A retired Columban reflects on his 56 years of continuous mission in Japan.
On July 16, 1948, fellow Columban Father Francis Hunter and I landed in heavily war-scarred Kobe with rubble and bombed-out buildings everywhere. Then, it was off to Yokohama where, after a few days, we were sent to Fukuoka, the first of many Columbans to join the diocese of Bishop Dominic Fukahori.
More than 50 years have passed, and where has the time gone? It seems only yesterday—actually January 6, 1950—that the bishop sent me a formal Latin document assigning me to Hitoyoshi Church, his first appointment of a Columban within his diocese.
Apart from six years in Óisó and Chigasaki and six months in Yokohama, I have spent the remaining 50 years here in Fukuoka.
As I look back over this half-century, my predominant feeling is joy and gratitude to God, the Japanese Christians and to my Columban confreres.
The Comfort Of Friends
A celibate missionary is essentially on his own and, in my experience, if I would have been without a close relationship with the Lord, the loneliness at times would have overwhelmed me. But, in addition to prayer, a man still needs human friendship.
This is where my Japanese friends have been invaluable. There have been times when I have been chided for leaning more on them for support than on my fellow Columbans. If I have offended in this matter, I can only apologize.
My sole excuse would be that, back in the ’50s, a man seldom saw another Columban. I got into the early habit of relying heavily on my Japanese friends; otherwise I don’t think I could have survived.
But, all the while, the solid Columban family structure was a deep source of comfort and emotional stability. I am reminded of my childhood when, as a hyperactive lad, I spent most of the day outside, rushing around, playing with my mates and enjoying life. But it wouldn’t have been possible unless there were a warm home to return to in the evening.
Now in my 80s, I am discovering this Columban family structure is slowly disintegrating. Lately, undoubtedly due to a number of factors—age, cold weather, 12 years in this parish, the lack of stimuli—the isolation and loneliness of my situation have hit me as never before.
Whatever I was experiencing, it hollowed me out to the roots of my being. It was grace that allowed me to savor as never before what it means to be created from nothing. The thought of God’s love holding me in existence was one conviction that kept me going.
Ironically, my good physical health has probably aggravated my feelings. If I had a number of ailments to distract me, possibly I shouldn’t have become so mentally agitated. At all events, I felt the Lord was telling me something: My job here is done; time to fold up the tent and move on.
A ‘Spoiled’ Priesthood
Looking back, I realize the Lord and the Columbans have “spoiled” me. First, I have had good health for more than 80 years.
Second, as a member of the first wave of Columbans to arrive in 1948, I became a parish priest at age 26. There was no one ahead of us, with more experience to tell us what to do, so we were free to make our own way. The groups who came after us were not so fortunate.
I am also most grateful for being allowed to remain in Japan for 56 years without being asked to perform other mission work elsewhere, as many Columbans are asked to do.
I sometimes am asked how I see the role of the Columbans within the Japanese Church and what the future holds.
In the 16th century, the Jesuits and the Franciscans planted the seed of the faith. For some 250 years, that seed was preserved by Japanese lay Christians until the arrival of the Paris Foreign Missionaries in the Meiji era.
After World War II, we built upon the foundations laid by the French priests. Like them, we are handling parishes that we have developed over to Japanese clergy.
Since the war, all 16 of Japan’s dioceses have been served by Japanese bishops. The Japanese are now capable of caring for the Japanese Church.
Our work here is done. Our remaining role is to fill areas of need where there are not enough Japanese priests.
Words cannot convey adequately what a man feels when he pulls up his roots and leaves Japan after 56 years. The Japanese Church and my Columban colleagues will continually be in my thoughts, prayers and Masses.
Fr. James Norris retired in 2004 to live with his family in his native New Zealand.