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Column: Man of science becomes man of peace, and God

Archbishop Naumann

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

This past year, I discovered the book, “A Song for Nagasaki,” written by Father Paul Glynn.

It tells the story of Takashi Nagai, a scientist, medical doctor, convert to Catholicism and survivor of the atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki.

In the introduction to the book, Shusako Endo observed that President Ulysses Grant was instrumental in ending the more than 250-year persecution of Christians in Japan. Formerly imprisoned Catholics, who were liberated in part because of President Grant’s intervention with Japanese diplomats seeking a trade agreement with the United States, built the magnificent St. Mary’s Cathedral in Urakami, a village just north of Nagasaki. Ironically, St. Mary’s Cathedral was destroyed on Aug. 9, 1945, by the atomic bomb dropped from an American B-29.

Nagasaki was not the primary target for the atomic bomb.  However, with densely cloudy skies over the primary target, Kokura, and a blockage in the plane’s auxiliary gas line limiting the time to complete the mission, Nagasaki became ground zero for the bomb that hastened the end of the war, but not without extracting a terrible human cost. The atomic bomb killed more than 60,000 Japanese in the vicinity of Nagasaki. Since Nagasaki was the center of Catholicism in Japan, the atomic bomb killed a high percentage of the relatively small Japanese Christian community.

Takashi Nagai’s grandfather practiced herbal medicine and his father, also a doctor, was trained in Western-style medicine. Takashi’s parents and ancestors practiced Shintoism, the ancient native religion of Japan. Takashi, as a young medical student, was enthralled with scientific knowledge. For a time, he abandoned all belief in God, placing his faith only in what he could observe and verify through the scientific method.

Takashi was profoundly affected by the death of his mother. He sensed that, though she had physically died, her spirit continued to live. This did not square easily with his atheism.

Takashi attended the medical school in Nagasaki. During the course of his studies, he encountered the writings of Blaise Pascal. Takashi admired Pascal’s scientific accomplishments, but he was also intrigued by his reputation as a mystic. He was profoundly influenced by his study of Pascal. Through Pascal, Takashi discovered the possibility of being both a man of science and religious faith.

It was because of his interest in Pascal’s Catholicism that Takashi decided to seek residence in Urakami, the Christian suburb of Nagasaki. He had some familiarity with the Christian martyrs of Nagasaki. In medical school, he had been led to believe that these Christian martyrs were uneducated fanatics.

However, this view did not coincide with his observation of the Urakami Christians. Among other things, Takashi admired the quality of the Catholic schools staffed by religious Sisters. Takashi was also impressed by the Christian observance of Sunday and the wisdom of this day of rest, prayer, reflection, and time for family.

The story of Takashi Nagai’s conversion to Catholicism is a beautiful one. He encountered the cold reality of a world without God while serving in the medical corps of the Japanese army in Manchuria. It was there that he began reading a Catholic catechism sent to him by a member of the family with whom he lodged in Urakami. When he returned to Nagasaki, he began taking instructions from a priest of the cathedral, whose biological father survived the most recent persecutions of Japanese Christians. One of his teachers in the faith was a janitor in the hospital, where he served as a doctor.

After the atomic bomb attack, Takashi Nagai would spend himself tirelessly caring for the surviving victims of atomic radiation. Though from a human viewpoint, he had every reason to be embittered and angry, he was neither because of his Christian faith. Takashi Nagai became an eloquent spokesman for reconciliation and peace. He became one of the most admired men of Japan in the early post-World War II era.

The spiritual journey of Takashi Nagai, as narrated in “A Song for Nagasaki,” is both beautiful and amazing. Takashi Nagai’s discovery of the wisdom and power of Christian belief made me aware of how easily I take for granted the gift of my own Catholic faith. If you are looking for some inspirational reading for the summer months, I encourage you to read “A Song for Nagasaki.”

Though it is much easier to purchase books from, I encourage you to patronize instead your local Catholic book and gift stores such as: Trinity House, 7287 W. 97th St., Overland Park; Soul Supply and Hardware, 704 Cherokee St., Leavenworth; Touch of Heaven, 119 S.E. 18th St., Topeka; or The I. Donnelly Company, 6601 Troost Ave., Kansas City, Mo.

By purchasing from your local Catholic book and religious articles store, you are helping to support a local Catholic enterprise that provides an important service to the Catholic community.

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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