In a wide-ranging interview, Fr. Thomas Onoda speaks of his conversion, mission, and the historical and current challenges of Catholicism in Japan.
SSPX.org: Father, thank you for accepting to answer our questions. Would you mind introducing yourself?
Fr. Onoda: I am a Japanese Catholic priest belonging to the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), ordained priest by His Excellency Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta at Ecône in 1993. Since my ordination until now, I have been assigned to Manila, Philippines, attending to missions in Japan and Korea.
SSPX.org: Have you always been Catholic?
Fr. Onoda: No, I haven't. I am a convert. By the grace of God, I received the grace of Baptism on Christmas Day 1980 while a high school student. Instead of public school, my parents preferred to send me to a private Catholic Mission School to study, where we were taught the existence of God, the Ten Commandments, etc.
I was very much intrigued about this subject and wanted to learn more about it. After years of reading, research, and prayers, I came to the conclusion that God exists and created all things; that Jesus Christ is the true God, who became true man; that this God-man established His Church; and that without being baptized in the Catholic Church, I cannot go to Heaven.
So I asked my Catholic classmate to take me to church on Christmas Day in 1979, and after the midnight Mass, I asked the parish priest, Fr. Joseph Marie Jacq, M.E.P. for the sacrament of Baptism.
He then, said to me "No." He asked me to come church to attend catechism class followed by the Rosary every Saturday, and to attend the Mass on Sundays at least for one year, if I want to be baptized. I obeyed.
SSPX.org: How did you discover your vocation? How did make your way to a SSPX seminary?
Fr. Onoda: It happened that Fr. Joseph Marie Jacq was one of the most conservative priests, I would say, in all of Japan. I discovered this fact later. He says the Mass, though Novus Ordo, with the first Eucharistic Prayer (i.e. Roman Canon) without omission, with his fingers joined after the consecration. He gives Holy Communion on the tongue of the kneeling faithful. He promotes the Holy Rosary ardently. He was the "problem" (as they say) of the diocese and was accused of being a "Lefebvrist." I asked co-parishioners, then, who Archbishop Lefebvre was, but nobody answered me.
A few month later after my baptism, he was asked not to function as parish priest anymore and he left his position after having kept it for 30 years. Then, a new Japanese priest came and he changed everything. Fr Joseph would be sent back to France later.
The new priest even persecuted the old-timers. I started to become aware of the crisis in the Church. Meanwhile, while studying in Tokyo as university student, Divine Providence allowed me to discover the Traditional Latin Mass. When I wrote to Fr Joseph about my vocation, he strongly recommended me to go to Ecône. I followed his advice.
I was blessed to meet Fr. Frank Peek and Fr. Eric Simonot, who were sent to Japan while I was still there. I am also very grateful to Fr. Franz Schmidtberger for allowing me to enter Flavigny [Ed: The SSPX Seminary in France].
SSPX.org: Did you have a cultural shock arriving in Europe to attend seminary?
Fr. Onoda: I did not have cultural shock arriving in Europe. I do not remember any until I came to the Philippines.
In Europe I felt at home because I could attend the Traditional Latin Mass daily. I was so happy. My stay in the seminaries, Flavigny and Ecône, is full of good memories, joy, and happiness.
I would like to say, however, that it was not cultural shock, but the unforgettable impression of the beauty of the sung Matins of Christmas in Flavigny in 1987 that most struck me. I was very much edified by the sung Divine Office. I admired the beauty of the tiny medieval village of Flavigny where we see a village church and two monasteries which many monks and seminarians are still using.
My challenge at first was the language, but thanks to very kind help of seminarians, I could overcome it. I remember, when I came back home after ordination, when asked to do something by my dad, I said automatically in French: "D'accord!"
SSPX.org: What about your apostolate in Japan since your ordination?
Fr. Onoda: Since my ordination I was assigned to Manila, Philippines, whence I go to Japan for mission every month. But also, I translate Catholic literature into Japanese: the Archbishop’s Open Letter to Confused Catholics, sermons of our founder, official letters of the SSPX, and finally important papal encyclicals such as Quanta Cura, Pacendi, Quas Primas, Humani Generis, etc.
Thanks to the Internet, it has become easier to deliver information. I shifted from printing and sending by post monthly paper newsletter into sending electronic newsletters and using websites.
As of March 2017, we have two Mass centers in Japan: Tokyo and Osaka. Tokyo has had two Sunday Masses a month since 2016, and Osaka, one Sunday evening Mass, thanks to the indefatigable work of Fr. François Laisney. With the grace of God and the generosity of our faithful, we started to rent a permanent chapel in Osaka last May 2016, dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Thanks to Fr. Karl Stehlin, in August 2016, we organized a Montfortan retreat in Osaka for 31 retreatants. In August 2015, we gave an Ignatian retreat in which 26 retreatants participated.
Every year in May, from 2006, we make an annual pilgrimage to Akita. Around 50 to 60 pilgrims come to pray. In the past, the late Mr. John Vennari (Catholic Family News) and Mr. Christopher Ferrara (The Remnant), also joined us.
In 2016, we had six baptisms: three adults and two babies and a child. Right now, there are two postulants for female religious vocations from Japan: one for the SSPX Oblate sisters and another for the Sisters of the SSPX. We also have a Dominican lay brother from Japan in the Avrillé (France).
SSPX.org: What were the historic difficulties a Japanese person faced when wanting to convert?
Fr. Onoda: When St. Francis Xavier came to Japan to bring us the Light of Gospel, thousands of Japanese embraced the faith enthusiastically. There were public debates between Buddhist monks and Catholic catechists. Even former Buddhist monks became Catholic, as well as feudal lords and nobles.
They learned about the immortality and uniqueness of each soul rather than reincarnation. They understood the importance of accepting the suffering as our own cross rather than to try to avoid it as Buddhism teaches. They learned that there is a higher Lord of Lords, above their earthly feudal lords, Who gives all and loves us, to Whom we owe absolute allegiance.
In the ceremony of tea, which has developed greatly during the 16th century, we can see how these local Japanese appreciated the Christian ideas of humility, charity, service, sincerity, etc.
11 years later after the arrival of St. Francis Xavier, then Shogun, Yoshiteru Ashikaga gave a permit of evangelization in 1560. Nobunaga Oda, then leader of Japan, donated a good place to the Jesuits for their seminary, which opened in 1580. The difficulties were started by a proud man called Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda’s successor. Though Hideyashi welcomed warmly the official visit of the Jesuits and Christian warriors at his Palace in Osaka, in 1586, all of sudden, he banned Christianity, most likely influenced by his adviser Buddist monk Seyakuin. But this ban was only ordered; it wasn't enforced at first. However, it was not cancelled officially, and so it was used 10 years later to confiscate the wealth of a Spanish trading ship which had shipwrecked on the Japanese seashore. In order to legalize this confiscation, the only way was use the earlier ban.
SSPX.org: Are there new obstacles for the conversion to Catholic Faith today? I read that the virtual life of young Japanese was so prevalent that they do not even have human relations and intercourse between them. They are too busy and satisfied with their electronic devices. Is that true?
Fr. Onoda: Yes, I think so. Today's obstacles for conversion are still the historical prejudice against the Christian Faith (they think that Christianity is not for Japan); Japan’s social atmosphere; prejudice against religion in general because there are so many sects, etc.
The mass media makes reports on very particular cases of young people in Japan who are so taken to the virtual life, too busy and satisfied with their devices, but I do not believe that is common.
I believe, however, the new main obstacle for the Catholic Faith today is the situation of the Catholic Church itself following Vatican II. If the Church no longer has a missionary spirit, if she tells that any religions can save souls, if she gives importance to the construction of earthly paradise, why does anyone need to become Catholic?
SSPX.org: How many Catholics are in Japan today? Are the reforms of Vatican II affecting the faith and morals of Japanese Catholics?
Fr. Onoda: According to the statistics, there are approximately 500,000 Catholics in Japan, which has population of 127 million. That is only 0.4 per cent of the entire population.
It was only after World War II that the Catholic Church was officially recognized by the state. Before that it was only tolerated. Immediately after the World War II, there was a boom in conversions to the Catholic Faith, with thousands of adult baptisms. However, the growth stopped suddenly after Vatican II. The Church in Japan witnessed the secularization and laicization of many priests and religious. They saw churches built in a modern style along with the spread of the Novus Ordo Missae. The application of the conciliar reforms appear to have halted conversions.
SSPX.org: Are the Japanese Martyrs a source of inspiration and hope for the Catholics in Japan?
Fr. Onoda: Yes. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity. They are interceding for us from Heaven.
Follow Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ crucified for us; this was the desire for the martyrs in the past. Christ crucified is unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks (and Japanese, too), Christ is the power of God, and the wisdom of God. "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:25).
In the midst of this modern world, we are invited to imitate the Catholics martyrs. When Japanese Catholics in the 17th heard about the apostasy of Fr. Cristóvão Ferreira [a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who famously committed apostasy under torture and whose life later became the basis for Shusake Endo’s work of historical fiction, Silence] , their reaction was prayers and sacrifices, i.e. reparation. Our Lady of Fatima says many souls go to hell because no one prays and offers sacrifice for them. Our reaction to the "silent apostasy" (John Paul II) in the Church today must be the same. We must heed the request of Our Lady of Fatima, with the help of grace of God.
Besides this, in our two SSPX chapels in Japan, every year in January, we make special ceremonies of reparation for the sins and blasphemies committed in the past by those in Japan who apostatized by trampling on holy images. As in Rome during Christmas time, the faithful are invited to kiss the Bambino Jesus.
SSPX.org: What is the relevance of Our Lady of Akita and Fatima for Japan?
Fr. Onoda: Fatima is a call for prayers and penance in reparation of sins through the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Our Lady of Akita had tremendous mercy towards her children of the rising Sun, repeating the message of prayers and penance in reparation of sins.
In order to atone the scandal of Fr Ferreira's apostasy, St. Francis Xavier miraculously sent Fr. Marcello Mastrilli to Japan 400 years ago. In order to make reparation of sins of silent apostasy after Vatican II, Our Lady of Fatima was given to us. And her message was repeated in Akita:
Pray for the reparation of men's sins. Pray much for the Pope, Bishops, Priests….I want souls who console the Lord….Together with My Son, I desire the souls who make reparation on behalf of sinners and ungrateful….Pray ardently in order to console the Lord."