True faith is perseverance to the very end

by Michael H. Brown

         Word came last week that in Japan, out of 126 million people, less than 500,000 are Catholic. The number of total Christians isn't much more. Indeed, this is a truly irreligious nation -- a good people, a polite and accommodating people, a people with tremendous spiritual potential, but a people without faith. The main religion here has been materialism and as a result there were 30,000 suicides among youth in 1999 and the year before a quarter million divorces. 

         So secularized is Japan that not even native religions like Shintoism and Buddhism are practiced.

         Yet on a visit to Tokyo a year ago I saw a miracle in the midst of this spiritual vacuum. I don't even know the name of the church. I was staying in the Ginza district, and after a lot of struggle getting my point across to the desk clerk at the hotel, I was finally able to locate a church about 15 minutes away. One of the employees dutifully wrote out directions in Japanese for a taxi, and I found my way to an old little place hidden between the skyscrapers and apartment buildings for 7 a.m. Mass.

         It was a heart-wrenching scene. I don't know the name of the church because I can't read Japanese but what I know is that it had old worn pews and a tiny altar that was barren but for the tabernacle to the left with a little homemade plastic curtain or canopy above it. I was the only person in the pews; it was as lonely as I have ever been during a liturgy. As Mass began, a short gray-haired priest appeared -- the oldest celebrant I have ever seen, in his eighties for sure, perhaps close to 90 -- a poor hunched-over little fellow whose every step was a terrific labor as he made his way slowly across the altar with the help of a dutiful woman assistant and a metal folding chair he used for a walker. He probably couldn't afford a real one.

         In the midst of materialism, in the midst of tremendous disbelief, here was this feeble priest persevering. Although I was the only one there, they conducted the Mass as if that little place was filled to the rafters. Every ritual was honored, every reading carefully read, every antiphon recited. The priest could no longer read; the assistant did all of that. At consecration he struggled tremendously to raise the Host with his arthritic arms and could barely do so and was so crippled that I had to take the Communion out of the chalice myself.

         But he had persevered. He didn't care that he was alone in the world's largest city, that he was looked on as a relic, that no one even knew he was there. He was still trying with everything he had, he had finished the consecration, he finished the Mass -- and he granted a lesson in faith: If we want to get to heaven, if we want to find paradise after this life -- after this struggle -- we have to face it like this priest. We have to keep our heads up in every struggle. We have to forget what's going on around us. We have to give it our best shot every minute and persevere with our eyes on Christ even if it seems like no one else is... 

Japan's crisis is spiritual

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