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William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Monolingual clergy in a multilingual Japanese Church
Published: July 06, 2022 10:24 AM
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Christians pray for victims during a mass to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, western Japan, on August 9, 2017

Christians pray for victims during a mass to mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, western Japan, on August 9, 2017 (Photo by JIJI PRESS/ AFP)

Men preparing in Japan for ordination as pastors for the Catholic Church must learn three alphabets. They need not acquire fluency in the attached tongues, nor need they learn enough to do study or research in those languages. They are, however, equipped to compare calligraphy with any ancient Hebrews, Hellenes or Romans who ring their doorbell.

When evangelization resumed in Japan in the late 19th century, priests and the religious came to the country, mostly from the West. After World War 2, what had already been a flood became a veritable tsunami of men and women whose focus was on developing a Church for the millions of Japanese who did not know the Gospel.

In the 1970s a change began. As Christian communities took root and grew, the ministry of priests increasingly shifted from mission to maintenance. Priests’ primary role became pastoral agency with, perhaps, missionary overtones whereas in the past pastoral work was a means to missionary ends.

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At about the same time, a change was taking place in Japanese society that would have a significant impact on the life of the Church in the country.

As the number of Japanese people available to work on farms and in factories declined in number while increasing in age, the country was forced to reluctantly open its borders to workers from overseas. Sometimes those workers come legally; at other times a blind eye is turned to any legal irregularities so long as the work gets done.

A significant portion of those workers are Catholics from Brazil, Peru, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries. In fact, most of Japan’s Catholics are not Japanese.

Because of the pastoral maintenance orientation of bishops and others, those Catholics are seen primarily as a pastoral challenge, not as missionary agents, though in fact they are and could be more so.

So, bishops seek out pastoral workers from overseas who can serve the growing number of Catholics who speak languages other than Japanese. There is no concerted effort to equip diocesan clergy to serve those immigrants.

When they are brought into the country from abroad to serve, foreign clergy and the religious are expected to learn the Japanese language in order to minister.

However, Japanese clergy are exempt from any requirement to learn the languages used by the majority of Catholics in the country. Ancient Hebrew, Greek and Latin, though they will never be used or even really learned, are apparently considered sufficient.

The message thus given to non-Japanese Catholics is that they are not a core part of the Catholic Church in Japan, but a distraction that must be handled with as little inconvenience to the “core community” as possible.

But if mission rather than maintenance is the vocation of the Church, this is a terrible dereliction. It marginalizes the majority of Japan’s Catholics, the youngest and most vigorous among them, from being the missionary presence their baptism requires and entitles them to be.

Many, probably most, of Japan’s new Catholics come from places where Christians are the majority of the population. Some may have never encountered anyone besides fellow Catholics before coming to Japan. Their Catholicism needs to adapt to a context where presuppositions and customs differ from what they are used to, a context set not by Catholicism, but by other traditions, and other histories.

Who is to guide them in this process of inculturating their faith to be Gospel witnesses to non-believers in Japan? The clergy and religious who themselves have newly arrived from those Catholic homelands are not equipped to do so. It requires Japanese Christians to help non-Japanese Christians take their place in the Church in Japan.

But the members of the Church in Japan primarily charged with that responsibility are not equipped and, judging by their meager efforts, are uninterested in being so equipped.

There are dioceses in the world where the ability to actually minister in more than one language (not merely pronounce liturgical texts) is a prerequisite for ordination. If a man is unwilling or unable to serve people who differ linguistically from himself he is not considered fit to exercise ministry and is not ordained.

The time is overdue for Japan’s bishops individually and as a conference to make non-Japanese Catholics a missionary presence in Japan. The way ahead is to equip the Japanese leaders of parishes to effectively minister to the majority of Japan’s Catholic community.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

1 Comments on this Story
RICHARD
Excellent insights. Engagement and evangelisation are key needs for the church, and you're right in saying Japan would benefit from stepping up and doing more.
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia