Brazilian Priest, Who Studied in Manila, Finds Japanese Mission a ‘Lonely’ Challenge

Fr. Pedro Tomaselli, a PIME pastor in Ashikaga and Sano -- north of Tokyo.
Fr. Pedro Tomaselli, a PIME pastor in Ashikaga and Sano — north of Tokyo.

The ‘Coldness’ Is Grim in an Affluent Japan

►Of the total population of Japan of 127 million, more than 99% — THAT’S ALMOST ALL JAPANESE! — are Shinto/Buddhist, leaving a tiny fraction – 0.35% of the population — as Catholics.

But Catholics are OUTNUMBERED — two to one — by Christians of other denominations: Anglican, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Russian Orthodox, the Salvation Army, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and other persuasions. But even when counted together, ALL CHRISTIANS comprise LESS THAN ONE PERCENT of the population.

A Brazilian missionary of PIME (Pontificio Istituto Missioni Estere) who studied four years in Manila, has shared how “lonely” the evangelical challenge can be at his mission north of Tokyo. On weekdays, this means “only two” worshipers are present at his celebration of the Holy Mass. About a hundred come for Sunday Mass. Only two couples are his real friends. A joyless Japan is centered on itself, competition and success.

The AsiaNews (official press agency of PIME) has posted this story about “Father Pedro and His 25 Japanese Friends”:

►ROME — (AsiaNews) – Father Pedro Tomaselli, 42, is a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). He hails from Santa Caterina, southern Brazil, and has lived in Japan since 2008, serving as pastor in two cities — Ashikaga and Sano, in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo — some 40 minutes apart by car.

About 25 Japanese take part his Sunday Mass. Other worshippers come from the Philippines, Vietnam, Bolivia, Peru, a couple from China, and a few students from Africa. In total, a hundred, no more. On weekdays, “only two” come to church for the service. For Fr. Tomaselli, “it is necessary to leave the outcome in God’s hands, because if one were to rely on one’s own results, one would quit Japan immediately.”

Did you want to come to Japan or did the circumstances of life lead you to it?

I wanted it but had little hope. As a young seminarian, I was impressed by the missionaries I met who talked about their experience in Japan. That’s where my desire was born. I later had the opportunity of studying philosophy in the Philippines for four years, but Japan never left my mind. When Fr. Marc Tardiff (then PIME General Advisor, now missionary in Japan) came to the seminary and met us individually, he asked us to pick three countries for a possible destination. I told him: Thailand, Japan and Mexico. I ended up instead in Brazil as an outreach missionary for three years. One day though, I got a phone call from Rome, from Fr. Francisco da Silva. At the age of 33, I took off for Japan.

Did you speak Japanese already?

No. I started from scratch — two years in Tokyo at the PIME’s regional home. Another year with the local Franciscans. Finally, another 12 months with a Japanese priest in two parishes in Gunma Prefecture. Still, after nine years, I still have trouble communicating.

How is your daily mission?

I arrived in Ashikaga, north of Tokyo, where I am in charge of a multinational parish. I also deal with another parish, not far away. I live alone in the rectory. About 25 Japanese come to Sunday Mass, though my parish registry has 187 names. In addition, we have Filipinos, Vietnamese, Bolivians, Peruvians, a couple of Chinese and some African students. I always read the Mass in Japanese once. Alternatively, I do it in Vietnamese, Tagalog, or English. The songs are in Spanish. On weekdays however, only two come.

Are there any integration issues?

Foreigners help and enrich the Japanese Church. Without them, most communities would not survive. Foreigners are fundamental to evangelization.

Who are your friends?

Two families have especially opened their hearts to me and I to them. This is quite rare. In fact, the Japanese see friendship as an exchange of favors. I give you something or do something for you and you give something to me or do something for me, then we are friends. It is not bad, but it is different from the free love that Jesus taught us. It must also be said that they are not in the habit of opening their homes. Once I was happy when I finally received an invitation. I thought I was going to the house of these people, but instead they came to pick me up to go to a restaurant.

What about the two cases you mentioned?

What happened is that thieves broke into the church and the rectory three times. They told me that in Japan if a person violates private property then he is capable of any violence. I was so scared that I could not sleep any more. A bit selfishly I prayed, “Lord, I do not want to die martyred in such a petty way.”

Then, my Japanese friend showed up at the rectory one night and said, “I’ll spent the night here with you. You are tired and you have to rest.” A bit ceremoniously, Japanese style, I told him: “No, no! you have your family; you must go home to them.” But he insisted, and for some nights he came to keep me company. He is 70 years old and converted to Christianity about 20 years ago. He has four children, one of whom is a priest.

How did you befriend the other family?

They come from Nagasaki. He was already a Catholic, she was not a Christian. Or, better, she said she was a bit Shintoist and a bit Buddhist. She said she liked being free. “Come on,” I would tell her, “then your heart must be Christian.” She laughed.

Having strong feelings for the poor, she expressed some admiration for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, but nothing would bend her. I did not insist. After three years (about a year ago), she came to me and said, “Let’s start studying.” Eventually, she asked to be baptized.

Why is it so difficult to pass on the Christian message in Japan?

Being Japanese is almost like a religion. I asked one kid, “What is your religion?” And he answered: “My grandparents were a bit Shintoist and a bit Buddhist; my parents a bit Buddhist and a bit indifferent, I am Japanese.” Given such syncretism he confided in me and said that he liked Catholic weddings.

The Church has put greater efforts in Japan than in Korea. Yet Catholicism is more widespread in the latter. Why?

No bishop or priest in Japan would ever say that we must imitate Korea. Pride prevents it. Unresolved historical events that have come to the fore again in recent weeks also prevent it. It is undeniable that the situation is different. If I think about Brazil, its 500 short years of history, its melting pot — I certainly see greater openness to new things.

However, we cannot say that Japan’s ancient culture is in itself an impediment to the novelty of the Gospel. The point is always about touching people’s hearts. The Japanese mind-set aims at competition and victory, but faced with the inevitable defeat in life, it has no answer, and that is the end. Failures are not an opportunity to grow, but a misfortune that sometimes results in tragedy. Just think of the countless cases of depression and suicide. Many people who come to church go through these problems. For them, we proclaim hope.

Yet, the proclamation must also be valid for everyone caught up in the frenzy of everyday life

The idolatry of money and work is widespread. Often what matters the most is not the family, but the company one works for. There is even a tendency to show that one is busy even when one is not. The Japanese propensity of seeing themselves in a group rather than as individuals is still very strong. If you ask, “Who are you?” The answer is, “Ask my neighbor.” Still, it would be wrong to focus on these flaws. First, one has a lot to learn and share. I remember their kindness, honesty, cleanliness, order… We need to listen to them.

One gets the impression that joy is missing in Japan…

Indeed. At the Shinjuku railway station, employees must exercise their facial muscles to learn to smile before working with the public. Although it does not seem very honest, they say it does a lot of good.

Of course, with the great joy of the Gospel, this would not be necessary. ◘


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