Jesuit scholastic Stephen Pitts is currently studying at Loyola University Chicago but he spent his summer last year teaching English in Japan. With hopes of returning to Japan this summer, Pitts’ thoughts and prayers go out to the people he worked with and taught last year. Here, he offers National Jesuit News’ readers this reflection on the ongoing crisis in the country.
“This feels fushigi (strange, wondrous),” my friend remarked to me as we waited one spring evening six years ago for the Easter Vigil Mass to begin at a small parish in the northwest part of Kyoto, Japan. He was a sociology major at a local university, always ready to experience new and different things. Burned out on engineering coursework, I had chosen to spend my junior year in Kyoto, Japan. That had been nine months before, and now I stood outside the church, one friend beside me encountering the symbolism of the Easter Vigil liturgy for the first time and another in a white garment prepared for baptism at a key moment in his own long faith journey.
It felt like something out of the history of the early Church: a small community barely large enough to attract attention against the backdrop of a materially prosperous nation, in an ancient capital full of religious landmarks that served more as tourist attractions than as temples. At that moment, the Dutch Franciscan priest emerged from the church with altar server in tow, an elderly man who had spent much of his many years in Japan traveling by motorcycle between various missions in the northernmost island of Hokkaido. He lit the Easter flames and the liturgy began, a rite that connected us to that same early Church.
Despite the many fushigi parts of spending a year in Kyoto, at the end of my junior year, I returned to the US, finished my engineering degree, and entered the Society of Jesus in 2006. My novice director encouraged me to keep up my interest in Japan, but I found myself busy with the program as prescribed by Ignatius in the Constitutions: cleaning toilets, visiting the sick, catechizing the unlettered and somehow learning to pray in the midst of it. My time in Japan felt like something from my past, an important encounter with another culture in terms of my growth as a human being, but I did not expect to return. As a novice, most of my intercultural encounters involved the Spanish-speaking migrant populations I had the opportunity to serve in several places. When I arrived in Chicago two years later to begin philosophy studies as a scholastic, I gave all of my books about Japan away to another scholastic who was interested in them. So he greeted me with a knowing smile six months later when I returned to his room one Saturday afternoon to ask for them back. I couldn’t get Japan off of my mind. What I thought was grief for the past had evolved into a call towards the future.
“Find a way to be useful to the Japanese province and we’ll see,” my provincial said when I told him about my desire to return. Searching the Internet, I found the Jesuit Social Center, a small operation in Tokyo, and emailed the Spanish director, who was a contemporary of Jesuit Father Adolfo Nicolas, the superior general of the Jesuits. The director replied quickly and last summer I returned, to live with the Japanese province scholastics and work at this social center. What I found resonated with me in the same way that scene from seven years ago had.
The scholastics live in a new building on the outskirts of Tokyo that is full to the brim. I found an international community: half Japanese and half foreigners. The older missionaries hail from the U.S. and Europe, the younger ones from South Asia. The Jesuit in charge of formation is a dynamic philosophy professor in his early forties from Argentina and a big soccer fan. The impossible mystery of it hit me from the first day: where did these people get the energy to work in such a difficult mission?
My training as a novice paid off. I spent my mornings sorting books and packing boxes at the social center while listening to anecdotes of Jesuit Fathers Pedro Arrupe, head of the Jesuits in the 1960s and 70s, and Adolfo Nicolas from my boss, who knew both personally. In the afternoon, I travelled to the newest work of the Japanese province, the Adachi International Academy.
“Jesuit education” carries a certain aura in the United States associated with well-established institutions that efficiently serve large populations with ease. Here in Japan, I spent two hours commuting by train to teach one ninety minute English lesson per day to a wide variety of students: a businessman in his fifties who wanted to do development work in southeast Asia; a Filipina teenage girl who had grown up in Japan and wanted to communicate with her relatives when she returned home; a Vietnamese woman who had fled Vietnam and bided her time working in a Japanese factory but saw English as the key to a better life.
Despite the connotation of the word “academy,” the school was located in the cheapest, most difficult to find piece of real estate in the entire neighborhood, which most people in Tokyo don’t even know exists. The whole experience evoked the images of the kingdom of God from the gospels: leaving the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one makes as much sense as spending ten dollars on train fare to teach one person. One day, we had a dinner for the students when none of the invited guests showed up, so we welcomed anyone who came. That night, returning home on the train, I made the connection to the gospel reading and the immediacy of the parallel astonished me.
The kingdom of God, theologians tell us, is already present in small glimmers but not yet fully realized. Against the backdrop of a Church whose size makes it almost irrelevant and an aging province that faces hard decisions about which works to keep, I found incredible vitality: in the Jesuit founder of the school, who could have easily retired instead of embarking on a new apostolate; in the sisters and laypeople who worked with us in the academy; and in the people whom we served, who lived difficult lives as foreigners but managed to eke out a living full of dignity and gratitude. Here, as in the scholasticate, I felt the same mysterious presence of God that defied all logic or reason.
After I left, this past September the Japanese province celebrated the ordination of three native Japanese priests in front of a packed crowd of 1,700 people in St. Ignatius Church in central Tokyo. In his homily, the Archbishop of Tokyo challenged them to be “signs of hope in the middle of the barren desert.” In light of the events of the past few days, the urgency of that call sounds even more.
A recent email from an American Jesuit who has spent fifty years in Japan begins with a nonchalant tone that differs markedly from the nuclear hysteria in the global press: “Life in Tokyo goes on here with little change, except for the frequent aftershocks and reduced train service.” In the 450 years since the arrival of Saint Francis Xavier, a Jesuit, the Japanese church has weathered much persecution, in many cases more severe than the present situation. Let us pray that our Japanese brothers will rise to meet this latest challenge with similar faith, confident in a God who brings hope especially in the direst of circumstances.