And in fact, the public was not supposed to read Archbishop Alberto Bottari del Castello’s memo of August 15, 2011, where he summed up his thoughts at the end of his six-year posting as Vatican ambassador to Japan.
The memo is one of the many secret Vatican documents published in a recent book by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, Sua Santita, which has sparked an unprecedented crisis within the Vatican and led to the arrest of the pope’s personal butler after Vatican police found “a large number of confidential papal documents” in his home.
Archbishop Bottari del Castello’s memo isn’t the most scandalous or newsworthy item of the book. But it offers a revealing glimpse of the situation of the Church in Japan more than four centuries after the first arrival of Christian missionaries.
While Christians remain a small minority in Japan, in neighboring Korea the number of Christians has risen dramatically over the last decades.
“During all those years, writes the Vatican ambassador to his superiors, “I have felt inside me a question that I’ve also been frequently asked: ‘Why is this wonderful world still far from the Gospel? Why are there only half a million Catholics out of 128 million Japanese?’”
The answer the nuncio offers is the result of his years of conversations and reflection with Japanese bishops, missionaries and lay Catholics.
“Japan has a noble culture, a glorious history [and] a strong national identity linked to some symbols [the emperor] and religious expressions [Shintoism, Buddhism]. To convert to Christianity is to break away from this world, to appear [and also to feel deep down] that one has become ‘less Japanese’.”
The archbishop then goes on to recount how Japanese pride and strong national identity gives them a mixed feeling towards influences coming from abroad.
“They are open and curious, they integrate what is new to their cultural world, but they don’t want to leave it… So much so that you end up thinking that very conversion to the Gospel is almost a miracle.”
And the fact that Catholicism is perceived as a Western phenomenon doesn’t help.
“Some images and lifestyles coming from the Western world and spread by the media, such as violence, materialism, corruption, are seen as part of the Christian world, and thus very difficult to accept.”
According to Archbishop Bottari del Castello’s analysis, this is the root of the long-running dispute between Japan’s Catholic bishops and the Neocatechumenal Way.
“From what we can see, they come here and follow to the letter a method that was born and developed in Europe, without bothering to adapt to the local world. Among them here in Japan, I found the same style I saw in Cameroon, as I was a missionary there 20 years ago: the same guitar-accompanied chants, the same expressions, the same catecheses, all imposed rather than proposed.”
No wonder, then, for the nuncio that “tensions, misunderstandings and reactions” abound, and “as they are sometimes received with little openness to dialogue, they lead up to all-out refusal.”
For the archbishop, the Neocats’ “intentions and goodwill are to be admired” but they lack “integration in the local culture.” Then the archbishop concludes: “This, in my humble opinion, is what the Japanese bishops are asking: to take off the European vest to present the heart of the message in a way that is purified and close to the people.”
Reading these reflections, one can only wonder if they apply to Japan or might be valid elsewhere in Asia, and whether Archbishop Bottari del Castello’s final words received any serious consideration at the Vatican.