Intervention at the Extraordinary Synod 2014 by Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada, President of the CBCJ





(1) The era of persecution

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of a special event in the history of the Catholic Church in Japan. On March 17, 1865, Christians who had kept their faith through seven generations of violent persecution presented themselves to a Paris Foreign Mission priest in the Oura Church in Nagasaki.

In the short time between the introduction of the Faith to Japan by St. Francis Xavier in 1549 and the banning of Christianity in 1614, the number of believers is reported to have grown to some 500,000. Since the entire population of Japan in the early 17th century is believed to have been about 12 million (it is now 125 million), it is clear that evangelization enjoyed great success. It was a period of violent political turmoil in Japan, and people sought consolation and hope. The novelty of Christianity attracted yet others.

However, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruler of the nation, wary of the foreign countries that seemed behind the growth of Christianity, in 1587 issued the “Bateran Tsuihorei,” ordering the expulsion of all foreign missionaries and proscribing Christianity. Beginning with the martyrdom of 26 missionaries and laity in 1597, the persecution of the Church in Japan increased, and in 1614 the Tokugawa shogunate (ruling military system) outlawed all aspects of Christianity. Surviving documentation records some 5,000 martyrs, but the actual number was much higher. Following the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-8, all public evidence of Christianity disappeared, and in 1644 the last priest in Japan, Jesuit Father Mansho Konishi, was martyred.

The shogunate introduced various measures to extirpate all vestiges of Christianity. Even so, there were Christians who continued to pass on their faith in secret from generation to generation while pretending to obey. Even without the guidance of priests, these “hidden Christians” passed on their faith for 220 years, a unique, almost miraculous, event in the history of the Church. What made this miracle possible was the close family ties among Christians and the presence of lay leaders responsible for teaching, keeping track of the Church calendar and baptizing. The family was the locus for passing on belief. Christians lived in farming communities where maintaining community identity was assisted by the presence of such “confraternities” as those of the Eucharist, the Blessed Mother and Misericordia

On the basis of a commercial treaty with the Tokugawa shogunate in 1858, a French missionary built a church in Nagasaki for the foreign community. Thanks to that, the encounter with some Nagasaki Christians took place in 1865. Two years later, however, persecution broke out anew until 1873 when the anti-Christian edicts were revoked after 260 years.

(2) Passing on the faith in Japan today

The situation today is totally different from the age of the hidden Christians. Freedom of belief and the free exercise of religion are guaranteed by the Constitution of Japan. Ironically, though, when compared with the age of persecution, now that freedom of religion is recognized as a fundamental human right many Catholics find it difficult to pass their faith on to their children.

Behind this situation are problems that all modern families, whether Christian or not, face. Those problems can be summarized as follows:

• The weakening of family ties. Japan’s postwar policy of rapid economic growth led to a concentration of population in urban areas. The workplace became the center of people’s lives and time spent as family diminished. The authority of fathers weakened. Children are so busy with extracurricular activities such as clubs and cram schools that they even lack time to play. The spread of the Internet has further reduced time spent sharing with each other face-to-face. In Japan, families in which all the members are Christians are rare, but even when the entire family is Christian opportunities to pray together as a family are scarce. Families lack opportunities for open-hearted sharing of joys and sorrows. Increasingly, there is evidence that Japan is becoming a “disconnected society” in which solitary death is increasing. Whether in the cities or in the countryside, more and more people pass their days in isolation and anxiety.

• The falling number of children and the ageing of society. The average lifespan of Japanese has increased greatly. At the same time, however, the birth rate has dropped, and population decline has become a concern. Throughout the country, the sight of children playing has become rare. The steadily increasing population of the elderly is putting pressure on the cost of medical and nursing care. A big challenge is to find ways for the elderly to spend their last years with dignity. On the other hand, the low birth rate has become a major social and political problem. There is a tendency for couples to limit the number of their children. One reason is the financial burden of providing for the education of a large number of children. In addition, many women work outside the home and cannot make time for childrearing. The current social environment works against bearing and raising children.

• Decreasing marriages, increasing divorce. For a variety of reasons, the number of those who choose to not marry or who wish to marry but cannot find a mate is increasing. At the same time, the number of those who divorce is increasing. Increasingly, people simply choose divorce when faced with difficulties. It is no exaggeration to say that the idea that was once considered normal of building of a home where children could grow is in danger. Contraception and abortion have become normal. It appears that all these trends are having a strong effect upon Catholics as well.


The National Incentive Convention for Evangelization (NICE): A Church that supports families. In order to promote the teachings of Vatican II in Japanese society, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan twice conducted large-scale national gatherings. The first such gathering, titled ”Building an Open Church,” was held in 1987, and participants explored ways for Catholics to overcome conflicts between faith and daily life. A number of proposals were submitted to the CBCJ. A second gathering in 1993 was themed “Finding the Ideal of Evangelization from the Reality of Family Life – Fostering Families Based on the Will of God.” This third extraordinary synod on The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization has many points in common with the second NICE that the CBCJ organized 21 years ago. The results of that gathering provide the background for our reflections on the synod’s theme.


The responsibility of the Christian community. Catholics are a small minority in Japan. They live in an overwhelmingly secularized society focused on economic growth, a society where a majority of the population belongs to a variety of other religions or no religion at all. The Church in Japan is truly a “scattered Church.” Many individual Catholics are the only Christian in their family. In such a situation, the Church community must exercise ingenuity and put forth special effort to help foster faith in the home. The Church must encourage community among Christian families and support interpersonal relations among Christians. It is important that the Church set up structures to provide caring support to families under stress or suffering from sickness or disability.

Improved liturgy and Scripture sharing. The Church offers prayerful support to Christians isolated in society. Liturgy, especially the Mass, is important. Christians living in a harsh reality look to the liturgy and preaching to provide comfort and encouragement. Opportunities to study the Sunday Gospel and other readings and join others in sharing reflections are beneficial. Quiet reflection on the Sunday Gospel in the context of sharing allows the Word to penetrate and bring joy.

Increased sharing. The second NICE stressed the importance of sharing. That sharing includes not simply the Word of God, but also entails a receptive openness to the sickness, disabilities, disasters, discrimination, human rights violations and other problems that people endure. This requires empathy and a willingness to live in real communion with people. The Great East Japan Earthquake was a terrible tragedy, but it also brought together many people to provide relief and brought into existence many groups dedicated to service. This is a good example of what sharing life means.

Improved marriage preparation. Though Christianity is accepted by few in Japan, there is one aspect of Church life that it extremely popular, the wedding ceremony. Many Japanese couples hope to be married in a church. Responding to that, the bishops’ conference of Japan received special permission from the Holy See to conduct wedding ceremonies in churches for nonbelievers under certain conditions, including taking part in a course of instruction on the essentials of the Catholic view of marriage. Of course, pre-marital catechesis is especially important in the case of marriage between Christians. Before they enter into marriage, it is important that they learn the meaning of marriage and the value of human life. Responding to the need for pre-marital catechesis is an absolutely essential element of evangelization for the family. Many of those who attend weddings are not Christians, and so the ceremony can be an important opportunity to preach the Gospel. In addition to weddings, many non-Christians attend Mass at Christmas, where they hear the homily and receive a blessing.

Ceremonial occasions and evangelization. In Asian cultures, ceremonies marking key events in one’s life are important. In Japan, rituals connected with the dead are especially important. Many non-Christians have attended Catholic funerals and the rites have a good reputation. Funerals offer an important opportunity to explain the Christian meaning of death to those outside the Church. So, good preparation is essential. Memorial Masses and the blessing of young adults at their coming-of-age celebrations are other opportunities for evangelization. Further inculturation of such ceremonies in Japan would greatly promote the evangelization of Japan.

Simplifying procedures regarding marriage. The bishops of Japan desire a simplification of the system of annulments for the benefit of providing pastoral care in cases of divorce and remarriage. In Japan, 90 percent of the weddings performed in churches are of people of different religions, usually of a Catholic and an unbaptized spouse. Given that situation, maintaining one’s own faith, let alone promising to baptize children and raise them as Catholics, can be difficult. Once their married life begins, even going to Mass can be difficult for the Catholic partner, and even bringing up the subject of baptism for children can be a problem though the non-Catholic partner might have signed a promise to allow it. Situations like this where the non-Christian party refuses to honor a promise can lead to divorce, but the non-Christian party usually refuses to cooperate in an annulment process. Of course, such cooperation should be sought, but especially in situations of domestic violence or mental illness it may be impossible to get any cooperation. In such cases, it should be possible for the local tribunal to issue a declaration of nullity. As is the case with marriage between people of different religions, bishops’ conferences should be given the authority to provide exemptions to procedures that presume the marriage of two Christians.

Making the Church an oasis in the desert. Even in the large cities of Japan where secularization seems to rule, there are many people who in the depths of their hearts seek the One who is greater than themselves, God. These urban dwellers need time and space to quietly pray and consider their lives. Many people will take part when prayer gatherings are planned. Not a few nonbelievers come to churches for the opportunity to spend quiet time. Therefore, churches in Japan’s metropolises try to be open in every sense of the word. And that openness is not simply a matter of the building; it is true as well of the community of believers. We hope that the Church can be a community where the stories of people who wander in a world of troubles can be heard.

In Japan’s society where the motto sometimes seems to be, “Money is everything,” the Catholic Church hopes and prays that it might be a sign of the light of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, pointing to an eternal world that promises healing, comfort, encouragement and hope.