It was a bittersweet farewell that Pope Francis bade to the people of Japan on Tuesday 25 November, as he boarded the papal plane at Tokyo-Haneda airport.

His visit to Japan fulfilled a life-long desire to come to this East Asian nation as a missionary, a dream that was truncated by illness as a young Jesuit.

Grateful hospitality

Pope Francis arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun smiling despite driving rain and wind. His joy was evident as he met with the most varied aspects of Japanese society.

And the people of Japan could feel his enthusiasm and returned it in spades.

From Emperor Naruhito – who stretched protocol to personally accompany the Pope to his car – to an elderly missionary priest – who had tears in his eyes as he watched his brother Jesuit depart Sophia University – gratitude was written all over the face of every person Pope Francis met.

Deep bows abounded during his 4 days here. They represented the respect, politeness, and hospitality with which Japan received the Pope. But it wasn’t all mere formalities.

Pope Francis launched forceful appeals to “Protect All Life”, at its every stage, level, and state.

He called on the world to renounce atomic energy used for purposes of war, and said the possession of nuclear weapons – even for deterrence – is immoral.

A 1945 photo of a Japanese boy carrying his dead baby brother on his back lent a heart-wrenching image to “the fruit of war”.

The determination set in that boy’s face – along with his bottom lip that seems to tremble with sadness – perhaps demonstrates Pope Francis’ own emotional resolve to rid the world of the horrors wrought by nuclear arms.

The Pope also urged the local Catholic Church to confront the problems of bullying, loneliness, and suicide, problems that grow out of the competitive nature and frenetic pace of Japanese society.

Selfless love, he countered, can help everyone turn isolation into encounter, after the model of Jesus Christ.

As the Pope prepared to leave the Land of the Rising Sun, he gave voice to the impact his long-awaited missionary expedition to Japan left on him.

“I promise you,” he said off-script with a smile, “that you will all be in my prayers and in my heart.”

ENDS