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SVD in Japan - 100 Years

Address by Fr. Superior General, Antonio M. Pernia, SVD

Most Rev. Archbishop Alberto Bottari de Castello Apostolic Nuncio to Japan
Most Rev. Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada Archbishop of Tokyo
Most Rev. Archbishop Leo Jun Ikenaga, S.J. Archbishop of Osaka
Most Rev. Bishop Augustinus Jun-ichi Nomura Bishop of Nagoya
Most Rev. Bishop Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi, SVD Bishop of Niigata

Rev. Fr. Provincial, Fr. Michael Hideaki Ichise, SVD
Rev. Sr. Provincial, Sr. Scholastica Rei Ogasawara, SSpS
SVD Confreres and SSpS Sisters
Distinguished Guests

In the name of the SVD General Council in Rome, of the whole Society of the Divine Word, and indeed of the entire Arnoldus Family all over the world, I would like to greet all of you on the occasion of this joint celebration of the centennial of the presence of the SVD Missionaries and SSpS Sisters in Japan.

One hundred years ago, our Founder, St. Arnold Janssen, was still alive. In fact, the Japan Mission was the last one he accepted and organized himself. In a certain sense, this mission was dear to the Founder. He saw the hand of God in the invitation of Bishop Alexandre Berlioz (MEP) of Sendai-Hakodate to come to his diocese. He himself handpicked the pioneers of this mission. When the Founder passed away in 1909, the Japan Mission was the youngest child in his fast-growing family.

Today we look back to September 1907 when the first three SVD missionaries landed in Japan, and less than a year later, to June 1908 when the first SSpS sisters arrived in the country. The invitation of Bishop Berlioz was to help in establishing a secondary school in his largely rural diocese of Sendai-Hakodate. While the SSpS were soon able to establish a school for girls in Akita, it took the SVD about 25 years before they could begin their own school – and they did so in Nagoya rather than in Sendai, as originally envisioned.

Indeed, the beginnings of the mission were difficult – a difficult language, a strange culture, government restrictions, small number of Catholics, limited personnel, scarce financial resources. In a certain sense, it was a repeat of September 8,1875 in Steyl when the Arnoldus Family was born. The Founder, had only four men with him in a yet untransformed inn. The guests who gathered for the inaugural mass were skeptical of the project that was being started. They sat on improvised furnitures and used borrowed utensils for the feast afterwards. The founder was not unmindful of all this. In his homily at the mass, he said: “The simplicity of this beginning should not discourage us .... We know that with our present resources we cannot accomplish our task; but we hope that the good Lord will provide everything we need. May he do with us as He wishes. If this seminary succeeds, we will thank the grace of God. If nothing comes of it, we will humbly strike our breast and confess that we were not worthy of the grace.”

The pioneers of the Japan Mission had learned well from the Founder. They had little resources. But they had great faith – a profound trust in God’s grace and an abiding confidence in the generosity of the local people. Like in Steyl, something has come of that small and difficult beginning. It was greatly blessed by the Lord. The small missionary presence has grown into full-fledged provinces – the SVD with some 130 confreres and the SSpS with about 90 sisters. These confreres and sisters are engaged in a variety of important missionary and apostolic ministries – parishes, schools, research institutes, hospitals, social centers, retreat houses, formation centers. The school founded in 1932 has developed into an entire School Corporation with a renowned university and a number of colleges and high schools. Young Japanese men and women have joined the two congregations, about 65 in the SVD and 80 in the SSpS. And some of these are working abroad, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus and witnessing to God’s Kingdom by sharing their life and faith with people of other cultures, languages and religious beliefs.

Today, then, we celebrate not so much human achievement as God’s grace; not so much missionary success as the people’s generous response. Thus, our celebration today of the centennial of the presence of the SVD and SSpS in Japan can only be a celebration of thanksgiving. We come together today to thank God for the grace, and to thank the people for their generosity. But as we do so, we also pay tribute to the pioneers of the Japan Mission, and the generations of SVD and SSpS missionaries, from abroad and from Japan, who came after them. We pay tribute to their vision, their courage, their dedication. But above all, we pay tribute to their unflagging religious-missionary commitment as followers of the Divine Word and servants of the Holy Spirit.

From our Founder and our founding generation, we have inherited a certain style of doing mission, characterized by an openness to dialogue with the culture, the tradition, the situation of the people. This openness to dialogue, in the context of the actual situation of the country at the time, characterized the work of our pioneers and the subsequent generations of SVD and SSpS missionaries. Today we are challenged to do the same, in the context obviously of Japan’s radically changed situation. In his message to the Bishops of Japan during their recent “Ad Limina” Visit to Rome, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, adverts to this changed situation and says: “Your task today is to seek new ways of bringing alive the message of Christ in the cultural setting of modern Japan.” He goes on to state: “The world is hungry for the message of hope that the Gospel brings. Even in countries as highly developed as yours, many are discovering that economic success and advanced technology are not sufficient in themselves to bring fulfillment to the human heart .... Remind people that there is more to life than professional success and profit”. And he adds an appeal to pay special attention to the youth, who “especially are at risk of being deceived by the glamour of modern secular culture”.

Dear confreres, sisters and friends, about six years ago, during the Synod of Bishops of 2001, the Holy Father, then Pope John Paul II, had the practice of inviting everyday a small group of Synod participants to lunch. One day, it was the turn of the superiors general to have lunch with the Pope. I presented myself by saying: “Holy Father, greetings from the SVD”. When the Holy Father heard the word “SVD”, he showed a sign of recognition and said: “Ah, the SVD! A great family”. Since I was the only SVD then, the words of the Holy Father at that time did not have any special ring. But now, surrounded by so many confreres, sisters and friends on the occasion of the centennial of the SVD and SSpS presence in Japan, the words of the Holy Father come alive today. Indeed, we are a great family.

Today, this great family – the whole Society of the Divine Word and the entire Congregation of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit – rejoices with you as we mark the Centennial of SVD-SSpS presence in Japan. In the name of the entire Arnoldus Family all over the world, I congratulate you all on this happy occasion – you, dear confreres and sisters, and all our friends, benefactors and partners in mission. As we thank God for all his graces over the last 100 years, we also ask him for his continued guidance and presence among us. And may the holy men and women of our Arnoldus Family look kindly upon us today. May Sts. Arnold and Joseph, Blessed Maria Helena and Mother Josepha, and our blessed Martyrs, pray for us.