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Remembering the priest who brought a Madonna to Japan

Yokohama celebrates life of a true evangelist

Remembering the priest who brought a Madonna to Japan
Bishop Otsuka, right, visits the grave of Fr Robin in France correspondent, Tokyo

December 27, 2012

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In August, Bishop Yoshinao Otsuka of Kyoto paid a visit to the town of Digna in the French diocese of Saint-Claude. His destination: the long-forgotten grave of one Father Leon Robin of Saint-Claude (1802—1882).

The reason for the visit and what joins the modern day Japanese prelate to the long departed Frenchman is their shared faith and a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Several years before Japan reopened borders that had been closed to foreigners for generations, Fr Robin had heard stories of Japanese martyrs and was so moved that he formed a prayer group to pray that missioners might again enter the country.

In one of these stories it was said that, when St. Francis Xavier traveled to Japan in 1549, he carried with him an image of the Blessed Virgin and prayed earnestly that a church might be erected at Kyoto, the capital at the time.

Hundreds of years later, after Japan had shut and later reopened its doors to foreigners, Fr Robin used that image of Mary as a model and had a set of six statues of her cradling the Christ Child on her lap cast in Rome, where they received a blessing from Pope Pius IX.

In 1866, one of these six statues was sent to Fr Prudence Seraphin-Barthelemy Girard, a priest with the Paris Foreign Mission stationed in Yokohama, with the hope that St Francis Xavier’s wish for a church in Kyoto might yet become a reality.

This statue is today known in Japanese as the Miyako no Seibo, or “Madonna of the Capital.”

A church Fr Girard had built in Yokohama in 1862 was the first erected in Japan after the opening of the country, and it was this church that became the temporary home of the Miyako no Seibo. All was not well for Christianity in Japan, however, as the year 1867 saw the beginning of a new period of persecution.

In 1873, another priest took the Miyako no Seibo to the outskirts of Kyoto, where he buried it on a small hill overlooking the city. That same year, the persecution was lifted in a de facto, if tacit, recognition of Christianity; it was dug up in 1879 and now stands in Kawaramachi Cathedral in Kyoto.

Recently, a replica of the statue was sent from Kyoto back to France, bringing the Miyako no Seibo full circle, back to the land of Fr Robin, the man responsible for its creation.

“The grave site was right next to the town church,” said Bishop Otsuka after his visit this year. “But these days, even the locals there have forgotten him. They didn’t even know where the grave was, so they had to search for it.”

The local bishop told Otsuka, “Thank you for helping us remember this story.”

The year 2012 was the 150th anniversary of the construction of Fr Girard’s first church in Yokohama. Commemorative events were held there on November 24 by the local diocese and attracted at least 4,000 people.

During the memorial Mass, Bishop Masahiro Umemura of Yokohama made special note of Fr Robin and the other French missionaries who worked so fervently for the re-evangelization of Japan. He lamented the fact that their accomplishments are all but forgotten these days, but spoke of his deep gratitude, saying, “This is the true face of evangelization.”

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