This year’s Cherry Blossom Time has been officially announced in Japan. This is important in Japan, for historical, religious and sociological reasons, and more, as Amanda Bradley explains ... but might it be signficicant for Japanese Catholicism too?
The flowering cherry is doubtless beautiful and a feast for all eyes, Japanese and others. And here, it is the occasion for celebrations, and especially for traditional “Cherry-blossom-viewing’ parties, with those of all ages sitting on blue tarpaulins gazing up at the blooms, enjoying traditional boxed delicacies. while adults also sample rice wine. The tradition is rooted in the autochthonous polytheistic Japanese, faith, Shinto. The gods of birth and renewal are worshipped and the epitome of this annual renewal and passing is the frothy pink blossom.
But there is more: Whereas 99% of Japanese adhere to Shinto, for Roman Catholics such as myself, a significant 1% or so are Christians....and this year, the first five cherry blossoms in the land burst open in the historic holy city conceived by the Society of Jesus... the brainchild of the Valencian Jesuit, Cosme de Torres, and founded in the middle of the sixteenth century, Nagasaki.
With the release of Scorsese’s film, “Silence”, word-wide audiences learned of the existence and tragic persecutions of Catholics in Japan, culminating with the martyrdoms of Nagasaki prefecture.
As for me, I happened to be in the Jesuit church of Sao Roque in Lisbon, a place of perennial pilgrimage, when a guide came up to me, “Have you seen The Letter?”, he asked, excitedly. I had. Loaned to the adjoining museum for just one week by the Carvalho family. Blessed Miguel de Carvalho, sj , had written to his family from his prison in Omura, Nagasaki, on the eve of his martyrdom by burning at the stake. The letter had miraculously reached its destination, and the family to this day treasures it.
While Christianity was finally permitted during the mid-nineteenth century in Japan, it was initially banned for Japanese on pain of death and exile. When the ban was at last lifted, in 1873, a plethora of Catholic churches were built, particularly on the Goto islands of the same Nagasaki prefecture. The faith had maintained itself there through thick and thin and by going underground. These island churches have just been granted World Heritage status.
Also, the times and attitudes of the Catholic hierarchy have for some years now been changing to recognize the validity of other faiths, and ecumenism is the order of the day. In Kansai, in Western Japan, there is an inter-faith project involving participation in prayers and visits to places of worship of other Christian and non-Christian denominations, and interactions with the religious in question. And there are non-Christian ecumenical activities too. And to be sure the Shinto priests have most graciously welcomed us Catholic pilgrims.
Added to officialdom, there is also the unofficial, the inexplicable, explicable only as mystical. And so it is, that this year, it would seem that Divine Providence has made an ecumenical statement. A whole nation was waiting for the announcement of the first blooms of Shinto’s beloved cherry blossom reaffirming its tradition. That same cherry blossom and all of nature and all things are also the gift of the Judeo-Christian God and as such rooted in Catholic tradition. And they have burst open in Japan’s most holy Catholic city, in Nagasaki.