September 7 2009 09:30 | Filharmonia Krakowska


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Franco Sottocornola

Interreligious Dialogue Center Shinmeizan, Japan


September 7th: Panel on


(Franco Sottocornola, sx; Shinmeizan, Japan)

1. A significant encounter
     Like so many other people, I too had the privilege of meeting several times, personally, with Pope John Paul II. The most memorable of those encounters was, for me, that which occurred, in April 1989, in Saint Peter’s square. After the general audience, the Holy Father met personally with some special guests. Ven. Tairyu Furukawa, head of the Buddhist Temple Seimeizan-Schweitzer (Tamana City, Pref. of Kumamoto) and I, were among them. Actually we were the first the Holy Father came to greet and talk to. On that occasion I had the pleasure to present to the Pope this Buddhist Monk with whose cooperation in 1987 I had founded the Shinmeizan Center for Interreligious Dialogue in a small village near Tamana City. Pope John Paul was very friendly and, clasping with both his hands the joined hands of Ven. Furukawa, spoke with us for a while, accepting also our gifts. Among these there was the first Italian translation (made by our Center) of a classic text of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, the Tannisho, and of the commentary written on it by Ven Furukawa. As the Holy Father was moving on to the next group, Ven Furukawa asked me to address a last question to the Pope. Not knowing how to attract the Holy Father’s attention while he was moving away from us, I had no chance but to grasp the Holy Father’s arm, and as he turned to me with an inquiring look, I translated the question which Ven. Furukawa wanted to ask: “Holy Father, why have the religions not been able - why are they not able - to stop the wars in this world of ours?”  I saw the beautiful, piercing, eyes of the Holy Father turn sad, while he muttered an almost silent word of assent as if making the question his own…  Even now I can see his sad look, and hear his silent answer to the troubling question of Ven. Furukawa.
     On that same year Ven. Furukawa and Shinmeizan were invited by the Community of Saint Egidio to attend the first international meeting of “Uomini e Religioni”, which was held in Warsaw.  Behind this invitation there is a story. In 1987, I had invited Bishop Pietro Rossano, former Secretary of the Pontifical Secretariat for relations with non Christian religions, to come to Japan and hold two short courses on interreligious dialogue together with Ven. Furukawa. When, that same year, the Community of Saint Egidio decided to give a following to the great interreligious event of Assisi (1986) and to begin the series of annual meetings we are celebrating also this year here in Krakow, four of the leaders of the community came to Japan to take part in the first re-enactment of the Assisi encounter, which took place on Mount Hiei, in 1987, on the initiative of the Head of the Tendai Buddhist School, the late Ven. Yamada Eitai. Bishop Rossano, at the time spiritual adviser of the Community of Saint Egidio, remembering his recent visit to Japan and treasuring his friendship with us, suggested that the young leaders of Saint Egidio go down to the city of Tamana, on the island of Kyushu, and visit the Seimeizan-Schweitzer temple, where at the time I was staying. Actually Fabio Riccardi, Alberto Quattrucci, Francesca Grande and Valeria Martano came to the Temple and stayed with us for a couple of days. I still remember very well this first encounter with representatives of the Saint Egidio Community! I strongly admired their youthful enthusiasm and courage. I remember, for example, how, having heard that on some remote islands of Nagasaki Prefecture there were still some so called “hidden Christians”, the four, with some summary indication I gave them and with admirable courage, managed to go all by themselves to those far off small islands, find out some of those “hidden Christians” and contact them! 
     Before coming to Krakow this year to join this International Meeting, I, together with Sr. Maria De Giorgi, Co-founder and Assistant Director of Shinmeizan Center, who is here with us today and who from the very beginning has taken part in these meetings, on August 4th, we were able to participate in the 22nd Interreligious Summit held on Mount Hiei (Kyoto) as a continuation - as it was repeatedly recalled - of the great “Assisi event” of 1986. This year the Catholic Church was represented at Mount Hiei interreligious summit by Card. Jean Louis Tauran, President, and by Mgr. Andrew Thanya-anan Vissanu, Undersecretary, of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Then, as now, our memories went back intensely and vividly to the beginnings of all these interreligious encounters which, both on Mount Hiei in Japan and in various cities of Europe, every year recall and re-enact the great event of “Assisi 1986” and keep its spirit alive, - back to the courageous and prophetic decision of Pope John Paul II to call together the leaders of the world religions to join forces and hopes in a common effort for peace: “to put an end to wars in this world of ours”.
This is one of the first and foremost aims of interreligious dialogue: interreligious cooperation, a dialogue of friendship and love, on which alone we can build a dialogue, or common search, for truth. Dialogue, in fact is, first of all, the will, the capacity, the praxis, of ”talking together”, “searching together” for the solution of human differences and conflicts, instead of resorting to violence and war. This spirit, this will, this commitment is an important legacy, an important part of the spiritual heritage of John Paul II.

2. John Paul II’s visit to Japan

Unfortunately I missed meeting John Paul II when he came to Japan in February 1981! Just a few days before his arrival I was elected Regional Superior of the Xaverian Missionaries in Japan, and urgent duties prevented me from attending any of the three great events that marked the papal visit. But I was able, not only to follow the news, but also to “feel the waves”, so to say, of his passage and, above all, to witness the extraordinary impression he created around him, all over the Country.


The first stop was in Tokyo. His first encounter with Japan, a country where Christians, all together: Catholics, Protestant and Orthodox, make up only about 1 % of the total population, took place in a stadium where only about 7.000 young people were admitted. The stadium, of course, was full. The event was televised. It was the first time most of the people of Japan had seen a Pope, even only on television. Nobody could foretell what the impression would be. One item of the program was a choir by kindergarten children holding hands and moving around in a circle while singing a polish song. The choir and the dance were led by Agnes Chang, a very popular singer of the time. Now, at a certain moment, the Pope stood up, walked down the few steps to the arena and, taking Agnes Chan by one hand and one of the children by the other, joined in the simple dance and choir. That scene stole the heart, not only of the 7.000 young people present, but of all those who could see it on television, and of the whole Country. Pope John Paul had conquered the heart of the Japanese. 

The next stop was Hiroshima, the city of the first atom bomb: a living witness to the horrors and foolishness of war. There, Pope John Paul II, after visiting the museum of the atomic bombing of the city on August 6, 1945, addressed, not only the people who had gathered to meet him there, but the whole world, speaking to Americans and other English speaking Peoples in English, to Russians and Russian speaking Countries in Russian, to the whole world in a dozen languages, decrying wars and human conflicts, asking and praying for an end to all fratricidal conflicts. For the Japanese it was an unprecedented scene. This Man spoke with force and with courage, with a mysterious authority, to all the peoples of the world. For many, indeed for most Japanese, this was a first time perception of the ‘catholicity’ of the Church of Christ, and of the world large role of the Bishop of Rome. It certainly was that, but also an instance of the charismatic personality of Pope John Paul II, of his capacity to speak to people, to dialogue, to communicate, not only in the many languages he knew, but, above all, in the language all human beings understand best: the language of the heart.

The third and last stop of the papal visit to Japan was Nagasaki. It was a very cold day. Snow, a rare event in Nagasaki, had fallen abundantly. The Pope, and tens of thousands of catholic faithful, braved the weather and gathered in an open air stadium for a very solemn celebration.  The Pope presided at the Eucharist, during which, in a very significant and moving event, he welcomed a group of “hidden Christians” who had not yet taken the step of acknowledging the Catholic Church as the Church of their ancestors, ordained new priests and performed other meaningful liturgical rites: all of them in Japanese! That was an unexpected and surprising event.  I heard later, form persons directly involved, that the Holy Father had practiced for months in his private chapel the celebration of the Mass in Japanese! This attention to the culture and the language of the host Country moved deeply the Japanese Catholics who were delighted to hear the Pope speaking their own language!
I do not know who planned and prepared the papal journey to Japan and its various moments.  But I know it was a great success. Most of this success, however, was certainly due to the personal capacity of John Paul II to contact people, to communicate, to touch their heart. Dialogue is based also, and I would say: especially, on this capacity, this art, to relate to the other, to make the other feel in touch with us, in other words: to communicate. The success of “dialogue” depends mostly on this art of communication. And, in turn, communication depends a lot on love, real love, by which we reach out to the other and somehow bridge the existential gap that divides us. John Paul II was a master in the art of communication, and in that way also an example of “dialogue”.

3. “Ecclesia in Asia”

From my Japanese “observation stand” I wish to remember another significant fact in the Pontificate of John Paul II, that touched the life of the Church in Japan as part of the wider Church in Asia: the calling of special assemblies of the Synod of Bishops for each of the five Continents in preparation for the great jubilee of the year 2000. This was also a historical first! I was really impressed by the way the Holy Father John Paul II prepared the year of the great jubilee starting from the very beginning of his pontificate, but especially from 1994. There was something great in the ideas, the visions, and the prophecies of this great Pope! One such grand idea was the calling of these “continental synods”. The special assembly for Asia of the Synod of Bishops was held in Rome from April 18 to May 14, 1998. Here, of course, we cannot go into a detailed study of the preparation and the celebration of that Synod. What I would like to do is simply to point out how the topic of interreligious dialogue was one of the main topics dealt with by the Bishops who spoke at this assembly. Of the four subjects which were most often mentioned (interreligious dialogue, inculturation, the poor, the laity) interreligious dialogue was the one on which the largest number of speakers called the attention of the assembly (22, 5% of the total number).
  The apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Asia” which summed up the results or conclusions reached by the Bishops in their debates, was presented personally by the Pope in New Delhi on November 6, 1999. It deals with interreligious dialogue especially in paragraph 31. Here John Paul II first of all clarifies the concept of dialogue, and then strongly reaffirms its importance and the commitment of the Catholic Church to it. In doing this he explicitly refers to the Declaration “Nostra aetate” of the II Vatican Council which he calls “the Magna Charta of interreligious dialogue for our times”. He then goes on to give practical guidelines and suggestions for the practice of interreligious dialogue in Asia. At the conclusion pf this paragraph the Pope goes back with his memory to that great event he himself had given life to, the event of the first interreligious encounter held in Assisi on October 27, 1986: “an event which shows – the Pope states – that religious men and women, without abandoning their own traditions, can still commit themselves to praying and working for peace and the good of humanity.” “The Church – John Paul II concludes – must continue to strive to preserve and foster at all levels this spirit of encounter and cooperation between religions.”


   May hope and my suggestion are that, in the near future, the main events that keep this “spirit of Assisi” alive by the courageous and perseverant efforts of the community of Saint Egidio, in Europe and of the Tendai Buddhist School in Japan, may come to a common joint celebration held in Asia, not only to keep alive the memory of the great event of “Assisi 1986”, but also the memory of the great Man who created it, thus fulfilling his prophecy: “Dialogue is a path toward ‘the Kingdom’ and will certainly bear fruit, even if the times and seasons are known only to the Father (cf. Acts 1:7) (RM 57)”.