Our Lady the Hibakusha: A Story of Two Cathedrals

Two bishops, two cathedrals, and two very different responses to the devastation American atomic bombs wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This essay appeared in the August 2010 issue of THE CATHOLIC WORKER and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

This spring I travelled from my home in Iowa to join Catholic Workers and friends from around the country in New York to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our movement there on May 1, 1933. An added incentive for this journey was to join with activists from around the globe in witnesses for nuclear abolition on the occasion of the United Nations’ Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference that began on Monday, May 3. It was at the May Day festivities that the word was passed that the archbishop of Nagasaki, Japan, who was in town to address the U.N. conference, would be celebrating the 10:15 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral the next day and several of us decided we would attend.

As Martha Hennessy, visiting from Vermont, and I came out of the subway to walk the final few blocks to the cathedral, we were struck by the number of Japanese pilgrims of all ages on the streets of Midtown, greeting New Yorkers and tourists with gifts of origami cranes, gathering petition signatures, bearing banners, signs, hats and t-shirts calling for a ban on nuclear weapons.  Inside the cathedral, too, the usual Sunday morning crowd of worshipers was increased by a great contingent of Japanese, including the mayor and other citizens of Nagasaki; some of these were Hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bomb attack there in 1945. There was a large bank of television cameras and other media from Japan as well.

This liturgy was clearly an event of great significance to those who came to New York from so far away, even if many of these were not Catholic, but unfortunately less so for their hosts. While I found out later that a press advisory from Catholic News Service had previously announced that “the Mass will mark the opening of a four-week U.N. conference on nuclear nonproliferation,” the issue of nuclear nonproliferation was hardly raised from the sanctuary. The bulletin handed out to worshipers read only “We welcome today to the 10:15 Mass the Archbishop of Nagasaki, The Most Reverend Joseph Mitsuaki Takami,” The bulletin also announced that the main celebrant and homilist at this Mass would be New York Auxiliary Bishop Dennis Sullivan.

If this liturgy had a theme, it was certainly not the nuclear desolation of two Japanese cities by the United States followed by sixty-five years of proliferation of such weapons. The theme of this liturgy was instead the crude homemade car bomb made from propane tanks, fireworks and fertilizer that fizzled only a few blocks away on Times Square the previous evening. Feelings both of fear and of relief that this bomb that could have killed and wounded so many so close by had it detonated successfully, were real as there were palpable and sincere prayers of thanksgiving rose from the cathedral that morning.

The Gospel reading for this fifth Sunday of Easter was from John, Chapter 13. I never noticed before how closely Jesus’ new commandment given at the last supper, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so also should you love one another,” follows on the betrayal of Judas. It is as if the commandment to love as Jesus loves is offered as the necessary response to that betrayal. To his credit, Bishop Sullivan in his homily did note the radical nature of this love that we are called to. What does it mean, though, for an American bishop to speak of the radical love of Jesus in the presence of the victims of America’s atomic attack on Japan, crimes condemned by Pope Paul VI as “butchery of untold magnitude”? What could the command to love as Jesus loves mean to New Yorkers in the fresh trauma of a failed attack on their city? Aside from a brief mention that nuclear weapons are not good, such questions were not addressed in the bishop’s homily.

At the very end of the Mass, just before the final blessing, Archbishop Takami was invited to say a few words. It was difficult to understand the archbishop’s accent as he thanked the Archdiocese of New York and all of us present for our hospitality. He said something, too, referring to our blessed mother, Mary, as an atomic bomb victim. As he and the other clergy processed off, the Japanese media all rushed up with their cameras to a place just to the left of the altar, a place that Martha and I could not see from our place halfway down the cathedral nave.

It was not until we worked our way against the departing crowd to the front to see what was going on that we understood what the archbishop had tried to tell us. There, a few feet beyond the altar rail was a simple, low table. On this table was a charred, broken piece of sculpture that I recognized from photographs as Mary the Hibakusha. The archbishop brought with him to New York the head that was all that was left of a full-scale statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, found in the rubble of Nagasaki’s Urakami (Immaculate Conception) Cathedral after that city was destroyed by an atom bomb on August 9, 1945.

Our Lady the Hibakusha

The razing of the cathedral was not “collateral damage.” Its towers, in fact, were the landmark that the bombardier of the B-29 bomber carrying the second atom bomb to Japan was briefed on. Looking through his sight, when the cathedral was identified and the order was given to drop the bomb. Nagasaki had been a center of Christian life in Japan since St. Francis Xavier established a mission there in 1549. At times this community flourished and other times it survived suppression and persecution. Nagasaki was the largest concentration of Christians in Asia and in a few seconds it was obliterated by American Christians.

Martha and I knelt at the rail in awe at this remnant of burnt wood that carried the weight of whole worlds. I could imagine that when this statue was new, it was a typical Madonna, the Immaculate Conception of popular piety radiating peace and tranquility. What we saw before us, though, was transformed by a crucible of radiation, blast and searing heat in ways that its sculptor could not have envisioned. Empty eye sockets, looking to heaven with unlimited, unimaginable grief and pain!

When we got to our feet Martha was in tears and several people who had attended the Mass asked us what that thing was. I gave a spontaneous lecture on what little I knew of the statue’s history and significance to these, other Catholic Workers gathered around the statue. Japanese reporters were keenly interested in our reactions to seeing Mary the Hibakusha and before long cathedral ushers discretely herded us out the north door where several of us spoke to the media on the steps at an impromptu press conference. 

I expressed gratitude to Archbishop Takami for bringing this priceless relic to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a piece of art that spoke truth more eloquently than all the magnificent works in marble, gold and stained glass gathered there. I apologized, too, for my fellow American Catholics present who were unable or who refused to recognize the significance of this visitation. Just as the horrible reality of nuclear weapons is largely ignored or denied by American Christians, this sculpture of Mary was shunted aside as if it were an embarrassment, unexplained and unmentioned from the pulpit. I offered regret that there was no repentance or regret for the sins of the atomic bombings of Japan expressed in the penitential rite of the Mass. I apologized for prayers of thanksgiving for the failure of a bomb to detonate in Time Square, offered without prayers asking for forgiveness for our own bombs successfully exploded over Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 and without repentance for our own bombs successfully detonated each day, now, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

John Schuchardt told the media how Bishop Sullivan shook his hand while recessing from the altar after Mass.  “You must speak about the atomic bombed Mother of God,” John implored the bishop.   “It’s not my job,” was the bishop’s retort.  “You have betrayed Christ today,” John told him, calling to mind the Gospel proclaimed that morning, “this because he gave a sermon about love with no mention at all of Urakami Cathedral or the nuclear holocausts.”

Statues outside the Urakami Cathedral in the wake of the bombing of Nagasaki.

In her January 1967 column, “In Peace Is My Bitterness Most Bitter,” Dorothy Day wrote of Cardinal Spellman and other bishops who supported the war in Vietnam (“going against even the Pope”) recognizing, as Jesus said would be the case, “our worst enemies are those of our own household.” Martha told me later that Bishop Sullivan heads the “Dorothy Day Guild,” whose purpose “is to spread the word of her life, work, and sanctity; to identify the growing devotion to Dorothy Day by Catholics and non-Catholics; and to document her ability to intercede for people in need of God’s healing mercy and assistance.” May Dorothy intercede for Bishop Sullivan to know the truth that working to stop nuclear weapons is his job and intercede for each of us to know that it is ours. In this column, too, Dorothy referred to the same commandment from the Gospel according to John; love one another as I have loved you. “A hard saying,” Dorothy admitted. “Love is indeed ‘a harsh and dreadful thing’ to ask of us, of each one of us, but it is the only answer.”

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