Editorial: Hope for advancing nuclear abolition in visit by Pope to A-bombed cities

What impact will it have on the international community when Pope Francis visits the A-bombed cities, the first visit to Japan by a pope in 38 years?

Pope Francis has expressed his intention to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki around the end of 2019. If realized, this visit will mark the second trip by a pope to Japan since Pope John Paul II’s visit in February 1981.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for the need to abolish nuclear weapons. Since he became the Pontiff five years ago, he has already made a tour of some Asian countries, including the Philippines and South Korea, where Catholics have widespread influence. Some in Japan may have grown anxious for him to visit this nation, too. The pope’s influence is not limited to his over one billion followers. He also carries some weight in international politics. The A-bombed cities should use this opportunity to generate momentum toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The “Appeal for Peace at Hiroshima” that was read out by the late John Paul II from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is still talked about today. With his back to the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims, he said to us in Japanese, “War is the work of man,” and stressed in Portuguese, “To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace.”

Back then, not many foreign dignitaries visited the A-bombed cities. That visit, therefore, had a significant impact on the public. It primed the pump and prompted foreign VIPs to follow in the pope’s footsteps and visit the A-bombed cities, too.

Pope Francis is said to have maintained a strong interest in the A-bombed cities. When he was elevated to Pope five years ago, he expressed concern about the fact that wars were being waged around the world, and he lamented that “human beings haven’t learned anything” from the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which experienced the tremendous suffering of the atomic bombings. This year, Pope Francis distributed cards to officials of the Roman Catholic Church that feature the photo of a boy with his dead brother strapped to his back after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. It seems he wanted to convey his resolve that a tragedy wrought by nuclear weapons will never be repeated.

Since becoming Pontiff, Francis has actively traveled abroad, even to troubled parts of the world. He mediated the historic restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. When the 50-year long civil war ended in Columbia, he urged its people to make peace and unite.

On the other hand, there is a political aspect to the pope that compromises the international influence he wields. We cannot ignore the reality that Chinese Catholics, who are not recognized by the Chinese government, have been suffering oppression as a result of giving up the power to appoint bishops in China. This should clearly be a part of papal authority, yet, in exchange, he has put priority on the church’s missionary work.

The A-bombed cities have made persistent requests of the Holy See to realize the Pope’s visit. The governors and mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also traveled to the Vatican in person and made this request directly to the Pope. Meeting with an A-bomb survivor in November 2017 may have encouraged him, too. Some think that the “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region,” which was registered as a World Heritage Site in 2018, may have had a favorable impact on his decision. The listed sites include the Oura Church.

Will we see a pope speaking out from the Peace Memorial Park again? Former U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech from the park when he visited Hiroshima two years ago. He said, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.” His words revealed his desire for a world free of nuclear weapons, but their elegance gave the impression that the address had been carefully worked out by a speechwriter.

Pope Francis is known for speaking extemporaneously, saying what comes to mind at the time and not reading from a prepared text. We hope his speech will be made with simple but direct words that will stir sympathy in a wide variety of people across all faiths, as was the case with the speech made by John Paul II.

We also look forward to hearing what the Pope will say to the Japanese government. How does he view this country and its contradictions, relying on the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States and refusing to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, despite knowing the horror of the atomic bombings? We hope he will admonish the politicians of the A-bombed nation, who have disregarded the survivors’ desire for nuclear abolition.

(Originally published on December 19, 2018)