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Sr Megumi’s candle

· The proclamation of the Gospel in Japan after the tsunami of globalization ·

Megumi Kawano Maria Maddalena is a Japanese Xaverian Missionary. After several years of missionary service in Brazil today she lives in her own country. “Formerly”, Megumi said, speaking of the profound religious sense in Japan, “our people had a strong spirituality that was expressed in the art of flower arrangement, in the tea ceremony and in traditional sports. 

They were not only arts or disciplines: whoever practised them also acquired a spirituality that helped them to live well. Contact with nature was meditational and the presence of the supernatural was perceived in the Shinto world. This spirituality sustained our life and gave us joy and meaning, even though this meaning had not yet reached fullness”.

With globalization, she continued, “these arts were gradually emptied of their soul, yet they remained arts. Young people attach no importance to them, they are more interesting to foreigners. In the frenzy of modern society there’s no longer time to stop and contemplate nature, while competition grows keener, creating social climbing in all contexts, even among children. One consequence of the lack of spirituality is a change in people’s characters: they are under greater stress and those who are not among the ones at the top suffer terribly”.

Not only globalization but also the impact of environmental catastrophes in recent years have destabilized many peoples’ lives. “With the earthquake four years ago”, continued Sr Megumi, “and the consequent tsunami many people lost in an instant everything they thought sustained their lives. This prompted a large number to question themselves. In giving and receiving solidarity, they began to rediscover the importance of personal relations, the importance of life”.

So is Japan a mission land? “The mission is often made to consist of help for the poor. This is an important aspect and Christians live it as an expression of their faith in Jesus and with the desire to make him known. Buddhists, Shintoists and atheists too help the poor in the name of human solidarity. However when people lose the sense of life they feel the emptiness of a loss of spirituality and suffer anguishing loneliness. It is a great poverty even though it is not material. It’s up to us Christians to share with these people the hope and light that make us live. It is our specific aim as Christians and missionaries to make the word of God ring out, to speak of his presence as a father, to make them feel that we are loved. When I am poor, if I have faith I can live and can know joy. Shortly after being baptized, when I went to the Philippines to take part in the World Youth Day I encountered a very poor people with many children. I saw that their eyes were shining, that they were sparkling with life, something I can’t see in Japan. I felt the same thing in my years on mission in Brazil: there are poor people who live on the street and come and ask for something to eat who can understand the presence of God, of Jesus, in their situation. One of them told me ‘God exists because he hears my voice’. In Japan there’s everything, but the most important thing is lacking. Every year almost 28,000 people commit suicide”.

However God is already working in the heart of each one. “All the people who still don’t know Christ”, Sr Megumi went on, “are not far from him because there has been a divine seed in their hearts since their birth for we believe that all human beings are created by God himself. But I think that help is needed to understand this value properly, to know the face of this presence: the first service to the kingdom for us missionaries is to offer our brothers and sisters this help. This is what Philip did with the Eunuch who was travelling and reading words he didn’t understand (cf. Acts 8:26-40); it is what Paul did when he announced to the Athenians the name of the “unknown God” whom they were honouring (cf. Acts 17:22-34)”.

There is a profound difference which cannot be ignored between the traditional Japanese faiths and adhering to Jesus and his Gospel. “The culture of us Japanese”, Sr Megumi Kawano explained, “is based on Shintoism and Buddhism. For Japanese Buddhism God does not exist; for Shintoism there are many gods: the god of the mountain, the god of the waters, and so forth. We respect, invoke and pray to them but they are distant from us. The God of Jesus comes to us, dwells within us, walks with us and knows our life, our suffering, because he experienced it in Jesus. In encountering the Christian message, I understood that God came to us. In his omnipotence he did not need help yet he became a child, he let himself be helped by us human beings who have so many limitations. For me this was an important discovery”.

She continued: “When a difficult time in life comes, loneliness, we believe in this presence and we are never truly alone. In seeing Jesus’ suffering we can also understand the suffering we ourselves are not experiencing, we can understand the suffering of others and how to help them”.

For those who have always been Christian and were baptized at birth it may not be easy to understand the difference. “It’s true. Those who are born into a Christian family find it hard to imagine how those who don’t know God’s presence live because they do not even suspect his existence – the loneliness, suffering and difficult encounters. Even if no one understands you if you believe in Jesus’ presence beside you, you know that he knows everything and you can always have hope, a light that shines in the darkness of your life. Let us imagine a dark place in which there isn’t even one candle lit. It isn’t possible for us to light one. But if there’s even only one small candle, another candle may be lit with that flame and then another. And thus the lighted candles can be multiplied! This is why I say that we still need men and women missionaries who light a candle in people’s hearts that has never previously been lit. Let us remember our action in the Easter Liturgy when we light our candle from the only candle lit which symbolizes Jesus. Without Jesus there’s no hope of rising from the dead: it is believed that life ends with death. Resurrection is very different from the Buddhist idea of rebirth. In Japan, a great many people who have never set foot in a church take part in Christian funerals and the Christian meaning of death and resurrection may be explained to them in the homily.

It must be far from easy to proclaim the Gospel in a country like Japan. “The progress of the Gospel here is very slow, it is silent, at times invisible from the outside. The Japanese look at the daily life of Christians. When Christians live in joy and hope even in the thick of difficulties their way of living asks: “what is it? Why is it like this?”. This is already the first step to the encounter with the Gospel. From here a journey may be commenced that can take a long time and requires patience. Individuals themselves, sometimes spurred by the suffering they are experiencing, start seeking and begin a dialogue in which it is possible to suggest sentences or episodes from the Gospel that are suited to their situation and can give them hope”.

An example? “One of our communities was made up of Japanese, Mexican and Italian sisters. Our neighbour heard us laughing and after a long time came to ask us: ‘what is there in your house? I always hear your cheerfulness!’. A dialogue began with this. It cannot be taken for granted that such people will reach the point of receiving Baptism, but they will be able to live through the important changes in their lives. At our nursery school almost all the children come from non-Christian families. They learn to know Jesus through the nursery school teacher. They may never reach Baptism but in the future, when they send their own children to the Catholic nursery school, several mothers will feel at this point that they want to study the Bible. Sometimes the seed is sown in one generation and the new shoots spring up in the next. My testimony of Jesus may not bear visible fruits but perhaps – after many years – something will flower. It is hope”.

How did you meet Jesus, Megumi Kawano? “My family was Buddhist but not very practising. Only on some anniversary of a death would we go with my family to the temple where we would hear the Buddhist monk’s homily. I was eight years old when I spent my first Christian Christmas at the home of a friend, a pastor’s daughter. On reading the prayer of the ‘Our Father’ on a little card they had given me, I wondered who that ‘Our Father who is in heaven’ was. I would always be asking myself questions on life: it is not us, I would say to myself, who decide whether we live or die. During a stay in hospital I was struck by the fact that one night the condition of a lady in my ward who had not seemed seriously ill deteriorated and she died, whereas another who was very ill recovered. I wondered: why do I exist? Why have I received this life? On being discharged from hospital I sought a Catholic church and began to attend it. I knew almost nothing about the Christian faith, all I had was a booklet on the Old Testament that I had purchased out of curiosity. As a little girl I had heard the stories of Adam and Eve and of the tower of Babel, but I didn’t know they were to be found in the Bible. In my daily living context I did not find the answers I was seeking. I found them in Christianity, thanks to a missionary. When I was 22 I received Baptism”.

How did you reach the decision to consecrate yourself to the mission? “By discovering the presence of Jesus, of his word, I found hope and it was normal to think of all those who had not yet encountered him. In Japan when someone becomes a Christian he or she is often the only one at work, at school or at home who believes in Jesus. Christians are also a missionaries, bearing witness to the difference of Christian life. When I was 26 my father died: in front of his coffin I perceived more forcefully the grace of believing in Jesus who opens us to hope in eternal life. I understood better the suffering of those who don’t know Jesus and I heard the call to spend my whole life proclaiming him and his Gospel. It was a grace of the Lord; on my own I should never have been brave enough to leave my home and my world”.

Did you find this decision difficult to make? “My family left me free to ask for Baptism, perhaps because they noticed that I had become more serene, joyful and positive. It was on that occasion I found out that my father too had attended the Christian nursery school. My mother said to me: ‘but don’t become a sister!’. Hence I suffered deeply when I decided to enter a religious family and her tears and suffering were a serious problem for me. It took her 10 years to calm down and accept my decision. She even took part in my perpetual profession. I think the Holy Spirit was working in her heart. Further difficulties were my frailty and my limitations, but – as time passed – I realized ever more clearly that they were opportunities to become better acquainted with the greatness of God’s love. Will eternity suffice to thank him?”.

Teresa Caffi




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 21, 2019