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The problem with Takamatsu diocese

Small differences, then lack of direction and unity threatened true mission of the Church

  • Bishop Osamu Mizobe SDB, Takamatsu
  • Japan
  • February 9, 2012
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It has been half a year since I stepped down from my post as diocesan bishop of Takamatsu diocese. Now, as I look back on the circumstances I encountered in that role, I have decided it best to write a few words for the sake of the future.

First off, it is fair to say that there was something decidedly unusual in my reassignment to Takamatsu diocese, which came despite my being active bishop of Sendai at the time. That would never happen unless there was a problem. In fact, even before my arrival there, certain events, such as the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan’s inspection of the diocese as Papal Envoy, made it clear that something abnormal was afoot.

What can be said in all fairness and agreement by both sides is this: that the problem that arose in Takamatsu had its roots in the diocese’s excessive indifference to, or ignorance of, the policies of the National Incentive Convention for Evangelization (NICE), which set a course for the Church in Japan in accordance with the decisions made at the Second Vatican Council.

More specifically, the problem lay in the excessive emphasis of diocesan autonomy to the exclusion of any concept of a Church open to society, a Church to be built in cooperation with society. Even at the parish level, there was not a very strong sense of teamwork in evangelization or pastoral care.

Furthermore, the religious orders lacked any attentiveness to the task of working with the diocesan bishop to establish a common direction for the diocese.

The bishop of the diocese, my predecessor, who had neither manpower nor economic resources, tried anything and everything he could think of, like a drowning man grasping at straws. Every attempt ended in frustration, and his solution to the diocese’s problems ended up being simply to bring in any group that promised him it could help.

The stark reality is that Takamatsu diocese did not gain even one new priest for 40 years. Every seminarian there dropped out before graduation. With congregations getting older and the number of baptisms dwindling, there wasn’t much good news.

One organization endorsed by Rome was called the Neocatechumenal Way, which began active involvement in Japan 30 years ago. It was a group bursting with energy, and at first most parishes in Takamatsu welcomed its members enthusiastically.

However, as this group’s people came into the local churches, some of the laity began to feel uncomfortable, especially in matters of liturgy. Even some priests working in the diocese reacted with something like opposition.

What was troubling was that priests affiliated with the Way almost without exception made changes to the altars and chapels of the churches they took charge of, to the shock of parishioners who wanted to preserve the traditions of the Church.

Nevertheless, the Way worked hard to recruit new members to serve as the nucleus of its activities, so naturally the number of those who agreed with the group’s policies increased as well.

The confrontation began with small differences of opinion at the parish level. However, the situation exploded into widespread disorder when the Way founded a seminary it positioned as the “Takamatsu Diocese Seminary.”

Initial objections that the new seminary had been founded without fulfilling certain legal prerequisites escalated into a barrage of voices denouncing the bishop for authorizing its establishment. Then, the bishop made public a list of names of those dissenting in this way, which those named responded to by bringing a legal action against him in civil court.

When I took up my new role in Takamatsu diocese, the motto “Rebirth and Harmony” was foremost in my mind, and I hoped that some sort of dialogue might be rekindled in the diocese. Unfortunately, by that time the possibility of dialogue was virtually off the table.

Consequently, the first step had to be to make the diocese organizationally functional on the basis of Canon Law.

The biggest obstacle was that of the Takamatsu Diocesan International Redemptoris Mater Seminary. With each passing year, multiple new priests affiliated with the Way emerged from this seminary, and the discord in the diocese grew more severe.

Fortunately, we had help from the apostolic nuncios and the members of the bishops’ conference, and it was decided that the seminary should be shut down. At the same time, we focused our energy on activating the inner life of the diocese, which was really the more systemic problem, and which arguably lingers to this day.

Finding new candidates for the priesthood, educating them: these were our top priorities. I rejoice to say that this year the number of seminarians has risen to four. This is most likely the result of the effort we directed toward the upbringing of young people.

The biggest problems with the Way are (1) that they mistake their homemade rituals for charisms, and (2) that they have a chain of command that is entirely disconnected from the local bishop. Also, (3) they take problems that ought to be solved within the diocese and bring them off to Rome, where they try to get their own way by using the influence of Rome to coerce the local Church to fall in line.

This results in great harm to the independence of local Churches. Except in matters of departure from Church dogma, local problems should in principle be resolved by local Churches.

With its new bishop, today’s Takamatsu diocese has begun to walk the path of “Harmony and Rebirth.” They recently held a major diocesan meeting to discuss evangelization and have taken the first step toward rebirth.

It is so easy for a diocese to crumble if its people do not unite and give serious attention to solidarity. This is the message I wish to send, from a diocese that has learned this truth through agonizing, first-hand experience, to the rest of the Church in Japan.

Bishop Osamu Mizobe, SDB, is the retired Bishop of Takamatsu
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