The Japanese Church’s Catholic Weekly Online headlined the freedom with which the bishops were able to discuss matters with the pope, a freedom that carried over to their discussions with various Vatican officials as well. That is newsworthy because in the past people in Rome were more intent upon speaking than listening.
One of the matters the bishops talked over with the pope was the pastoral care of migrants and their role as missioners. Such migrants include refugees, overseas contract workers and even international business travelers.
This is an important issue not only in Japan, but throughout the world, including the Church in Asia, and perhaps especially there in the case of migrants who leave home for the sake of work.
Pass through any airport in Asia, and you will see laborers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere either going to or returning from jobs, usually menial and often dangerous, in such places as East Asia and the Middle East.
As much as 10 percent of the population of the Philippines is away from home as overseas workers, making human beings one of the country’s major exports. Their remittances provide one of the pillars of that nation’s economy.
Caring for these people in both the sending and receiving countries is a huge and growing pastoral challenge.
Sending countries face the problems of broken families as one or both parents forced by circumstances or pursuing often illusory dreams leave their children in order to find work abroad.
Unscrupulous labor contractors take advantage of poorly-educated and naive youths. Workers returning home with disabilities following work-related accidents and diseases need care that their poor families cannot provide. Others, especially women, often return with the physical, psychological and spiritual scars of physical and sexual abuse and exploitation.
In countries that receive such workers, there is often little to protect them from exploitation. They frequently live and work in unsafe conditions with little compensation or treatment in the event of injury. Workers are cheated of their wages. They suffer from homesickness. Women, especially, are abused or forced into prostitution. Too often, women working abroad find themselves providing financial support for unfaithful spouses back home.
In both sending and receiving countries, Christians try, often with scant resources and little support, to respond to the needs of these women and men.
In receiving countries like Japan, in addition to attempting to respond to the other needs, there is an added challenge to provide pastoral care for Catholic migrants. Linguistic and cultural differences often force Church leaders and ministers to struggle to provide for migrants’ liturgical, sacramental and pastoral needs.
It is no wonder that the situation of migrants is often referred to as a problem for the local Churches.
However, in their ad limina, the Japanese bishops appear to have looked beyond the problems and glimpsed the opportunity that migrants present to the Church in countries where the harvest is great but laborers are few.
The opportunity is that migrants can play a missionary role in their host countries. Catholic migrants such as those who come to Japan from Brazil, Peru and the Philippines can and should be welcomed by the Church as new agents of evangelization, augmenting and energizing local Catholic activities.
However, it is not a simple matter of declaring that these Catholics are now evangelizers. They often come from places where Christians are the majority. They may have never encountered non-Christian people, let alone non-Christian societies, until they became migrants.
Their Catholicism is generally ill-adapted to supporting their witnessing to the Gospel in their new homes. Their style of being Catholic needs adaptation to their host Church and culture, the sort of adaptation that must be done by all missioners. They must learn to be Christians in new ways, adapting some practices, abandoning others and adopting yet others.
This is the real challenge of pastoral care in countries that receive migrants. It is not enough to provide liturgy and sacraments in their languages.
It is of first importance to recognize, as the Japanese bishops seem to have done either on their own or with papal prompting, that these Catholics are, as are all Catholics, commissioned in their baptism to be heralds of the Gospel. Then, all pastoral care provided to them must be directed toward helping them become effective evangelizers of their new, even if temporary, homes.
Maryknoll Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.