Toward a Synodal Church: The Challenge for the Catholic Church in Japan


Toward a Synodal Church: The Challenge for the Catholic Church in Japan Introduction This report will introduc […]

Toward a Synodal Church: The Challenge for the Catholic Church in Japan


This report will introduce the “Walking Together” Church that the Catholic Church in Japan aims to be after the first session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023. First, we will look at the current situation of the Catholic Church in Japan, followed by a presentation of the efforts of the Church here and the challenges that lie ahead.

The Catholic Church in Japan
Christians comprise 1% of Japan’s population of 123,250,274. The Catholic Church has about 437,000 members or 0.35% of the population. They belong to 15 dioceses and 773 parishes.
Japan’s birthrate is declining and the population is aging rapidly. The Catholic Church is also affected, with a noticeable aging of its congregations. In addition, the Japanese Catholic Church has become increasingly multinational and multicultural. Many foreigners living in Japan, especially workers from Asia and South America, are important members of the Church. In Japanese society the Catholic Church is widely recognized for its various charitable activities such as schools and other institutions in addition to parishes.
Japan is threatened by large-scale natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanos, typhoons, etc. In response, the Catholic Church has walked alongside those who have suffered in past disasters. Non-Christian Japanese have recognized and appreciated such contributions. This is the result of the Japanese Catholic Church’s efforts since 1980 to become a “Synodal” Church. In other words, the Catholic Church in Japan already lives the Synodality of “Walking Together.”

The Challenge for the Catholic Church in Japan
The Letter to the People of God presented at the first session has been introduced and explained to the faithful by the bishops of each diocese. To be a Synodal Church, the Catholic Church in Japan, instead of considering individual specific problems, has focused on the process of facing them. This was inspired by the following words of Pope Francis:

“The Synod is about synodality and not about this or that theme….The important thing is how the reflection is done, that is, in a synodal way.”

Therefore, we aim to spread and practice the Conversation in the Spirit adopted at the first session. Sharing the Word of God is already widely practiced in the Catholic Church in Japan and Lectio Divina is being conducted in many faith communities in small groups. However, due to COVID-19 from 2020, “communion” has been waning in communities of faith. Against this backdrop, Conversation in the Spirit is essential to once again become a Church that journeys together.

The Ad Hoc Team for the Synod
After the Synod’s first session in October 2023, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan formed an Ad Hoc Team for the Synod composed of bishops, priests, religious, and lay persons. To make the “Synodal method” widely known, these actions were decided.
• Synod Handbook to be prepared to make the Synodal Church widely known.
• National Assembly on Synodality to promote the “Conversation in the Spirit.”
• Initiatives to implement the “Conversations in the Spirit” in the dioceses to become a Synodal Church.

Synod Handbook
Work on the Handbook to make the Synodal Church known to a wider audience has begun and will be published and ready for distribution by the end of June 2024. Since the beginning of the new century, Japan’s society has begun to focus on results. The Church as a community of faith has also been affected. The Catholic Church in Japan must not forget the essence of Synodality: creating communion (community), bearing burdens together (co-responsibility), and thinking and praying together (communal discernment). We must aim to be an inclusive Church that does not exclude anyone.

National Assembly on Synodality
Japan’s National Assembly of Synodality was conducted from Thursday, March 7, to Friday, March 8, 2024, in Tokyo. The 68 participants included17 of the 18 bishops (the archbishop of Nagasaki was unable to attend for health reasons and was represented by a diocesan priest). There were 45 representatives from the dioceses: 15 priests, 15 religious and 15 laity. In addition, there were four members of the Ad Hoc Team and two facilitators.

The objectives of the gathering were:
1. To experience the Conversation in the Spirit that expresses well the Synodal Church.
2. To discuss the current situation of our Catholic Church in Japan using the Conversation in the Spirit method based on the “Synthesis Report: A Synodal Church in Mission.”

Report on the Conversation in the Spirit
After receiving an explanation about Conversation in the Spirit, the participants at the National Assembly were divided into groups and practiced it twice. The content of the Conversation was chosen from 20 themes presented in the Synthesis Report: A Synodal Church in Mission. After each group’s discussion, all participants shared the fruits of the Conversation.

Common themes
The word “Synod”: The Conversation in the Spirit took place around the word “Synod” from various positions and pastoral responsibilities. Above all, the importance of “walking together” was stressed. “Listening” was a recurring theme. By listening to others, we can free ourselves from assumptions and prejudices, and build relationships of mutual respect among people of different standpoints.
New Possibilities: Participants experienced that listening and sharing with an open heart is itself prayer and that the work of the Holy Spirit can be experienced through people sharing their hearts with God at the center. Even if some people are resistant towards Synodality, they cannot deny the work of the Holy Spirit in this way. Furthermore, there should be no disagreement that the process of “walking with” Jesus himself is more important than solving problems. To change attitudes, to emphasize process over problem-solving, will not be easy. It will take time. But here, we can see new possibilities for the Church.
A Church that accepts: Through the implementation of the Synodal process, the Church community will be transformed into a community that empathizes with the pain of others and with its own pain. It should also become a community that accepts all people, a community that values relationships with foreign nationals, and a Church that welcomes people from different cultures and social minorities.
Our nature received from God: Such a Church is a Church that “walks together” with our Lord Jesus Christ, sharing pain and weaknesses with Him. It is a Church that opens a wide door to society and people. Walking together is the true image of humanity. Such a Church values the true nature of human beings which we are losing sight of. Of course, we must confront the various problems and issues that exist in society, but we must also be a community of faith that accepts and respects people as human beings. We must be a Church that continues to think, pray, and remember those who cannot come to the community, a Church that shares people’s pain and joy, and that relates and supports each other with compassion and empathy. Moreover, the “Communal Church” proposed by the Second Vatican Council already includes elements of Synodality. This fact is testimony to the grace of the Holy Spirit who has been with the Church throughout the ages.
The work of the Holy Spirit: It is necessary to value the Holy Spirit who empowers the Church. The Holy Spirit brings us together, transforming us into a Church that respects diversity over uniformity. The Spirit transforms us into a Church that takes on shared responsibility without being limited by loud voices or worldly norms. Achieving Synodality will take time and effort. It is important to find hope while experiencing suffering similar to birth pains. In addition, since the Church influences the world, it must listen to the voices of many people. This is a grace to hope for from the Holy Spirit.
Concrete Steps: Finally, a common emphasis was given to practical Synodal steps in the Japanese Church. Some participants realized that after sharing the Conversations in the Spirit method that they lacked an attitude of listening to others. Some participants pointed out that the Japanese Church tends to be top-down, and that such an attitude needs to be fundamentally changed. Other points that received attention included the experience of unity through the celebration of multilingual Masses, and the need to provide better educational support for minorities. Thus, thanks to the Conversation in the Spirit, which was a first experience for many of the participants, they were able to face specific challenges for the Church in Japan. The importance of “walking together” with people of different opinions and backgrounds was emphasized, and everyone realized that listening is essential to prevent differences of opinion from becoming conflicts.

Group themes (6 groups)
1. Entering the Community of Faith: Christian Initiation
Rejoicing Together: In Japan, where the number of Christians is small, many people come to Church after already having some kind of religious experience. Therefore, it is necessary to share the experience of faith with them before they are baptized. Even after baptism, it is important to share personal encounters that led to baptism, the experience of the community of faith, the fellowship with those who gather in the Church, and the joy of encountering God in the Sacraments. The community of faith (parish community, etc.) as a church should be willing to support the baptized. It is wonderful to feel that there is someone in the Church who spiritually supports one’s way of life. Furthermore, the Church needs to be a community where people can carry the cross together even in difficult situations, a Church where people can feel comfortable as if it were their own home. Behind the joy we experience in the Church is the presence of the resurrected Jesus. We believe that those who have experienced Christian initiation in the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist will become people who will carry the joy of the Church in their lives.

2. People in Poverty, Protagonists of the Church’s Journey
Participants in this group, reflected on feeling the pain of others and their own “poverty” through specific reflection and prayer about vulnerable people (day laborers, the abused, the elderly, and the disabled) with whom they have worked. They also prayed about whether they had been complacent in their support for the poor and the needy, and whether their attitudes had contributed to further prejudice.
Despite these struggles, through approaching the socially marginalized and excluded, participants had come to know their pain, a knowledge that gradually transformed into anger.
However, the group members confirmed to each other the fact that the only way to make the energy of anger godly and holy is through prayer. Prayer creates space in the heart. It was pointed out that this fact is connected to what the Conversation in the Spirit is trying to achieve.

3. Living with Migrants: A Church “out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation”
Like Japanese society, the Japanese Church is becoming increasingly multicultural and multilingual. This fact sends a new wind through the Church. Although the situation at each place is different, participants agreed that Catholics are working hard to become a multicultural and multi-lingual Church. Instead of seeking a single answer, we must value the differences among the people who gather in our Church. We need to strive to turn differences into strengths rather than barriers. The group unanimously agreed with a member who made a particularly harsh comment about the term “foreigner,”, which is common in Japanese society. The proposed term “migrant” was felt to be a step toward Synodality.
Japanese participants in this group felt the need to listen carefully to understand each person’s situation. There is a need for mutual understanding of the fact that there are differences in many respects between the migrants and the Japanese, who have different cultures and languages. Efforts to meet the needs of the migrants will be required, and the migrants will also need to be willing to learn more about Japan and Japanese society. Both Japanese believers and migrant congregations have the task of carrying out their lifelong formation as Christians. Also shared as a challenge was the vision of making the Church a safe place for the children of migrants. Through these efforts, we will become a Church that walks together as the children of the same God.

4. The Church is Mission
Involvement: First, it is important to get involved with people. There are many ways to get involved. Sometimes it is by “welcoming,” sometimes it is “going out,” and sometimes it is “accompanying.” However, it was emphasized that the involvement must always be an involvement that produces and leads to “healing.” Without an attitude of involvement, there is no Evangelization.
Living the Gospel: Each person continually reassesses his or her values in daily life. The Church community continually reassesses its way by facing the Gospel so that each one of us may encounter one’s in own life and the being of the Church in the light of the Gospel.
Rediscovering the Driving Force of Mission: Those who have felt the joy of faith cannot avoid sharing the source of that joy, the Gospel. Therefore, they feel the need to deepen their connection with Jesus. They want to have the conviction to say with all their hearts, “I am glad I have faith.” The joy of attending Mass and experiencing communion with our sisters and brothers supports the work of Evangelization. Through sharing, we encourage one another.
We should not be discouraged: It can be discouraging to see the decline in the number of believers. However, from what was shared, several points emerged that this reality poses. It is important to see this reality as an opportunity to cultivate creativity, an opportunity to reconsider the reason for the existence of the Church. For some it is an opportunity to deepen our relationship with the community.
Points to note: When the word fukyō (evangelization, proselytizing) is used, the image of teaching people something seems strong. However, it is more important to witness, accompany, and walk together rather than to teach. It is more important to help people recognize the voice of God speaking in their hearts than to teach them one lesson at a time. Moreover, evangelization is not something we can do on our own. It is fundamental to remember that we are collaborators, and the protagonist is the Holy Spirit.

5. Women in the Life and Mission of the Church
Points that arose in the group:
• When women are vibrant, the Church is vibrant.
• In the group, we were able to talk about the various good qualities that women have.
• It is men who start wars.
• Consecrated women are considered cheap labor. A mechanism is needed to solve this problem.
• To overcome the differences between men and women, we believe that the time has come to call for making the importance of the individual visible in the Church.

6. Towards a Listening and Accompanying Church
Current Challenges: Current challenges include people being hurt in the church, priests not being cooperative, and people at the top being isolated and rather than living “co-responsibly” living “co-irresponsibly.” Some have difficulty in listening to and facing opposing opinions. There are many cases of bullying and harassment in the Church.
Directions to take: By becoming a “listening” Church, there is hope for our future. It should be marked by:
• Accompanying.
• Creating a safe place.
• Thinking together.
• Working as a team.
• Recognizing the importance of communication.
• Formation in listening.
• Taking time.
• Jesus’ mode of listening as a model.

Initiatives in each diocese: As a result of the Japanese National Assembly on Synodality held in March, 2024, efforts are being made in various regions to create a Synodal Church. In particular, Conversations in the Spirit are being implemented in each diocese. Little by little, the Synodal method is spreading.

The above is a report on the challenge for the Catholic Church in Japan to become a Synodal Church. We are thankful that we are gradually becoming able to feel and share how the Holy Spirit is leading our Church.
To further become a Synodal Church, we must deal with challenges, especially in terms of the Conversation in the Spirit.

Prayer: Participants in Conversation in the Spirit must offer to the group what they have prayed in silence. This approach is novel to participants. It will be necessary to create an atmosphere in the Church that recognizes that all prayer is wonderful. This will require a deeper understanding of sensus fidei.

Dynamic community: Many of the participants in the Conversation in the Spirit could not pray very well at first, but after listening to the prayers of group members, they gradually experienced a change in the content of their prayers from abstract to concrete. It will always be necessary to feel the Holy Spirit working in the community. To do this, we need to be aware that faith is not personal, but communal.

The Clergy: At the National Assembly on Synodality, the sharing of the bishops gave courage and hope to participants. Many were also encouraged by the attitudes and words of the bishops and priests in the Conversation in the Spirit held in each diocese. This fact suggests a new way of ministry by the clergy. On the other hand, some priests remain stubbornly resistant. The Synodal Church is a “walking together” Church. We must be aware that this is not unrelated to the way priests live their ministry.

Discernment: The last step of the Conversations in the Spirit, “thinking, praying, and recognizing together” (discernment), seems to be difficult. This will require repeated practice. Conversation in the Spirit is not just a methodology, but an invitation to deep conversation and fellowship. In today’s society where people tend to focus only on results, it is necessary to further emphasize the importance of the process of Synodality.

Aims: It must be further emphasized that Conversation in the Spirit is necessary for a community of faith to create a pastoral plan. In the future, it may be emphasized that all organizations of the Church are encouraged to create a pastoral plan in this way.

With our Sisters and Brothers: We must not forget that the Catholic Church in Japan exists in a multicultural and multireligious atmosphere. To live together as sisters and brothers, the Conversation in the Spirit method can be effective.

The Ad Hoc Team for the Synod are convinced that the encounter with the wonderful methodology of the Conversation in the Spirit will make the Church even more Synodal. The 16th Ordinary Session of the Synod of Bishops process initiated in 2021 has had a great impact on the Catholic Church in Japan.

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan
Ad Hoc Team for the Synod
May 4, 2024