A Mission in the Megalopolis of Tokyo
Fr. Andrea Lembo, PIME, works with young people to help those spiritually lost in the sprawling mega-city of Tokyo, Japan.
By Emanuela Citterio
Facing the challenge presented by the boys and girls of the Japanese capital means meeting them in their physical and existential places. This is the story of Fr. Andrea Lembo, PIME, on the eve of the Synod on young people.
“I have one of them in mind; his name is Koe. He started out by playing hookie, then, he had great arguments with his father who drove him out of the house, leading him to have to rent a tiny space in an Internet café. There he remained, locked inside for two years. He created a small online business of buying and selling used smartphones and tablets; that allowed him to set aside some money. He would have his meals delivered in front of his 125 square feet room and also medication when he was sick.”
Fr. Andrea Lembo is 43 years old and has been a PIME Missionary in Japan since 2009. In addition to exercising his ministry in his parish, he created a cultural center in Tokyo frequented by more than just Christians. Even with all this, since last year, he has been in charge of the PIME Missionary community in Japan. Yet, over the past 20 years there has been a constant concern in his life: attention to the young. “I like being with them,” he says. “I arrived in Japan when I was young, and it was natural for me to take care of young people; then I became passionate about their world. The age between 22 and 25 is the most delicate period.”
Fr. Andrea has become an expert on one of the many problems impacting Japan’s young people: the so-called “hikikomori”, those who shut themselves in their home and refuse any contact with the outside world, sometimes for years. “It is an experience that affects their whole life,” he explains. “No one can be completely be healed because, rather than being a reclusion from the outside world, it is a closure within oneself. Which leads to separation from one’s own life, a slide into a kind of inner suicide. If we want to make a parallel with Western society, it is a sort of psychological anorexia, it is refusal to feed relationships.”
“Alternative” problems need a matching solution: Fr. Andrea often meets with young people where they hang out to work through their problems.
The method that Fr. Andrea uses to approach these young “inmates” is simple: other young people. Those who attend his parish of the Church of the Holy Family in Fuchu, on the outskirts of Tokyo; those who participate in the cultural meetings of the Galilean Center which he founded closer to downtown, near the train station of Funabashi; even those encountered in “alternative” places, from breweries to municipal swimming pools.
It is a network that works with the PIME Missionary at the center, and an informal team of about ten boys and girls, which changes every two years. “When I wrote to Koe for the first time by e-mail, he did not know what a priest was, and he could not understand why I contacted him,” he continues. “Then, there was an involvement of great patience on the part of a guy from the team, who told him about me. A relationship of trust was established; the exchange of e-mails continued until I managed to visit with him.”
Once the obstacle of the “real” encounter has been overcome, Father tries to reach a further goal, “I try to sow in their hearts the seed of nostalgia for the beauty of life. In the dialogue with Koe I began to evoke very simple memories and images. There is a crossroads in Tokyo where thousands of kids pass by daily, at the end of the school day. I told him, ‘Think how nice it would be to be there at sunset, see the city skyline’, or ‘Instead of being in this room talking, we could have a beer in a pub, I will come with you.’ Only when one reaches the goal of leaving the house can he face the next step; go back to the moment in which life has taken this sad turn. These are very painful steps. Koe told me that he was bullied at school, and he regretted not being ‘even’ able to commit suicide.”
Today, Koe is 29 years old and for the last three years he has been working as a healthcare assistant in an elderly care facility. He has returned to the roadway of life, and thanks to the proximity of other young people, he has begun to weave beautiful and meaningful relationships. However, there is not always a happy ending: “I hsave followed people who decided to take their own lives and it was very painful,” confides Fr. Andrea. “On this subject I talk a lot with the bishop emeritus of Tokyo, Paul Kazuhiro Mori, whom I consider one of the most enlightened people in the Japanese Church and society.” Bishop Mori recently inaugurated a new mode of presence among young people, creating a cultural center independent of the parish. It is in the wake of this experiment that he, together with his parish priest Fr. Takeshi Ohara, created the Galilean Center, which organizes meetings open to all on society issues, politics and religion and which relies on the help of about fifty volunteers.
The Instrumentum laboris; i.e. the preparatory document of the Synod for the young, opens by saying that the Church must be in a listening mode of reality. According to Fr. Andrea, this is a precious insight, “In Tokyo, as a Christian community, we try to remain attentive to the needs of the city. I dare say, above all, about my activity with young people, that there are forms of belonging to the Church and of evangelization that should not be pigeonholed in the model of the parish. Even with the new bishop of Tokyo, who is a Divine Word missionary, we have been able to continue along this line. When he came to meet those about to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, I explained that I had set up a series of twelve meetings so that they could attend at least three of them. Then, in reality, almost everyone got involved and followed 80% of the program, because if we do interesting things, the kids will participate.”
The life of Japanese teenagers is centered around education and, from age 15, on work. Admission to a university is very difficult, “This is when failed attempts at making it to a university, lead to suicides. One must have a high grade average and pass the entry test. There are elementary schools already associated with universities and children are prepared from an early age. After the lessons, which end at 6:00 p.m., there is a parallel school, which prepares pupils to pass the tests needed to access the following school year. At eight o’clock in the evening I still meet elementary children on the subway. From the age of 15, many begin to work to pay for their studies.”
Fr. Andrea poses for a picture with young people and Archbishop of Tokyo the Most. Rev. Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi, SVD.
The young people who return to our parish for Confirmation know little or nothing about the Christian faith. “Maybe they received their First Communion and then they did not come to church anymore. It is important to me that they have the ‘perception’ of being Catholic-Christians, that, in the important moments of their life, they remember that they have met a person called Jesus. This is for me the sign that they are on the way towards a deep rediscovery of their faith.” In the parish and in the Galilee Center, Fr. Andrea leads these young people to discover the relevance of the Gospel.
“Recently, I proposed a profound psychoanalytic reading of some of Jesus’s miracles. For example, the multiplication of the loaves: whatever I hold in for myself, dies with me, while whatever I can share can feed 5,000 people. Or the miracle of the hemorrhaging woman. Unconsciously, Jesus realizes that someone has touched him and feels that a positive energy has come out of him. We should ask ourselves: ‘What are the energies of our life? What kind of energy do others take from us? What kind of people are we? Do we stop the bleeding -i.e. do we respond to the thirst for positive relationships of those around us – or do we simply become a new source of suffering for others?’”
At times, in meeting these young people we come across interesting situations, like the one with Niwaki. Before speaking about it, Fr. Andrea quotes Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the contemporary world of St. Paul VI: “There is an article (22) which says that Christ’s mission acts in a visible way through the Church. Then there is an invisible way through which the Spirit acts, uniting all women and men of good will in the paschal mystery of Christ. I say it with faith what follows: ‘The challenge of the mission in Japan is to go and see where the Spirit is acting invisibly.’”
“One day at the parish they told me that a young man returning to his family after four years away from home, wanted to meet me. Niwaki introduces himself, full of tattoos, and told me: ‘I am like the prodigal son. I came home because I was hungry.’ When I gave him the Confirmation Application, he filled it out with his date of birth and the date of his baptism. I was even more surprised when he showed me that he had that date tattooed on his arm. He explained that he had always kept that day dear since he had left home and that it was linked to positive memories of when he was a child in the parish.”
“As a teenager, however, he had been bullied at school. With Niwaki, I did a profound psychoanalytic reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Then I reported to the bishop his point of view, ‘Give me a good reason for me to come to church,’ Niwaki told me. ‘Tell me why I have to come to hear readings and sermons, look at signs that are no longer part of my life.’ I am convinced that in these feelings of remembering and of searching the Holy Spirit is at work. We must capture these divine actions. If we succeeded as a Church in creating ‘alternative paths’, as Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini suggested, and to differentiate ways of expressing the Christian faith we would have a fantastic recovery of the youth world.” Fr. Andrea comes into contact with the questions of young people in the most unlikely places: from the brewery to the pool, to the gym, through a word of mouth. “Some meetings work, others fail,” he concludes. “But as a Christian community we listen to young people and to what they have to say to us.”