Pope Francis speaks by the cenotaph in memory of those killed in the 1945 atomic bombing during the meeting for peace at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on Nov. 24. (Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
In a somber and sometimes moving ceremony in Hiroshima, where testimony was heard from survivors of the city’s deadly 1945 atomic blast, Pope Francis stepped up his anti-nuclear weapon campaign, once more branding the very possession of such armaments as immoral.
“With deep conviction I wish once more to declare that the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is today, more than ever, a crime not only against the dignity of human beings but against any possible future for our common home. The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral,” he told a meeting for peace at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on Nov. 24.
Ad libbing alongside prepared notes, he said that possession of arms is also immoral, going further than his predecessors by saying nuclear weapons shouldn’t be held for deterrence.
“We will be judged on this. Future generations will rise to condemn our failure if we spoke of peace but did not act to bring it about among the peoples of the earth. How can we speak of peace even as we build terrifying new weapons of war? How can we speak about peace even as we justify illegitimate actions by speeches filled with discrimination and hate?” Pope Francis asked.
The pope told participants at a conference on nuclear disarmament hosted by the Vatican in November 2017: “The threat of their use as well as their very possession is to be firmly condemned.” His comments drew the ire of nuclear powers but were particularly resonant in Japan, which has been both a victim of the world’s only nuclear attacks and sits in close tracking distance of three nuclear-armed nations: China, Russia and North Korea.
For many years, popes and Catholic leaders had said the policy of nuclear deterrence could be morally acceptable as long as work was underway on a complete ban of the weapons. But with the nuclear arms treaty between the US and Russia recently torn up, this is no longer acceptable to Francis.
In 2017, the pope said that nuclear weapons “exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race.”
In focusing the bulk of his address in Hiroshima on nuclear weapons, he concluded the day as he had started it in Nagasaki, the site of the second nuclear attack by the US in 1945 that finally forced Japan, which had committed countless atrocities on both civilians and prisoners of war, to surrender.
At 8.15am on Aug. 6, 1945, the first wartime atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, destroying the city completely. More than 70,000 people died instantly, while another 70,000 died later from radiation burns.
The only building to survive the blast was the Genbaku Dome. Today its iconic ruin stands at the heart of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park as a reminder of the most destructive force ever unleashed by humanity.
The Genbaku Dome, which survived the atomic blast, stands at the heart of the Peace Memorial Park.
A survivor's account
Yoshiko Kajimoto, 88, who survived the Hiroshima blast, gave her testimony in front of the pope.
“When we were bombed, I was 14 years old and a third-year middle school student. At the time, I was 2.3 kilometers north of the hypocenter, making parts for airplane propellers. The moment a blue light flowed through the window, I thought it was a bomb,” she told the hushed crowd.
“Then the factory collapsed with a loud sound, and I fainted. I became aware of my friends’ screams, but it was dark and I couldn't move because I was buried under timber and tiles. I realized that a friend was under me, so I called out to see if she was alive.
“I tried to escape, but my right foot was stuck in the timber. When I finally pulled it out, my shin was torn and bleeding badly. When I went outside, all the surrounding buildings were destroyed. It was as dark as evening and smelled like rotten fish.”
Ahead of the testimony and his speech, Pope Francis spent more than 30 minutes meeting interfaith leaders and other survivors and their families. In one particularly moving encounter with a female survivor, the pope wrapped his arms around her, bringing tears to the eyes of a woman who seemed like she had waited s lifetime for such a moment.
He then presented flowers to the Hiroshima War Memorial alone, prayed and called for a minute’s silence, which was marked by the slow banging of a Japanese gong.
The audience of 2,000 people, consisting of locals, families and groups from the Philippines, which has more than 250,000 workers in Japan, sat respectfully in silence for the entire program save for standing ovations for the pope. Girls from local Catholic schools squealed with excitement and delight.
Vincent Itar, a member of the small local Catholic community, told ucanews ahead of the pope’s arrival that he hoped Francis would give a strong message on nuclear weapons.
“It is really important because I am 50 years old. I cannot imagine the next time I can come here with my family — that is really important for me,” he said.
“We are very happy to have a pope here. Even if Japan does not have so many Catholics, we have other members of the Catholic family from around Asia here to support the pope.”
The Hiroshima event marked the end of a very long day for the 82-year-old pope, who began it in Tokyo, flew to Nagasaki, flew to Hiroshima and arrived back in the Japanese capital 16 hours later.
Typically, he beamed and listened during his brief personal meetings before delivering his warnings about war with gravitas, but he was clearly struggling as he walked off the main stage.