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The Jesuit Experience in Japan

May 1, 2019 — St. Louis native Fr. David Wessels, SJ, entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Florissant, Missouri, in 1963. During studies at Saint Louis University and Georgetown University, he felt called to Japan in response to the request of former Superior General Pedro Arrupe, SJ. Fr. Wessels has served in Japan since 1970.

Originally a member of the former Missouri Province, Fr. Wessels was formally transcribed (transferred) to the Japan Province in 1981. Though he retired from Sophia University in the spring of last year, “Retirement doesn’t suit the Jesuit vocabulary very well,” he said. So, he remains active as professor emeritus of global studies at Sophia University, where he taught for 46 years. At 73, he continues research and is a sub-minister at the Jesuit community in Tokyo. In this interview, Fr. Wessels shares his perspective as a Jesuit serving in Japan.

Q. What is your current assignment in Japan?

A. I taught at Sophia University from the time of my regency in the 1972 academic year in Japan, including the years that I studied theology in Japan (1973-1976). Due to the age limit at the university, I have no longer been teaching there since April 2018, although I have a status as “professor emeritus” and continue with a few ongoing activities at the university. I have also begun to teach evening classes for the general public at Sophia University, although these are not part of the curriculum for matriculated students. Just recently, I received an additional assignment from the provincial of the Japan Province to be the archivist for the Japan Province from April 2019, and I will begin to transition into that job soon. I also am engaged in a variety of pastoral activities at Sophia University and the adjoining parish church (St. Ignatius Church), as well as helping out at other Catholic activities (schools, convents and our own community, S.J. House at Sophia University). 

(Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Q. When did you move to Japan?

A. I left the United States for Japan in March 1970. I finished my philosophy studies at Saint Louis University and a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University as a member of the Missouri Province before going to Japan.

David Wessels as a young Jesuit

Q. About how many Jesuits are in Japan?

A. There are currently about 180 Jesuits, from about 24 different countries, actively associated with the Japanese province, including about 15 who are working or studying abroad and about 20 who are ascribed (temporarily assigned) to the Japan Province. 

Q. What is the Catholic experience like in Japan?

A. Because Catholics are a very small minority in Japan, the experience of the church is different from that in the United States, particularly those regions in the U.S. that have large Catholic populations and institutions. The basic structure of church activities (dioceses, parishes, religious congregations, schools, hospitals, other social and apostolic works) is similar to that in the U.S., but the total number of Japanese Catholics is only about 400,000 in a population of about 125 million. 

In recent years, a considerable number of Catholics from other countries have come to Japan, often in search of work or study. The exact number is unclear, but it probably exceeds the number of Japanese Catholics. There are concentrations of foreign workers and students in certain areas, which sometimes means that majorities in local parishes are not Japanese. 

At our own Jesuit parish in Tokyo, which has an extremely advantageous location for commuters, very large numbers of non-Japanese attend Sunday Masses and other activities of the parish. In addition to the numerous Japanese-language Masses, the parish has regular Masses in English, Spanish, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Italian. Our Jesuits in Tokyo also assist language communities in Chinese (primarily Mandarin), German, Korean, Portuguese and some Indian languages. Because of the history and culture of Japan, the rhythm and style of annual feasts, observances and religious customs are quite different from those in the U.S.

St. Ignatius Church at Sophia University (Photo: John Paul Antes, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Q. Why is it important for the Jesuits to be there?

A. The Japanese church dates back to the evangelization by the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier in the 16th century. Despite severe persecution from the late 16th century to the late 19th century, Catholics maintained the faith in hidden communities all that time, without the presence of priests. That is telling of the deep faith and commitment of Japanese Catholics. 

Also, the church has a presence in society larger than its numbers would suggest. The educational and other social works sponsored by the church are generally admired; so much so that on social surveys asking people their religious affiliation, many people who have been associated with such institutions, even though they have not received baptism, will identify as Catholics in far greater percentages than official church statistics. (This may also suggest the fluidity and ambiguity of religious identity in Japan, as in some other countries.) The role of witness continues to be very important for Jesuits and for the church in Japan.

Superior General Pedro Arrupe visiting with novices
at St. Stanislaus Seminary, Florissant, Missouri

Q. Did you cross paths with former Superior Generals Pedro Arrupe or Adolfo Nicolás?

A. I met Fr. Arrupe very briefly both at St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Missouri, shortly after he was elected Superior General, and in Japan. I spent many years living in the same house with and studying under Fr. Nicolás while he was teaching theology in the Japan Province. He has now returned to the infirmary here in Tokyo, where I met him just a few days ago. He is no longer in active ministry.

Q. What other Jesuits have inspired your work there?

A. Some of the Missouri Province Jesuits who preceded me to Japan inspired me: Fr. Jerry Cusumano, Fr. Roger Downey (deceased). Also, Fr. Charles Hancock (deceased), originally from the New England Province before going to Japan, inspired me as we were studying together at Georgetown University in the late 1960s before I went to Japan. I think that, in general, the Society’s long history of service in the missions throughout the world was a source of inspiration. The letter of Fr. Arrupe in the 1960s asking the Missouri Province to send men to Japan was a source of motivation, as well. Many Jesuits in the Japan Province have been a source of continuing inspiration over the years.

[Source: Central and Southern Province Jesuits]

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