When Yasusada Fujii was a schoolboy, his shodō (calligraphic brush-writing) was so beautiful that it was placed in exhibitions. But as an adult, he did not take up the brush.
He once explained that to me. When he was baptized as a young adult, he realized that his pursuit of art and beauty had been a search for something. When he came to know Jesus Christ, he knew he had found what he had been looking for and no longer needed the search tools.
He also explained why he had decided to become a Tokyo diocesan priest. “The decision to become a Christian was the big one. After that, priesthood seemed a comparatively short step to complete the move.” He pointed out that many Japanese priests and religious would say the same.
I met Fr Fujii when I first came to Japan as a seminarian 40 years ago, and as part of my training spent several months in the Tokyo seminary where he was a member of the training staff.
He enjoyed life and his biggest enjoyment was to help others enjoy life. One way he did that was to take us seminarians out to eat and drink in the neighborhood several times a week. Those evenings off campus were an opportunity for us to relax and for him to teach us his philosophy of ministry.
His message was simple. “You must not think you are pastor to only a hundred or so Catholics. You are pastor to 100,000 or more, but only a hundred or so know it.” His point was that a priest’s ministry must be to all people and should be notable for companionship rather than ruling.
Later, Fr Fujii flew to New York to be part of my ordination, and it was he who vested me as a priest during the ceremony. After that, we saw each other only occasionally as we moved from assignment to assignment.
Eventually, I was preparing to work among the homeless in a poor district of Tokyo. I visited the nearest parish to let the pastor know that I would be active in his neighborhood, and when I rang the doorbell, Fr Fujii answered.
I told him what I had in mind, and his response was to join wholeheartedly in the effort. He opened the parish facilities to our efforts and recruited volunteers from among his parishioners. As he put it, those homeless people were part of the parish, too.
After several years, new assignments took both of us out of Japan to different continents, and after our returns, we saw each other only occasionally at priests’ gatherings and funerals. I heard that when last year the bishop of Sendai asked for volunteers from among Japan’s clergy to assist in rebuilding communities after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, Fr Fujii offered to go. It was there that he died suddenly a few days ago at the age of 75.
Priesthood as we have known it for the past few centuries is changing and is very possibly headed toward extinction. Deeper historical understanding, ongoing theological reflection and the thousands of young men who are finding other ways to live and serve guarantee change.
A lifetime, celibate, full-time caste of men whose life and ministry has been modeled to a large extent upon monastic practice and feudal society is undergoing stresses that sooner or later will probably result in its demise. Will it be replaced by a return to more ancient models, or will something entirely new appear? It is too early to know the end result of a process that may take well over a century.
Fr Fujii was an exemplar of the passing model at its best – filled with joy in knowing Jesus, ready to serve all people anywhere without reservation or calculation, an enjoyable friend to all. Such as he can continue to serve as models as the Church responds, willingly or not, to the pressures that force change.
We will always need Christians whose joy is Jesus, and whose vocation is to share that joy with all within reach.
Fr Bill Grimm MM is the publisher of ucanews.com based in Tokyo