Japanese Born in Brazil Is Ordained Priest in the Philippines

Fr. Iwao Daniel IKEGAMI, FMVD, celebrating Mass
Brazil-born Fr. Iwao Daniel IKEGAMI, FMVD, celebrating Mass

Propagating the Faith ‘in Exile’

►Fr. Iwao “Wow” Daniel IKEGAMI, FMVD – Fraternidad Misionera Verbum Dei (in Spanish) or Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity (in English) — highlights the special significance of Blessed Takayama Ukon to “exiles” like him — in a homily he delivered at a Beatification Thanksgiving Mass at the Ateneo de Manila in Quezon City, concelebrated by Rev. Fr. Tony Moreno, SJ, Father Provincial of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines.

Father “Wow,” who was ordained priest on Aug. 15, 2015 at the Maria Della Strada Parish Church, Katipunan Ave., Quezon City, attended the Beatification Ceremonies of Blessed Takayama Ukon in Osaka with other FMVD missionaries on Feb. 7, 2017, shares:

►“Minasan konbanwa.” Good evening everyone. Magandang gabi po sa inyong lahat.

I would like to introduce myself for those who do not know me. My name is Fr. Iwao Daniel Ikegami, remember: “Wow”! I-wow! I am a Japanese missionary with the Fraternidad Misionera Verbum Dei (FMVD). We are more commonly known here as the Verbum Dei missionaries. (Verbum Dei means “Word of God.”) Our founder is still alive; his name is Fr. Jaime Bonet, and he will be turning 91 years old this year. My superior, Fr. James McTavish, is here and some of our Verbum Dei sisters and also many other friends are here.

For sure many of you here are familiar with the life of Blessed Takayama Ukon; at the same time some of you may not know too much about him just like me until a few years ago.

Discovering Takayama Ukon Some Years Earlier

I knew the name Takayama Ukon, way back when I was still in Japan before I entered Verbum Dei but I didn’t know much about him. It was only three years ago when the Bishop of Kyoto, Bishop Paul Yoshinao Ōtsuka, was here in the Philippines and gave a talk on the life of Takayama Ukon that I came to know more about the life of this Christian feudal lord and samurai.

The most striking discovery in that talk for me was that Ukon died in the Philippines! Oh really? I didn’t know! Wow, I – WOW! That is amazing! He (Bishop Paul Ōtsuka) also mentioned that there is a statue of Takayama Ukon in Plaza Dilao, Paco, Manila!

I was so excited; imagine, the very next day I went to Plaza Dilao, I just couldn’t wait. I wanted to see it. I checked it on the map: What are some of the landmarks? Across the road from the statue was the Philippine Columbian Association (PCA), the oldest sporting club in the Philippines. I went by LRT. I found the place; from afar I could see the statue: Is that Takayama Ukon? I saw him dressed as samurai and it  looked like he was holding a sword but it was a crucifix the same size as a samurai sword. I remembered St. Paul Miki, he was a samurai too. I stood in front of the statue and made a solemn prayer – “Lord, I want to be a samurai for your kingdom, even I want to give my life for you in the Philippines…”

I was so happy about this because we have one Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, who was martyred in Nagasaki, Japan and now we have one Japanese Samurai who died in the Philippines who is on his way to canonization! Blessed Takayama Ukon is an inspiration for the Japanese Church and also for us all here in the Philippine Church.

My Journey to the Priesthood

I would like to share with you a little bit about my life and vocation also. Maybe you are wondering how did this Japanese end up here in Philippines, di ba?

My parents are both Catholics (which it is a rare case in Japan) so I was baptized when I was born. In Japan the normal situation is to be baptized when you are an adult. I have one older sister and one younger brother. My parents, right after getting married, migrated to Brazil, and I and my two siblings were born in the north of Brazil, near the Amazon River. Can you imagine to born in the Amazon – wow! When I was 10 years old, my whole family moved back to Japan, but to a small island far away from Tokyo.

As we were living in a remote area, it was only when I was 20 years old when as a family we began to go to Sunday Masses regularly. As I was beginning to discover the beauty and the richness of our faith, I met the Verbum Dei Sisters in Yokohama. And the first thing they invited me to do was to go to the Philippines. Just like Takayama Ukon who came to the Philippines almost 400 years ago, I came to the Philippines where I had a strong experience with The Word of God, an encounter with Jesus. I was 21 years old.

The Word of God that struck me then was “There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends and you are my friends.” (John 15:15) I had found what I was looking for: the kind of love, unconditional, the greatest love, the love of God. And I realized this is what happened to Takayama Ukon. Takayama was willing to undergo all the hardships — imagine he lost his property, his home because he discovered this love. A love that is stronger than death, exile, hardships, sufferings, humiliations. As St Paul said in our first reading (Romans 8:35-39): “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” Is that just a nice verse for us all or have we had a fresh experience of that same love? In my own life I was inspired by this great love of Christ because I was searching in so many things, like so many other young people, and I discovered that this is the love I was looking for. At that time I was studying Political Science to become an ambassador of Japan, but after that experience I realized that I was being called not to only be an ambassador for Japan but to be an ambassador of Christ.

I Was There at Takayama’s Beatification

I would like to share with you briefly the recent beatification of Justo Takayama Ukon which I actually had the wonderful privilege to attend.

It was January last year (2016) when I heard the news of his beatification to be held in Ōsaka, Japan. I immediately asked my superior and my community for the possibility to be present at the beatification ceremony. So far I am the only Japanese missionary in Verbum Dei and I really wanted to be there for the beatification ceremony. So my wish was fulfilled and, on February 7, I was there together with my brother priest Fr. James McTavish.

Cardinal Angelo Amato was sent from the Vatican on behalf of Pope Francis to preside over the Beatification Mass of Takayama Ukon. And in the homily Cardinal Amato described Ukon’s life and work as a “tireless promoter of the evangelization of Japan,” highlighting his distinctive features. He said that Takayama was “educated to honor and loyalty, a true warrior of Christ, not with weapons of which he was an expert, but with words and example.”

Wow… a true warrior of Christ, a true samurai of Christ, using the sword of the Word of God, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation to spread the Gospel.

Jesus in the gospel (Luke 9:23-26) asks each one of us to follow him. If only we could follow Christ with the same fervor and holiness of life as Blessed Takayama Ukon!

Takayama – A Martyr

Takayama was declared a martyr, which as we know means a “witness”. We are also called to witness, interiorly and exteriorly, our love for Christ. We are surrounded by persecutions, perhaps not literally, but there are so many voices telling us to be lazy, to lie, to cheat, to return evil with evil. How are we responding to them? Do we simply give in to them or do we stand up firm and battle against them as a true warrior of Christ not with weapons but with words and example?

Maybe we are working fervently for the canonization of Justo Takayama but we should also not forget to work with the same zeal and fervor for our own sanctification. This was strongly emphasized in Lumen Gentium of Vatican II, in the “universal call to holiness.” And here in Asia, with so few Christians, we need that zeal for our mission. So few here know Christ! And as Pope Paul VI so astutely reminded us “It would be useful if every Christian and every evangelizer were to pray about the following thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God’s mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them; but as for us, can we gain salvation if through negligence or fear or shame — what St. Paul called ‘blushing for the Gospel’ — or as a result of false ideas we fail to preach it?” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 80).

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus and follow in his footsteps as Blessed Takayama Ukon did. Let us indeed pray for his canonization and he will surely be praying for us too, that we also can take up the challenge of holiness each day as we heard in the Gospel — “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.” Yes Lord, we want to follow you, grant us your grace and courage to follow you to the end. Amen  ◘

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