JAPAN - I am very happy that on May 15, 2022, the feast day of St. La Salle, I finally became a member of the Catholic Church. I strongly felt St. La Salle's intercession for having a special Mass and baptism for me on such a memorable day.
In Japan, Christians make up less than 1% of the population and the number of Catholics is even smaller. I feel that it has been God's providence that I have been able to choose to live as a Catholic in such a religious environment. I have come to this choice in my life because of my encounters with St. La Salle and other Saints, as well as with several priests, Brothers, and friends.
I was born into a Christian Protestant family. In Japan, "religion" tends to be frowned upon, but growing up in such a family, faith and prayer were very close to my heart. I went to church every Sunday and prayed with my family every day since I was a child. Therefore, I did not have any prejudice against religion like many Japanese people.
Furthermore, I spent most of my childhood in a rural town of Hokkaido. Hokkaido is an area with a harsh climate, especially during the cold and snowy wintertime. The hardness of life in such an area requires a strong awareness of the fundamental human act of "living lives" and a sincere commitment to it. When we face this act of "living lives," we think naturally about the "meaning of life" - why we live. Furthermore, we are made aware of the greatness of nature: the greatness of God who created the world including nature or the smallness of human beings. There is a sense that we are not living by our own strength alone, but are kept alive by nature, by others, and by God. Therefore, feeling grateful for being alive right now is at the root of my own being. In short, my childhood experiences in the wilderness have influenced my spirituality and religiosity.
As the months passed, I left my hometown and enrolled at Hakodate La Salle High School. Since La Salle High School was far from my home, for some time, I even considered going to a public high school. However, I decided to enroll in La Salle High School because I heard that it was one of the best schools in the area and I wanted to go to a Christian school.
On my first days of school, I was led to join the morning-prayer-time at the school’s chapel. I think this was my first time to get to know what ‘Catholic’ means. After that, I continued to participate in the daily morning prayer service. There, I was able to meet Brothers and teachers during prayer time. As I continued this kind of life, Mass and prayer time became important parts of my life. Here, I was never strongly conscious of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. I naturally became close to the Catholic way of praying and rituals. And through this prayer life, I feel that the dimensions of my faith naturally deepened.
I also had opportunities to go to the Trappist monastery in Hokuto City, Hokkaido, near my high school, for meditation every year. The monks there lead a very simple life of "Ora et Labora” (Pray and Work). I got to know the life of these monks, who were willing to give all of themselves to God, I was strongly attracted to Catholicism.
During these high school years, my encounters with many monks of the Trappist monastery, La Salle Brothers and teachers at school, their way of life and their way of thinking had a great influence on my life and faith. At the same time, I was also inspired by the appearance and tradition of the Catholic Church which is led by the Pope and offers the same liturgy throughout the world. I also became strongly attracted to the Catholic faith, in which each ritual has its own meaning and liturgy. These suited me well.
In particular, I feel that my first experience in the Philippines, which I first visited during high school, was a defining event in my life. I visited there through the De La Salle Brothers network and volunteered mainly in the Philippines as an educational volunteer at a La Salle school in a rural area and as a volunteer for street children in Manila. While I enjoyed my experience there and met many people, I was also shocked to see the disparity and reality. My values were fundamentally overturned, and my own powerlessness brought up various complicated feelings. I was shown a new world that I did not know, and that experience struck me deeply. Furthermore, when I saw the strong faith of homeless people and others who were forced to live in poverty, I became completely confused about my own faith, Christianity, and even the act of what believing itself means. After I returned to Japan, those feelings became even more complicated.
Looking back now, I feel that it was a very difficult time for me spiritually. After that, I had the desire to go back and stay in the Philippines. However, due to the impact of the new coronavirus and other factors, I had to give up the idea. However, I wondered how I could make the impact and happy memories of the Philippines come to fruition in Japan. Or how would I apply my experience in the Philippines to my life in Japan? And how should I live in Japan? In the midst of my doubts and struggles, I continued to pray with the Brothers, and trusting in God completely.
Under the guidance of my teachers, and my desire to study Catholic theology increased, I then decided to study theology. Thus, I enrolled in the Faculty of Theology at Sophia University, a Jesuit university. It is also true that after entering the university, I had many internal struggles and pains due to the effects of the new coronavirus.
And while my desire to convert to Catholicism grew, I became aware that my faith had become formalized. I had never been particularly conscious of being a Catholic or Protestant. However, as my desire to live as a Catholic grew stronger, I sometimes wondered if my faith had become so formalized that I had lost sight of the essence of my faith. In the midst of all this, I met many wonderful friends and teachers. Through them, I received God's grace and they supported my decision that I wanted to live as a Catholic in my own very natural new context.
In particular, I feel that my experience in Nagasaki, which I visited on a pilgrimage in March of this year (March 2022), was the direct event that led me to make the decision to convert to the Catholic Church. Nagasaki has attracted international attention since the Hidden Christian Heritage was registered as a World Heritage site. However, Nagasaki is a unique town in Japan with a long history of Christianity. “Hidden Christians" were people who endured the most systematic persecution of Christians in the world, and some were martyred. But they secretly kept their faith for more than 300 years without priests or other leaders, during the time when the Christian faith was prohibited in Japan.
After the war, even after the prohibition was lifted, the land of Nagasaki experienced many hardships for many people, especially for Christians, such as the dropping of the atomic bomb. During this pilgrimage, I have visited many churches there, prayed and interacted with the people, and have received a lot of hope. I also received a lot of support, especially from the members who went on the pilgrimage with me. In Nagasaki, a place that many people had experienced much despair, I found great hope. It is the grace that comes from God, that is, despair does not end in despair. Just as Jesus' death did not end in death, God gives grace through suffering, and even difficulties are transformed into hope.
I took as my baptismal name: Maximilian Maria Kolbe, the "Saint of Auschwitz". He was also in Nagasaki before his martyrdom in his native Poland. I felt God leading me in this encounter with Father Kolbe, who continued to live the love of Christ in the midst of unimaginable suffering. It was in Nagasaki, a city symbolizing peace and suffering, where I found the source of my baptismal name.
The above is the story of how I got close to Christianity and became a Catholic in Japan. There are many events that I could not write about here, and many feelings that I could not express in my own words. I can honestly say that as I write this, I am not entirely sure why I chose this path and why I have lived the way I have. The only thing I can say is that God has been leading me at every juncture of my life.
I feel more strongly these days that God is mysterious. God gives us his grace in places we never imagined, and in ways we never imagined. In particular, I have received grace through "encounters" with many people.
From now on, I pray that I may trust in the Lord alone who is leading everything and that I may live according to God's will. May I be able to share with others all of the blessings I have received from God. And may I live in gratitude to my family, Brothers, teachers, and friends who have guided me until now.
St. John Baptist De La Salle.
Pray for us St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe.
Pray for us Live Jesus in our hearts. Forever
Maximilian Maria Kolbe Keiya Yokoyama