Solutions to Violent Conflict

Putting a Face on Nuclear Disarmament: The Church and People of Japan

In Nuclear disarmament on March 4, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Stephen M. Colecchi

Advocates for a world without nuclear weapons in the United States frequently lament the fact that the general public is not much interested in the issue of nuclear disarmament. People are legitimately concerned about more immediate issues like the economy, especially in a time of high unemployment.

Economic pain has a face, the sometimes desperate stare of neighbors and relatives struggling to provide for their families and look for work. A key question is: How do we put a face on a concern for nuclear disarmament? I believe the witness of the Catholic Church and people of Japan provides an answer.

OUR LADY OF NAGASAKI

Most Americans are not aware of the historic presence of the Church in Japan or of the witness it continues to share regarding the terrible costs of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Last May, I met with Archbishop Takami of Nagasaki and Archbishop Migliore of the Holy See Mission in New York. Archbishop Takami was in New York to promote nuclear disarmament. He was touring with the haunting image of the burned head of a statue of Mary that survived the bombing of Nagasaki. Later in August I participated in the 65th Anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the invitation of the Bishops’ Conference of Japan.

Archbishop Takami is a kind man who radiates the peace he seeks to build. The Archbishop was in his mother’s womb in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing. He lost family members on that fateful morning of August 9, 1945. But he also found something—a passionate commitment to peace and a world without nuclear weapons.

URAKAMI CATHEDRAL

One of the little known realities of the bombing of Nagasaki is that it destroyed Urakami Cathedral, the largest Catholic Cathedral in the East at that time. The bombing devastated a Christian community that had kept the faith in the face of great persecution and suffering.

In 1550, Saint Francis Xavier sowed the needs of Christianity in Japan. The Church flourished in Nagasaki where it first took root, until the faith was later outlawed for two and a half centuries. Vicious persecutions produced many martyrs. In 1864, after Japan reopened itself to the world, Christians were rediscovered—descendants of a suffering, underground Church.

Those who died in the bombings were victims of war, but their memories are being kept alive in a way that makes them martyrs in the cause of a world free of the nuclear threat.

Perhaps it was this experience of Christian suffering that helped the Church in Hiroshima and Nagasaki turn their suffering from the atomic bombings into a mission of peace. Those who died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski were victims of war, but their memories are being kept alive in a way that makes them martyrs in the cause of a world free of the nuclear threat.

SMALL COMMUNITY, BIG MISSION

The Church in Japan works with other religious traditions and many people of goodwill. It remains a small community with a big mission. Christians make up only one-half of one percent of the population, but though their numbers are few, their faith is strong, as is their commitment to peace.

Each August, the Catholic community of Nagasaki honors the scorched visage of Mary, with her blackened eyes that seem to implore humanity to save itself from nuclear devastation.

This is evident in the veneration given to a scorched head of a statue of Mary, the only piece of the once magnificent wood-carved high altar of Urakami Cathedral to have survived the atomic blast. When the Catholic community of Nagasaki fills the rebuilt cathedral on the eve of the annual commemoration of the bombing of Nagasaki, they honor the scorched visage of Mary, with her blackened eyes that seem to implore humanity to save itself from nuclear devastation.

Movements need a “human face”— a simple, compelling face that engenders both concern and hope. For Christians in the United States, perhaps the Church in Japan could be a particularly poignant face of the quest for a world without nuclear weapons. The images of the small and suffering Church of Japan and the scorched Virgin might inspire us to work harder with people of other faiths and no faith at all for a world free of the nuclear threat.

Stephen M. Colecchi is the director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.