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In November of 2019, Pope Francis will make his first official visit as pope to Japan. In advance of this, a series of three symposia have been planned by Sophia University in Tokyo on the aims of this trip. The first of these was a talk titled “Geopolitics of Mercy of Pope Francis,” presented by Father Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica and advisor to the pope. The invitation first came from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014 and was followed afterwards by a joint invitation from the mayors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The pope is planning to visit both cities, in addition to visiting Tokyo, during his trip. This will be the first such visit to Japan since Pope John Paul II arrived in 1981.
The essential message of Pope Francis, explained Fr. Spadaro, is mercy, noting that the pontiff mentioned mercy no less than eight times during a recent address to the College of Cardinals. Explaining what the pope means by mercy, Fr. Spadaro said, “For Francis, it is not an abstract concept, it is the action of God within the life of the world, in societies, in human groups, in families and in individuals. God not only acts through the lives of individual people but through the historical processes of peoples and nations, even in the most complex and intricate ones.” Expanding this to the level of geopolitics, he continued, mercy means that one must “never consider anyone or anything as definitively lost in relations between nations, people and states.”
One metaphor that Pope Francis has frequently used has been of the role of the Catholic Church as a “field hospital,” which must always go where it is needed, and always work to heal wounds. Like a field hospital, its borders are flexible and can be entered by anyone. Describing this ‘field hospital diplomacy’ Fr. Spadaro explained, “Pope Francis has a habit of touching walls at places of conflict, as he sees them as the injuries of the world. He touches these open wounds as a doctor to heal spiritual wounds, as if they were the head of a sick person. He does not want to hear a speech that is general and abstract. He wants to touch the injured lands, one by one.” He has done this in sites of conflict such as the wall of Bethlehem and the camps at Auschwitz.
An additional idea that Pope Francis frequently brings up is that of ‘open and incomplete thought’. That is, taking care not to shut out possibilities, but rather to always seek to understand situations, evaluate consequences, and look beyond immediate concerns. Fr. Spadaro recalled an interview he conducted with Pope Francis: “The pope told [Civiltà Cattolica] that ‘crisis is global, and only truly open thought can face the crisis, understand where the world is going, and handle the most complex and urgent crises.’”
As an example, Fr. Spadaro cited the ongoing war in Syria. “As the intra-Islamic conflict between Sunni and Shia continues, it is important not to fall into the trap of putting Riyadh and Tehran as the opposing forces and taking one or the other sides,” he said. “The Iranian president was received by the pope in January 2016, and the Vatican drew attention after the meeting to the important role that Iran is called to carry out together with other countries in the region to promote adequate political solutions to the problems facing the Middle East, countering the spread of terrorism and arms sales. So, the Holy See is not in favor of Riyadh or Tehran, but it’s open to the dialogue.”
Fr. Spadaro also offered a word of warning on behalf of Pope Francis regarding the rise of fundamentalist influence in politics. “Politics and religions come together in fundamentalism because of the fear of chaos,” he said. “When you feel fear, it’s very easy for politics to instrumentalize religion. The strategy for political success becomes amplifying the rhetoric of conflict, exaggerating disorder, agitating the souls of the people by painting scenarios that bear no relation to reality.” This results when the concept of mercy is abandoned. Stressing the need for open thought, he continued, “the pope rejects the mixing of morals, politics and religion that divides reality between the absolute good and the absolute evil. He knows that there are always different interests at stake, and that different sides act out of standpoints that are usually morally ambiguous.”
Turning to the subject of the pope’s upcoming visit to Japan, Fr. Spadaro mentioned that Pope Francis has had a keen interest in Japan since long ago. When the future pontiff first became a priest, his initial desire was to serve as a missionary in Japan, following in the footsteps of Saint Francis Xavier’s journey to introduce Christianity in 1549. He announced his intention to visit Japan this year during his trip to Panama for the celebration of World Youth Day. The theme of the pope’s visit will be ‘the protection of all life,’ in relation to peace, economy, environment, and relations with neighboring countries.
During his visit, Pope Francis will travel to Nagasaki, the city where St. Francis Xavier first arrived and home to the oldest Christian communities in Japan. He will also meet with survivors of the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. His visit is also planned to include visiting with survivors in the Tohoku region of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, and of the tsunami and nuclear power plant accident which followed. “Recovery from natural catastrophes and nuclear plant accidents is still a priority for this country,” said Fr. Spadaro. “So, this theme of Pope Francis’ visit to Japan expresses the determination to proclaim the gospel of life brought by Christ, to pray and work for peace with Christ.” The pope will also hear the concerns of those marginalized by society and the problems experienced by immigrants to Japan.
“Francis has long expressed his admiration for Japanese culture and Japanese history,” said Fr. Spadaro in conclusion. “In April 2013, he spoke with admiration of the witness offered by the Japanese Church, which has remained alive despite the persecutions suffered between the 16th and 17th centuries. Meeting the Japanese bishops in 2015, he said ‘when all lay missionaries and priests were expelled from the country, the faith of the Christian community did not cool down. On the contrary, the sparks of faith that the Holy Spirit kindled remained safe thanks to the solicitude of the lay faithful.’ Francis’s journey to Japan is to be seen in the context of his broad, open geopolitical perspective, which I have tried briefly to illustrate, and which aims to give hope and a future to this world.”