It was a bittersweet farewell that Pope Francis bade to the people of Japan on Tuesday 26 November, as he boarded the papal plane at Tokyo-Haneda airport.
His visit fulfilled a life-long desire to come to this East Asian nation as a missionary, a dream that was truncated by illness as a young Jesuit.
Yet Divine Providence has a special way of turning patient hope into reality.
Pope Francis arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun smiling despite driving rain and wind. His joy was evident as he met with the most varied aspects of Japanese society.
And the people of Japan could feel his enthusiasm and returned it in spades.
From Emperor Naruhito – who stretched protocol to personally accompany the Pope to his car – to an elderly missionary priest – who had tears in his eyes as he watched his brother Jesuit depart Sophia University – gratitude was written all over the face of every person Pope Francis met.
Deep bows abounded during his 4 days here. They represented the respect, politeness, and hospitality with which Japan received the Pope. But it wasn’t all mere formalities.
Pope Francis launched forceful appeals to “Protect All Life,” at its every stage, level, and state.
He called on the world to renounce atomic energy used for purposes of war, and said the possession of nuclear weapons – even for deterrence – is immoral.
A 1945 photo of a Japanese boy carrying his dead baby brother on his back lent a heart-wrenching image to “the fruit of war.”
The determination set in that boy’s face – along with his bottom lip that seems to tremble with sadness – perhaps demonstrates Pope Francis’ own emotional resolve to rid the world of the horrors wrought by nuclear arms.
The Pope also urged the local Catholic Church to confront the problems of bullying, loneliness, and suicide, problems that grow out of the competitive nature and frenetic pace of Japanese society.
Selfless love, he countered, can help everyone turn isolation into encounter, after the model of Jesus Christ.
As the Pope prepared to leave the Land of the Rising Sun, he gave voice to the impact his long-awaited missionary expedition to Japan left on him.
“I promise you,” he said off-script with a smile, “that you will all be in my prayers and in my heart.”
Wednesday’s General Audience
Pope Francis’ catechesis during Wednesday’s General Audience was devoted to his Apostolic Journey to Thailand and Japan.
The Pope told pilgrims and tourists in St Peter’s Square that this visit had increased his closeness and affection for the peoples of both Thailand and Japan.
Beginning with his journey to Thailand, the Pontiff paid tribute to the rich spiritual and cultural tradition of the Thai people, calling them the people with the “beautiful smile.”
Pope Francis recalled the many strands to this visit, including his meeting with civil authorities, brother bishops, the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch and the Thai King.
He also said, he “encouraged a commitment to harmony between the different elements of the nation, as well as towards an economic development that benefits all and to healing the scourges of exploitation, especially of women and children.”
In particular, the Pope noted his visit to St Louis Hospital, to encourage the local Church’s support of the sick and poor and he spoke of the two celebrations of Mass, commenting that “we saw clearly how the Gospel is being inculturated among the Thai people.”
Turning to the second leg of his Apostolic Journey, which was Japan, Pope Francis highlighted the motto for the visit, which was “Protect All Life.”
He called it “a vital theme for a county that experienced the devastation of the atomic bomb and more recent disasters.”
“To protect life one must love it,” he said, “and today the serious threat, in more developed countries, is the loss of a sense of living.” The Pope went on to say, that the first victims of this are young people, that is why, he said, he encouraged them to face the future without fear by opening their hearts to God’s love in prayer and in service of others.
The Pope also looked back at his visit to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where he met with survivors and their families. He also recalled his appeal for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Pope Francis praised Japan for “remaining faithful to its religious and moral values, and open to the Gospel message, adding, that it can be a leading country for a more just and peaceful world.
In words to Italian speaking pilgrims, Pope Francis expressed his closeness to the people of Albania who he said, have suffered so much as a result of an earthquake that hit the country on Tuesday. The Pope said he was praying for the dead, the injured and their families. He also noted that Albania was the first country in Europe that he wanted to visit.
During his audience, the Pope announced that next Sunday he will go to Greccio in the Lazio region of Italy to pray at the site of the first Nativity Scene.
Vatican News and Devin Watkins – Pope bids farewell to Japan, leaves hearts overflowing with gratitude
Vatican News – Pope Francis recalls his visit to Thailand and Japan