From St. Franciszek Ksawery to Bl. Justus Ukon Takayama. An interview with Fr. Domenico Vitalim, a Jesuit missionary in Japan, a parish priest in Hiroszima. The interview by Włodzimierz Rędzioch.

WŁODZIMIERZ RĘDZIOCH: – What is the beatification of the next secular martyr for the Church in Japan?

FR. DOMENICO VITALI SJ: – Justus is not only another martyr but a martyr who resigned from authority of a feudal lord and agreed to be sent to Philippines through which he showed that faith is more important to him than wealth, authority and homeland. This is a very strong testimony, also for the Japanese today. At those times people who were suffering from infectious or incurable illnesses were exiled. Agreeing to be treated as one of them was a heroic act.

– What is the situation of the Catholic Church in Japan over 450 years after Franciszek Ksawery had arrived at this country?

– The situation of the Catholic Church in Japan worries us. When there is the decreasing number of vocations or missionaries, not only are not we successful in providing Christian communities with care, but we also find it difficult to maintain educational institutions, such as nurseries, schools and universities which used to be a great strength of the Church and the ‘source’ of conversions into Christianity and vocations.

– At the times of the first Jesuits the number of the Christians was 300 thousand. Today there are about 450 thousand Japanese Catholics, which means that a bit more than it was over four centuries ago…

– In 1600 there were nearly 700 thousand Christians and only about 150 missionaries were looking after them and were supporting them in a pastoral way. Therefore Fr. Aleksandro Valignano got permission from Rome for resignation from the parish system and a release from the duty of participating in the Eucharist and at holidays. But, beside that, charity activity was developing well. What was particularly important was the work of ‘the charity group of Mercifulness’, whose bl. Ukon Takayama was one of the most significant representatives.

– Last year it had been 50 years since the publication of a story ‘Silence’ – the most famous book of a Japanese writer of the Catholic Shusaku Endo, which inspired martin Scorses to make a film entitled in the same way. Similarly as the book by Endo, the film caused various reactions. What does Priest think about the film by Scorses? Can it help the Japanese society in a reflection on the sense of faith in Jesus Christ?

– I cannot evaluate it as a film, but I wanted to emphasize that its content does not completely reflect the history of Christianity in Japan. In this country, similarly as in the whole Church, martyrdom has been thought as the clearest and the most obvious testimony of faith in Christ, therefore, the word ‘a martyr’ means a witness. Missionaries in Japan did not teach the Christians martyrdom but in the case of a choice between renunciation of faith in Christ and martyrdom, believers were ready and prepared to choose martyrdom, like it was in the whole history of the Church. According to the studies carried out by Fr. Juan Ruiz de Medina, in this country about 40 thousand Christians were killed as martyrs (although various authors give various numbers of martyrs). In this context showing humiliation of the holy image as a sign of denunciation of faith, in order to save life of other Christians seems something unacceptable.

– As one can see, Christianity in Japan is really marked with persecution which had lasted for over two centuries, beginning from the XVII century, therefore, it is characterized with a strong feeling of martyrdom and isolation. How does it influence the spiritual life of Japanese Catholics?

– I think that 200 years of persecution of the Church in Japan had a strong influence on the way in which the Catholics perceive the Church now, that is, they think – unconsciously and wrongly – that the Church is against customs and the lifestyle of the Japanese.

– A missionary whom I know told me that in the Japanese culture there nearly unknown notions such as transcendence, eternity, but also love and unselfishness. How to explain Christianity to somebody who does not know these basic notions of our faith?

– I think that nearly all people have a poor knowledge about creation, transcendence or eternity, but despite that it was possible to proclaim the Gospel. Surely, it is possible to proclaim the evangelical message to the Japanese, but it requires time, patience and the spirit of devotion.

– Beside 450 thousand local Catholics, in Japan there are about 600 thousand baptized immigrants coming from Latin America (Peru, Brazil, Mexico) and from Philippines. These people, in regard to their temper and traditions, experience their faith in a more open and spontaneous way and have a more ‘friendly’ attitude to priests. Is there a risk of appearing two Churches: the local one, for the Japanese and the immigrants’ one?

– Certainly, Japan is inhabited by a lot of immigrants, but in the history of the Church it is normal that the Church consists of Christians of various origins. Besides that, immigrants, particularly those coming from Philippines, are the hope for the future.

– Priest is realizing his priestly mission in a symbolic place – in Hiroschima. On 6 August 1945 an atomic bomb destroyed this city, killing 100 thousand people. For humankind Hiroschima became a symbol of insanity of war and a risk of self-destruction of humankind. In this case these were the Japanese who were the victims of a conflict. However, I wonder if the Japanese have accounted for their own history which is often full of crime and cruelty…

– I think that in Hiroschima a lot is said about the past in a bit lateral way. It is obvious that facing the catastrophe caused by the atomic bomb, one mentions cruelties committed by the Americans, not considering the crimes committed by Japan. During his to Hiroschima, John Paul II left us his appeal for peace in the world, in which he said even four times: ‘Memory about the past means commitment towards the future’. This is something we are trying to do in Hiroschima.


„Niedziela” 14/2017

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: