Pope Francis lands in Japan, where he once hoped to be a missionary

Pope Francis 1 at the Wednesday general audience in St Peters Square on June 172015 Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA 6 17 15 Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square June 17, 2015. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

In a meeting with bishops in Tokyo Saturday, Pope Francis recalled his former desire to be a missionary to Japan, praising those who carried the faith there before him.

"I don't know if you are aware of this, but ever since I was young I have felt a fondness and affection for these lands," Francis told the Japanese bishops in the apostolic nunciature in Tokyo Nov. 23.

As a young Jesuit, Pope Francis wanted to be sent to Japan to be a missionary, inspired by the example of St. Francis Xavier, but he was prevented from going because of his health.

"Many years have passed since that missionary impulse, whose realization has been long in coming," he said. "Today the Lord gives me the opportunity to come among you as a missionary pilgrim in the footsteps of great witnesses to the faith."

Pope Francis is in Japan for the second leg of a six-day trip to Asia, which began in Thailand Nov. 20-22.

In addition to Tokyo, he will follow his predecessor St. Pope John Paul II in visiting the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where he will give speeches at the sites of the 1946 atomic bombings. He is expected to speak against nuclear weapons and the arms trade.

The pope will also meet with victims of Japan's 2011 "triple disaster," when a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11, 2011 triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

At his meeting with bishops, which took place immediately after his arrival in Tokyo, Francis recalled the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, whose arrival in Japan 470 years ago "marked the beginning of the spread of Christianity in this land."

"In his memory, I want to join you in thanking the Lord for all those who, over the centuries, have dedicated themselves to implanting the Gospel and serving the Japanese people with great tenderness and love," he said.

The pope also pointed to the examples of the martyrs St. Paul Miki and his companions and Blessed Justo Takayama Ukon, a 17th-century Catholic Samurai and martyr.

"Such self-sacrifice for the sake of keeping the faith alive amid persecution helped the small Christian community to develop, grow strong and bear fruit," he stated, also praising Nagasaki's "hidden Christians," who kept the faith alive for around 200 years through their personal commitment to catechesis, prayer, and baptism.

The "DNA" of the Catholic community in Japan is marked by these witnesses, he said.

Catholics make up just .5 % of the population in the largely secular country. Around half of these Catholics are foreign nationals recently let into the country as temporary workers in unskilled jobs.

The Church's small size "must not diminish your commitment to evangelization," he urged the bishops. "The starting point for every apostolate is the concrete place in which people find themselves, with their daily routines and occupations, not in artificial places."

"It is there that we must reach the souls of our cities, workplaces and universities, in order to accompany the faithful entrusted to us with the Gospel of compassion and mercy."

The motto of the papal visit to Japan is "protect all life." He told the bishops it is their role as pastor of their people to protect life.

About the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he said he wants to meet "those who still bear the wounds of this tragic episode in human history," adding that "their continued sufferings are an eloquent reminder of our human and Christian duty to assist those who are troubled in body and spirit, and to offer to all the Gospel message of hope, healing and reconciliation."

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The pope also expressed his sorrow for the devastating Typhoon Hagabis, which hit Japan last month and led to at least 88 deaths and 300 injuries.

"Let us entrust to the Lord's mercy those who have died, their families and all who have lost their homes and material possessions," he said. "May we never be afraid to pursue, here and throughout the world, a mission capable of speaking out and defending all life as a precious gift from the Lord."

Pope Francis exchanged a few laughs with the bishops at the start of the meeting, beginning by apologizing for not greeting each of them one by one as he entered.

"You will think, 'but how rude these Argentinians are,'" he joked. He also said he heard the Japanese are good workers, so they put him to work immediately.

After speaking, Pope Francis opened up the floor to the bishops to ask him questions.

On the last full day of his trip Nov. 25, the pope will meet with the country's prime minister and emperor, and with authorities. He will also have an encounter with youth and will celebrate Mass in the Tokyo Dome.

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