by acknowledging that there are difficult circumstances.

Nagasaki, the cradle of re-born Christianity in Japan, is accustomed to sterner messages. Cardinal Joseph Asajiro Satowaki, the predecessor of Archbishop Shimamoto, had circulated a pamphlet in 1977 which stated that "abortion is a grave sin forbidden by God." Other dioceses of the more conservative western region of Japan circulated that statement, but the more progressive areas like Tokyo did not.

The new message by Archbishop Francis Kaname Shimamoto speaks with power, not only in Nagasaki, but throughout Catholic Japan. "Abortion is the direct and willful killing of what is a human being." Pope John Paul II "has invoked the power of papal infallibility," proclaimed his message, "in order to restore a recognition of the sacredness and inviolability of human life."

Archbishop Shimamoto delivered his urgent "Gospel of Life" message first of all to his flock of 70,000 Catholics. Thereafter he released it to Father Jerome Novotny, OMI, editor of the Pro-Life Movement News, for national Catholic coverage. He featured it in the Newsletter of March 2nd. The over 4000 major Catholic institutions and others which receive the Newsletter have this strong "Gospel of Life" statement to ponder now. Will Catholics lead the way out of the abortion trap in Japan?

When abortion was legalized in the nation almost fifty years ago (1948) it quickly became the most used form of birth control. National birth rates made a free fall from 33.8 per 1000 in 1948 to 17.8 1958, and a below replacement of 9.5 in 1995. Catholic infant baptisms dropped from 44 per 1000 Catholics in 1948 to 13 per 1000 in 1994. Nagasaki has a slightly better record of 14 infant baptisms per 1000 (1994). In the USA, the rate of infant baptisms per 1000 Catholic population is higher, 17.1 in 1995; in the general USA population the birth rate is about 15.7.

Archbishop Shimamoto, himself born on one of the Goto Islands where the "hidden Christians" had quietly practiced their faith during the 300 years of persecution, now sounds anew the battle cry for the "Gospel of Life" in Japan. "We are Christians who believe in the Gospel of Life," he declares. "We are to be a people who proclaim and announce the sacredness of life, who communicate in life. Always and everywhere, let us choose life."

Nagasaki, home of the famed "Hidden Christians" is expected to provide a good example to the nation. Its persecuted Catholics had preserved their faith for 300 years under duress, without priest or bishop. The Tokyo Archdiocese has 83,000 Catholics now, more than Nagasaki. But the fire-tried Christians of Nagasaki are regarded as the more conservative branch of the Church in Japan. Children drill to memorize the catechism by rote as during persecution, and vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been comparatively plentiful. Until recently, that is. Until birth control cut down family size, diluted Catholic fervor, and spread a plague of abortions even among Catholics. The Archbishop did not speak out against abortion without reason. His call is for conversion to the faith of the ancestors. The remarkable story of the re-discovery of the hidden Christians comes to mind in this connection. The faith which their ancestors had preserved under severe conditions, even with the shedding of blood, is not to be lost today by birth control and abortion.

The story about the discovery of the hidden Christians in 1865 is told in this dramatic manner by Father Wiesen, pastor of Pius X Parish in Nagasaki.

From his newly built church on the Oura Hill Father Petitjean of the Paris Foreign Mission Society could look down upon the sullen population. Below him was the harbor, once again alive with foreign ships. Beyond the bay lay the village of Urakami. The steep mountains seemed to imprison the huts in the valley. Somewhere out there was a secret he wanted to know...The descendants of the martyrs - where were they? He waited for an answer. And it came on Friday March 17, shortly after the hour of the Angelus.

At that hour from the window of his room Father Petitjean saw some fifteen men, women and children standing in front of the church. Something in their demeanor struck him. Curious sightseers were so few because the police were so numerous. Then a voice within him spoke, Go forth, meet the people!

The priest left his room, unlocked the church door and entered. The entire group silently followed. He genuflected and walked toward the altar. Before the tabernacle he knelt down to pray to the Christ Who had so recently come back to Japan. I prayed to Him, he wrote later to Paris. I conjured Him to place on my lips words fit to touch the hearts and to gain over for Him worshippers among the people who surrounded me. To this fervent plea he added the Our Father.

Scarcely had he finished the prayer when three of the group, middle-aged women, knelt at his side. One of them placing her hand on her breast spoke in a low voice filled with fear.

We are all here of the same heart as you. Indeed, asked the astonished priest. And where are you from? We are from Urakami. At Urakami nearly everyone has the same heart as we. Then one of the other women asked, Where is the statue of Santa Maria? Instead of answering Father Petitjean led the whispering wondering group to the altar of the Blessed Virgin. All knelt down. Tears, tears of joy came to their eyes. Yes, said one of them. Yes, indeed, this is Santa Maria. Look, the Divine Infant is in her harms.

Minutes before, the priest and this group were strangers. Now he was their Father. Like children they crowded about him besieging him with questions.

We celebrate the Feast of Our Lord on the twenty fifth day of the cold month. We have been taught that at midnight of that day He was born in a stable; that He grew into manhood in poverty and suffering; that at the age of thirty three, He died on a cross for the salvation of our souls. Do you hold the same?

Yes, we do. And at present we are in the Season of Sadness? Yes, this is the 17th day of the Season of Sadness. We call it Lent. And St. Joseph, we revere him as the foster father of Jesus. That too, we do.

The priest noticed that the group was becoming anxiously fearful. They began looking toward the door, for all knew that the new foreign temple was being watched carefully. Father Petitjean dismissed them quietly - these first of many to whom he gave the title of the Christians of Urakami - and told them to come again.

They came again. And others came. And these, to make doubly sure that the Bateren, newly discovered, were the representatives of the Faith they had been practicing in secret all these years, asked more questions.

Your kingdom, and that of Rome, have they the same heart? Yes. Is it the King of Rome who sends you? Yes. We come here in the name of the Great Chief of the Christians. And what is the name of the present Great Chief? He is our Holy Father, Pope Pius IX. And you have no children? You and your countrymen, you are the only children God has given us. We cannot have any others. The priests now like your first Bateren live alone all their lives.

The questioner was Peter Kaminoshoma. Hearing these words he and his companions dropped to their knees and touched their foreheads to the ground. Birjen de gozaru. O arigato, arigato! They are virgins. O thank you. Thank you.

It is to the children of these once hidden Christians, first of all, that Archbishop Shimamoto now brings the Gospel of Life, as proclaimed by Pope John Paul II. May all of Japan embrace again their true Christian heritage by living this Gospel of Life proclaimed with such power by the current Great Chief in Rome, and by the Shepherd of the Archdiocese of Nagasaki.