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Pope in Japan. Meeting with 700 students and confreres at the Jesuit-run Sophia University

On 26 November, the final day of the apostolic journey to Japan, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass and have a private meeting with his Jesuit confreres and the students and faculty of Sophia University, founded in 1913 by the Society of Jesus at the invitation of Pope Pius X.  The Chancellor of Sophia University, Father Tsutomu Sakuma, has spoken to us about it

(from Tokyo) – A large university hall in building n°6 and an ancient wooden chapel with sunlight entering the window panes overlooking the garden. We’re at the Jesuit headquarters, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. It’s the final destination of Pope Francis’ visit to Tokyo, scheduled for November 26, before his return to Rome, completing his apostolic visit which began on November 20 in Thailand and on November 23 in Japan. A place of the heart where the Holy Father will privately meet his Jesuit confreres and friends, as well as the students of Sophia University, founded in 1913 by the Society of Jesus at the invitation of Pope Pius X.  The Chancellor of Sophia University, Father Tsutomu Sakuma, theology professor, guided us through the majestic grey buildings and tree-lined university alleys.

A prestigious university. There is a continual coming and going of students entering and exiting the classrooms, purchasing a slice of pizza or a platter of pasta in the university café or in the food stands, or studying in libraries. A flow of busy young people projected towards a promising future: today

12,000 are registered for their Bachelor’s degree and another 1,000 are completing their Master’s program. There are 580 faculty members, including about 20 Jesuits.

Eight faculties, 18 departments, with two special English courses in the Faculty of Science and a very high-profile interdisciplinary approach. A course on sustainability inspired by the encyclical “Laudato sì” is also in the pipeline to form professionals in international organisations.

An international university. A characteristic of the Jesuit university is also its international nature, offering university exchange programs with 2,000 Japanese students abroad each year and 1,000 students of other nationalities coming to study in Tokyo. Only a minority are Christians, which corresponds to the number of Catholics living in Japan, representing 0.4% on a population of 126 million inhabitants.

With the Jesuits and 700 young people. On the morning of 26 November the Pope will celebrate a private Mass with the Jesuits. The encounter with the elderly and sick priests, including the former Superior General of the Jesuits, Father Adolfo Nicholas, his contemporary, who lives far away and is coming especially to greet him, will be particularly heartfelt. The Pope will also reunite with Father Juan Haidar and Father Renzo De Luca, his Argentinean students when he was rector of the seminary in Buenos Aires.

“It will be a very intimate meeting”,

remarked Fr. Sakuma. The Holy Father will then deliver a speech in the Lecture Hall with 700 students, plus some 100 faculty members and guests. He already had the opportunity to speak with the students of Sophia University in a video call from the Vatican to Tokyo on December 18 last year, an informal exchange of questions and answers.

We are welcomed into the Rector’s Office with traditional courteous bows and green tea in porcelain cups. The secretaries showcased two cute Japanese-style dolls depicting Jesus and Pope Francis. Chancellor Sakuma told us he was not expecting the visit to take place so soon, although he had been informed of the official invitation of the government and the bishops. “After the 2011 triple disaster  – Fukushima, the tsunami and the earthquake – today the situation in Japan has gone back to normal – he said – but we know that the Pope intends to send a strong message against nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear energy, with the invitation to protect all life, of human beings and of nature, in the same way.”

Young people and the feeling of life void of meaning. To describe Japan, Father Sakuma quotes Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “A materially rich country that is very poor in spiritual terms.” Owing to consumerism and materialism, young people are unable to find meaning and purpose in life. “Whatever they do their heart remains empty”, pointed out the Jesuit Father.

“This materialistic economic system draws people apart. Many young people feel isolated.”

A staff of counsellors and psychologists to help young people. It’s directly related to the “hikikomori” phenomenon – people affected by social-withdrawal behaviours, as many as 500,000. “The average age is increasing.

Now even thirty-year-olds are withdrawn in self-isolation. Some remain locked up in their homes for up to 20 years,

they are unable to relate to other people except through the computer and mobile phone.” Also the tragic problem of youth suicides is not alien to university environments, especially among those struggling or unable to complete their studies. For this reason, the staff provides counsellors and mental health facilities, in addition to promoting research through the Psychology Department.

Many do not know who Pope Francis is. Most students are not Catholic so have no idea who Pope Francis is. “They are hoping to meet a person of value. They will certainly be touched by his message”, said Father Sakuma. Ahead of the visit of 26 November, the university has organized three preparatory symposia with international guests. His final wish is profoundly Jesuit: “I hope that when they meet the Pope they will understand the beauty of becoming men and women for others and with others.”

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