Shizue Hirota, the only woman in the Preparatory Commission

To speak without fear

 Parlare  senza paura  DCM-009
30 September 2023

Sister Shizue Hirota, of the Preparatory Commission for the Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops, and listed among the Synod Experts and Facilitators, is convinced that, “A synodal Church is a peace-building Church”.

This peace is to be cultivated ad-intra and ad-extra. This is because, notes the Japanese nun, a synodal Church is capable of “managing tensions without being crushed by them”. In addition, at a time when concerns about the conflicts in the world, particularly the ongoing one in Ukraine, are rising strongly, her words resonate profoundly. A statement like this also draws on a personal stance of hers that she also instils in the Catholic Initiative for Nonviolence of Pax Christi International, of which she is a member.

Of the Instrumentum Laboris, she feels very much challenged on the question of how to help the local Churches to promote catholicity in a harmonious relationship between unity and diversity. After all, the concept of harmony, which Pope Francis shows he cares so much about, can be traced back to the Eastern world, so much so that a “Living dialogue with religions is called to be our way of life,” says Sr. Hirota. In fact, it is something she has experienced and continues to experience first-hand as she was born into a Shinto family, attended a Catholic school and she was the only one to be baptized in the neighborhood where she lived, which was otherwise entirely Buddhist. The challenge, the nun points out, is how we can speak of the God of Jesus through our interpersonal relationships. “Now that the Church is becoming increasingly multicultural in Japan and beyond, there is a consistent demand to be intercultural in order to promote catholicity,” she explains.

The evidence of the significance of the spiritual approach of the Far East, marking a holistic and interconnected horizon, is also provided by the fact that the presidents delegated to the general assembly of the synod include two women, one of whom is Japanese. Her name is Sister Momoko Nishimura, who translated Brothers All into her language. This is further confirmation of an assembly whose work is intended to be supported by the contribution that comes from those who, in the context of a religious minority (in Asia Catholics make up 3.3% of the population), strive to create bridges and dialogue dynamics at every level. This ranges from the experience of the transcendent to action for social and ecological justice.

The Catholic Council for Justice and Peace of the Bishops’ Conference of Japan is working hard on these issues. To do so, they are collaborating with the National Christian Council of Japan and with various Buddhist schools such as Nihonzan Myohoji, Rissho Koseikai, Jodo-Shinshuu and Nichiren-shu, the nun explains. The intention is to form “a proactive network focused on concrete issues such as peace in Myanmar, Ukraine, Sudan, the promotion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the abolition of nuclear power plants, human trafficking, climate change”. This is the Church in whom Sr. Hirota works; this is the dream in which she would like the universal Church to persevere, with a constant spirit of openness and parrhesia.

“The working document for the continental phase Allargate lo spazio della vostra tenda [Enlarge the place of your tent,],” she recalls, “Was a refreshing and hopeful surprise for many of us. We must encourage everyone to speak from the heart without fear. The habit of taking off one’s shoes, entering into the other’s world and contemplating the other as the image of God allows us to create a community of research and discernment”. Sister Shizue also makes no secret of the fact that “some members of the hierarchical Church are not happy with the synodal process initiated by Pope Francis”. The fear, she notes, is that the synod will undermine doctrines. Let the Spirit speak, this is the guiding criterion, the nun stresses, because He is the protagonist.

The important thing is to listen and hear oneself, not just with our ears. What is emblematic is the image that Sr. Hirota uses to highlight an entirely oriental peculiarity that can be very useful to nurture a certain practice of faith in the West and rediscover concentration, respect, and presence in relationships. If we observe the Japanese tea ceremony, every gesture expresses the care and commitment lavished “with all the heart, soul and mind of the one serving”. The same happens with the host, in a silent and slow process where, through matter and body, the spiritual is experienced. It is about “feeling God incarnate in everything that exists. Everything breathes God”. Let there be Synod.

By Antonella Palermo