Jan 10, 2017

Christmas season completed with the Baptism of the Lord

In many countries including Japan, the Epiphany is celebrated not on 6 January but on nearby Sunday which was on 8th this year. Therefore Monday after the Epiphany which is 9th is the feast of Baptism of the Lord which ends the liturgical season of Christmas.

Also 9th January this year is a national holiday to celebrate and congratulate those who reached 20 years of age. They are now considered as adults. So congratulations for those who have celebrated the feast this year and may God bless you and guide you through your life, life of responsible adults.

Now for the feast of Baptism of the Lord, Gospel of Mathew was read during the Mass. Jesus approached John the Baptist who had been baptizing people in the river Jordan asking John to baptize him.

John the Baptist, of course, had deep self understanding of his own vocation which is to prepare the way and proclaim that the Christ was coming. So it was quite natural for him to refuse the request of Jesus. He might have thinking this way; oh no, it is completely up side down to do such thing because it is against common sense that master should not ask his servant to do so. It is quite natural reaction of a man with common sense.

But Jesus told John that " allow it now". Then Jesus added that " for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness"

What does he mean by "to fulfill all righteousness"?  That means justified before God and not to follow common sense of human. We can see such example in gospel of Luke chapter 18, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector. In the face of common sense, the Pharisee is much more just than the Tax Collector. But judgement by God does not based on the human common sense. God has his own righteousness and quite often that is completely contrary to human common sense.

That is exactly the life of Jesus himself. Jesus challenged human common sense and showed us that priority has to be given to the righteousness of God which leads us to the life justified before God.

Therefore, whenever we make any decisions in our life, we have to take time to know what God wants us to do. For this we need to exercise spiritual discernment. And many times, the spiritual discernment draws conclusion contrary to the one based on the human common sense.

Lat year December during the general assembly of Japanese Catholic Bishops, we, Bishops, made number of decisions. Among them are the decision to revise the message published in 2001 on the theme of human life, titled "Reverence for Life"

Human life which is the precious gift from God is facing all kinds of crisis from its beginning to the end in this modern world. So the message of the reverence for life is very much important for all the people in Japan and not only for Catholics. Entire chapter had been revised and Bishops gave approval for the revised edition to be published.

In addition to this, Bishops gave approval to the proposition submitted by myself as the president of Caritas Japan and also one in charge of the rehabilitation exercise of Catholic Church in Tohoku area after the massive quake and tsunami in 2011. The proposition is to extend so called "All Japan" of Catholic Church to support local people in the Tohoku area to fully rehabilitate from the disaster till the end of March, 2021 which is 10 years after the disaster.

Mainly, three prefectures have been badly affected namely Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima which are all in Sendai Diocese. Catholic Church in Japan has been working on the rehabilitation support activities in all these three prefectures with number of volunteer bases. Through our activites, we felt that Fukushima needed much more attention. Because of that, a new volunteer base and a community facility has been built in the premises of Haramachi Catholic Church in Minami Soma city and renamed as the Caritas Minami Soma from the Caritas Haramachi Base. Tokyo Archdiocese is the main thrust to organize activities in Minami Soma and this new facility is the visible sign to local people of the commitment of Catholic Church in Fukushima to accompany people for many more years.

Tohoku area is gradually recovering, though it is in snail's pace. However, Fukushima needs much more time and attention. As the Catholic Church in Japan committed to accompany local people of Fukushima, we staretd to share the complex feeling of them especially of anxiety for unclear future vision. It is taking too much time to restore the local communities and, as majority are aging, it is something like the race against time.

I do not have proper words to explain feelings of people but it is not the assurance from the scientists or nuclear expert which expels anxiety of people. Situation is much more complex as no one could see real effect of the nuclear accidents with naked eyes. It is the matter of feelings and conviction much more than the scientific facts. That is the reality of nuclear accidents. As no one is able to see the effects of the accident, invisible damages have been caused in Fukushima which has been tormenting so many people up till now and torn apart local communities. Nuclear accidents should not be measured by numbers alone but also by emotional damages of affected people.

This experience in Fukushima made us, Japanese Bishops to issue again after 5 years a message calling abolishment of the nuclear power plants, though we fully understand existence of so many different opinions over the issue and of quite convincing explanation of the experts on necessity to use such technology. And this time we are calling of abolishment not only in Japan but also all over the world. Sound too much? But we should stop here and rethink about what has been happening in Fukushima.  You may read the message in English. Follow this link.

Relying on the Nuclear Power technology must have been accepted as inevitable solution for near future energy strategy in many countries. So our message might sound quite fantasy. But based on the idea of Pope Francis in the "Laudato Si" we said following in the message.

"We are convinced that to overcome this situation humankind, as the image of God, must return to a right relationship with nature, a relationship suitable to the common good of humanity and nature. Humans are naturally able to live happily in peace if they do so harmoniously in relation to themselves, to others, to the natural environment and to God."

No matter how absurd it sounds, we are convinced based on our own spiritual discernment on the issue, we have to give priority to re-establish harmonious relationship with others, the natural environment and God even though it might mean to us to change the way how we sustain this modern society. This relationship has been torn apart in Fukushima after the accident.

Through this message, we also want to share with all the people in the world what we have been experiencing and feeling through our accompaniment with people affected by the accident in Fukushima.

The message is not only meant for Japanese audience but also addressed to "all the People of Earth, Our Common Home." Therefore Japanese Bishops are now trying to communicate with other Bishops Conferences to share our concern over the nuclear technology. We know very well that in many countries already utilizing them are convinced that the technology would be the solution for the global warming. In fact, I do face quite a number of criticism over our position while I attend meetings in Europe.  It might be the best solution for the global warming at this moment but, in long run, we should consider our responsibility for future generation. The message says these.

"• Nuclear fission rarely occurs naturally on earth, and when it is brought about artificially, the energy released is vastly greater than the forms of energy that sustain life, and also vastly greater than the conventional energy generated through combustion of fuels;
• Nuclear fission produces unstable radioactive waste that we do not yet possess the technology to dispose of or stabilize;
• Once a serious nuclear accident occurs, the lives of people in the immediate area are radically disrupted, and the resulting environmental damage from radiation will spread beyond borders and across time."

We have to seriously do our spiritual discernment to know the best way to take.

Jan 5, 2017

New Year Pastoral Letter, 2017

2017 New Year Pastoral letter
"Power of Christ gives us life"

"Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." (2 Cor 12:9)

My Dear Sisters and Brothers of Niigata Diocese,

I wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Shocking incident happened on July 26 last year in a social welfare facility for mentally handicapped, Tsukui Yamayuri-en, in Sagamihara city, Kanagawa prefecture.  As you know well, a young man killed 19 people living with mental handicap and injured 26 more. Our knowledge of what really happened there are limited as our information on the case has been brought to us only through news media. However, through these limited information we have heard, a big question repeatedly echo through my mind. "Who does really have the right to judge value of human lives?"

Remembering those people violently killed, though quite long time has passed, I still feel great pain. Consider how much pain and fear caused by this young man have been tormenting so many in Japan and, more than that, all over the world.

What shocked us most is not what this young man actually did but, moreover, his motivation. Not only justifying his action of killing these innocent people, he said, seriously, that there were no value for these handicapped people to live and spending money to support them were dissipating or waste. I do not have his exact wording but he also said something like mercy killing for the handicapped people were for the benefit of the society. How did he acquire this kind of thought which does not pay any respect to human life? Moreover, we found out that there have been quite a number of people, in anonymity in the Internet world, sympathetic to this young man's opinion. This is much more disturbing.

Obviously for us, Christians, it is only God who has the right to judge the value of life. It is not we who has the right to make such judgement but God who created human life and has given it to us as a gift.

Such judgements as who should live or who has value to survive, we are not allowed to make. It is only God who makes such judgements. God has created this world and entrusted human life to us as a gift. Moreover, according to the Book of Genesis, God created us as his own image so that each one of us have precious value as the image of God. That precious value, we call the Human Dignity. We do not have any rights to strip off such precious value from the Human Dignity granted us by God.

Pope Francis in his Encyclical "Laudato Si" points out that "the culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, ...."(123) Then Holy Father in the same Encyclical points out the reason of this phenomenon sayingt "the harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations." (66) We want to be humble enough to acknowledge our limitations and be courage enough to keep distance from attitude of boasting our human ability. So that we will follow the word of St Paul which is "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses." When we acknowledge our limitations then Christ's power, finally, could work through our weaknesses and we would be able to live.

In this regard, I also would like to point out that we should keep in our mind mercy of God and its boundlessness while we observe critically such reality of the society.

In the Bull of indiction of the Jubilee of Mercy, "Misericordiae Vultus," Holy Father points out that "the Church is commissioned to announce the mercy of God." (12) Mercy of God, of course, has to be preferentially brought to oppressed, vulnerable and people in sorrow. But, at the same time, Mercy of God has to be brought to the people whose lives are based on values contrary to God. Why, because God is inclusive and not exclusive. Mercy of God embraces all.

Therefore, the Church which announces the mercy of God should not exclude the people who adhere to value set contrary to Christian value but, in the mercy of God which would be manifested by our communion, should be inclusive one. We want to be a Church of accepting and not excluding. We want to be an accompanying Church to try to find the better way to take in mercy of God.

Following the example of Blessed Ukon Takayama

Holy Father has given approval on 22 January, 2016 to the beatification of Ukon Takayama as a martyr and the beatification ceremony will take place on 7 February, 2017 in Osaka-Jo Hall at noon. Holy Father has appointed Cardinal Amato, the prefect of the Congregation of Causes of Saints as his delegate to preside over the Mass.

Almost four hundred years ago during the time of Christian persecution in Japan, Ukon Takayama chose to remain faithful to Christ and in return he lost everything including his position and fame as Daimyo (feudal lord) and, moreover, his own country as he was exiled to Manila where he died. The Church recognized him as a martyr because he had lost everything for the sake of the faith.

We are living in the world where majority puts importance on the relative value rather than absolute one especially in moral judgment, or appreciates the ad hoc solutions as if majority does not care about future generation. Contrary to this modern attitude, Blessed Ukon Takayama tells us that the truth must not be thrown away even if one has to sacrifice everything. Blessed Ukon Takayama shows us how we should live as a man with dignity not only as a Christian but also as a human.

Immediately after his death in 1615 in Manila, veneration of his heroic life as a exemplary Christian has started in Manila. Since then almost 400 years has passed and Japanese society has changed. There is no more persecution of Christians.  But in this modern world, do we have adequate answer to the very basic question on our life; why do we live? Blessed Ukon Takayama's life tells us that he always tried to stand at the side of God to make any decisions and did not do so from his own position. Priority was always given to the cause of God. The ad hoc decisions had no place for him as he humbled himself in front of God to try to search the way of life as God commands.

Establishing Parish statutes and restructuring the diocesan districts.

I have asked all the parishes in the diocese to begin the discussion over revising or newly establishing the Parish Statute before the end of January, 2018.

In many cases, most of parishes in the diocese have, according to their history and situation, an organization to run the parish. And in most of these organizations or structures have their own statutes or rules. I do understand the reality of our diocese that difference of size of communities make such organizations and their rules differ from each other. In some cases, I understand, as the size of parish community is too small, said organizations or structures sometimes lack any written rules but have been run by mutual understanding.

Since question was raised over the Parish Statutes during the recent Diocesan Pastoral Council and the Priests Senate, I asked the diocesan office to make a research. As a result of it, we found out that we have variety of rules in our diocese but many of them are for the Parish Laity Council or Parish Lay Apostolate Council.

Needless to say, there is no problem of existence of such Laity Council in parishes or, I should say, such organizations in Parishes have important role to play.

However, at the same time, as the Parish community should be formed by both laity and a parish priest or priests appointed by a Bishop, I would say that an organization of laity, such as Parish Laity Council, could not represent entire parish community.

That is the reason why I asked each parish to begin the process of establishing the statutes of their Parish based on the guidelines and the model statute prepared by the Diocese. There is no need to abolish existing laity organizations and their rules. Or you may decide to start completely anew. Following the guidelines and taking into account of each particular situations, kindly complete the new statutes by the end of January, 2018. I count on your cooperation.

At the same time, I would like to put emphasis on the role of the parish priest. Parish priest should run parish not only by his own ideas and decisions but also through dialogue with parishioners. Dialogue would provide both parish priest and parishioners opportunity to find better way to walk together. One of the intentions of the present exercise of establishing parish statutes is to involve everyone in the parish to this dialogue.

In addition to this exercise, I have asked district superiors of Niigata, Shibata and Nagaoka to find out general opinion over restructuring of these 3 districts within Niigata prefecture. I thought that the restructuring of local communities by government is also affecting the system of the diocesan district. I would appreciate if each of these three districts to complete study of opinions by the end of September, 2017. Based on the opinions of districts, I will come out with a proposal.

To conclude the pastoral letter, I would like to share number of information with you.

Our one and only seminarian, Mr. Shuta Oka is spending his first year in the National Major Seminary. Kindly keep him in your prayer. Kindly also continue to pray for vocation so that many more youth would decide to be priests or religious.   

As in the past, on the first Sunday of Lent, the Rite of Election would be organized in the Cathedral for all the catechumens in the diocese who would be ready for baptism during this Easter season. This year it will be on 5th March at 9:30 am in the Niigata Cathedral. Because of the distance in our diocese, not all the catechumens could join the rite in the Cathedral. But if it is possible to come to Niigata on the day, you are most welcome.

Finally, I make my pastoral visit for Niigata, Shibata and Nagaoka districts in even-numbered years and for Akita and Yamagata districts in odd-numbered years. Therefore, in year 2017, I will make pastoral visits for Akita and Yamagata districts. Usually I leave it to parish priests to propose date of such pastoral visits in order to avoid any conflicts of activities in parishes. Kindly contact the Diocesan office as early as possible.

May God bless you all in Niigata Diocese. May God of mercy and love guide you and protect you through out this new year, 2017.

1st January, 2017
Bishop Isao Kikuchi, SVD
Bishop of Niigata