japan web 2.jpg

Fr. Elias will be the pilgrimage chaplain for our April 2019 pilgrimage to Japan!

The idea of a pilgrimage to Japan to visit the Catholic sites and shrines came about because, having grown up in Japan, I took my daughter on a trip there in 2016 to show her the beautiful country and experience the amazing culture. I converted to the Catholicism when I was 28, so when I lived in Japan, I was not a Christian. Providentially while planning my trip back with my daughter to visit the old homesteads, I came to discover the history of the Catholic Faith in Japan.   What I didn't know until I got to Japan was the amazing story of Christianity in that country!  A history of missionaries and martyrs.


The first Catholic site I visited was the famous Marian apparition in Akita.  Our Lady appeared in 1973 to Sister Agnes Sasagawa, a convert to Catholicism, and an amazing story in herself.  Our Lady spoke to Sister Agnes through a miraculous statue in the sister's chapel that bled, sweat and cried human blood sweat and tears.  Sister Agnes is still living but no longer resides at the convent in Akita. The sisters were very gracious and allowed my daughter and I to spend as long as we liked in the chapel in prayer before the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Akita. The messages she gave to Sister Agnes, the seer, are very relevant to our times.


After spending some time in Tokyo, we boarded the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) headed for Kyoto. A trip to Japan can't be without the history and sites of ancient Kyoto. But to my surprise, this is where I first learned of the plight of Catholics in Japans. In Kyoto I learned of The Holy Mother of the Capitol, a Marian statue encased in glass in the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier. In 1865 the statue was blessed by Bl. Pope Pius IX and eventually arrived in secret in Japan in 1873 with hope that the statue of Our Lady would end the persecution of Christians in Japan. A boy was instructed to carry the statue up to a mountain and bury her facing the city of Kyoto. The boy did as he was instructed and 17 years later the bitter persecution ended. Prayers from Rome to Our Lady were answered! I was just amazed reading the story and being in the presence of the statue. Also at the the cathedral there is a room with glass etchings telling the story of the Kyoto martyrs such as a mother and her children being burned at the stake.


Next stop was Hiroshima. This is a must stop for anyone to learn about the horrors of nuclear war. I've never forgotten the images and stories from The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum having visited it several times before as a youngster. We learn much about the Holocaust here in the US, but not much about the suffering of the Japanese people after we dropped the atomic bombs to end the war.  At the end of the exhibits in the museum, my daughter made her paper origami crane, which you are invited to make to show your pledge for peace and agree that this can never happen again. After Hiroshima, We boarded the train and spent time on the nearby island of Miya Jima a site of cultural importance to all Japanese.


Finally, we were headed to Nagasaki. I was excited to go to St. Maximilian Kolbe's, City of the Immaculata, Seibo no Kishi.  I felt very close to him as he was the first saint I read about after my conversion. Reading his writings I would think, "How does a person get like this?" Coming from outside the church, I found his life so beautiful and fascinating!


Nagasaki is a very Catholic city. It is even called the Rome of Japan.  I noticed people wearing crucifixes and I saw Catholic Churches from the train windows as we were coming into town. These images are not familiar sites in Japan!  Our hotel was right near the 26 Martyr's Statue and Museum (commemorating St. Paul Miki and Companions). The stories in the museum of heroic virtue were unbelievable! St. Francis Xavier reached Japan on August 15, 1549 and when he left in 1551, there were 2000 new converts to the Catholic Faith.  Subsequent missionaries who would follow in his footsteps would be instrumental in 400,000 conversions to the Faith. Things were fine until 40 years later the Japanese shogunate was feeling threatened by the missionaries in their country and ordered them all to leave and closed it's borders. Still feeling threatened by the Christians, the people were ordered to step on the "fumie" (medals with the image of Jesus or Mary), renounce their faith or be tortured and murdered! The powers that be managed to either banish or kill every priest in the country and thousands of civilians. The most amazing part of this story is that the faith survived underground for over 250 years! They passed on the faith by mouth. There was an elder in a village who kept the liturgical calendar and another who performed all the baptisms. In the meantime, the shogunate government would periodically come into town with their "fumie" as the Christians very heroically suffered and died for Christ. The museum has relics, artifacts, paintings and pictures depicting their heart wrenching stories. My own faith seemed so small. The Japanese martyrs are such an inspiration!


Next we visited the City of the Immaculata that was founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe when he came as a missionary in Japan from 1933 to 1936.  St. Maximilian came to Japan as a missionary of the Immaculata to spread devotion to Our Lady, not knowing anybody or even the language. When he was looking for a place to build his monastery, the people couldn't understand why he wanted to build south of town behind the mountainous valley. He said this is where Our Lady wants it to be. Our Lady's protective mantel and his prophetic insight to the will of God paid off. The monastery was untouched when the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, being shielded by the mountain. The monastery houses a museum with all St. Maximilian's artifacts and his original workshop where he worked on his Marian publication. You can sit in his chair at his desk! Saint John Paul II also visited the monastery, as his memorabilia is also in the museum. Outside they have a rosary walk that leads to a Marian Grotto which the saint had built when he lived there. Statues and pictures of him are everywhere.


The following day we visited the peace park and the atomic bomb museum. More heart wrenching pictures and stories of the Japanese people living in Nagasaki at that time. We pray that this will never happen again!  It is here at the museum that I first learned of Dr. Takashi Nagai, a Catholic convert and a  man who became a model of peace and reconciliation for the Japanese nation after World War II.  He was like the Mother Teresa of Japan and is a Servant of God.


I visited the Urakami Cathedral, which is close to the epicenter of the atomic bomb. Inside is the head of a statue of Our Lady which survived the bomb but her eyes are blown out. The story goes that when the bomb was dropped, 30 people were inside the church praying the rosary with 2 priests hearing confessions. They all died instantly. Timing couldn't be better if you are called to die in a catastrophe.


There was so much I didn't see! The Oura Cathedral, where the missionary priest amazingly discovered the first hidden Christians after Christianity was allowed back into the country, St. Francis Xavier's memorial church commemorating the beginning of Christianity in Japan, the Unzen Hot Springs site where the Japanese Christians were tortured, who was this Dr. Takashi Nagai?... My heart was broken as we departed the station. I had only hit the tip of the iceberg in Nagasaki on amazing Christian places to visit and now I had to leave. It was then that the thought came to me to come back with an English speaking priest on the most amazing pilgrimage ever!


When I got back to the states, I contacted the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse as I had promised the priest there that I would bring him back something from St. Maximilian's monastery, as he had given me the address (I was unable to find anything on it online). To my dismay, I found out he had been transferred but I then started talking to Fr. Elias, the priest who answered the phone, about my trip. He seemed to know more about Christianity in Japan than I did and recommended a couple books and a video. A month or so later when I was looking into getting a pilgrimage going, my thoughts turned to Fr. Elias, as he was so knowledgeable and enthused when we talked about Japan. His order, the Franciscans of the Immaculate, live the spirituality of St. Maximilian Kolbe, which I thought was appropriate for someone to lead a pilgrimage to Japan.


The pilgrimage starts in Nagasaki, visiting all the places mentioned, many of them World Heritage Sites. We then board the Shinkansen stopping in Hiroshima, Miya Jima, Kyoto, beautiful Mt. Fuji, Tokyo and Akita during the Cherry Blossom season. Daily Mass, rosary and prayer, along with the beautiful and most gracious Japanese people, their amazing culture and country promise this very unique pilgrimage to be a once in a lifetime experience! It is very exciting! If you are interested in going, please call Canterbury Pilgrimages at 800-653-0017 or visit their website at for more information.

Sven SyversenComment