by Br. Anthony JoseMaria
This is a true story by Takashi Nagai, a survivor of the Nagasaki bomb;
When the Nagasaki blast occurred, Dr. Nagai was working in the x-ray department that he had helped found at the Nagasaki Medical University, a half-mile from the epicenter. Though the blast did not completely level the reinforced concrete hospital, 80 percent of the occupants were killed. Nagai’s wing was in the southeast corner, furthest from the blast. Nevertheless, he was blown completely across his office and quickly suffered severe loss of blood from cuts made by flying window glass. He also began suffering greatly from high exposure to radiation and was later told by doctors that he had only a short time to live. Curiously, Kolbe enters our story again as Nagai hears a voice in his mind, perhaps from his guardian angel, telling him to pray to Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. He understood this strange guidance to mean that he should pray to the holy Franciscan priest who, in the 1930s, had been so well loved by the Nagasaki Catholics. Kolbe had left Japan nine years previously in 1936, and Nagai had, because of the news blackout in Japan, no knowledge of Kolbe’s death at Auschwitz in 1941. But, curiously, he had known Fr. Kolbe well in the early 1930s and had actually x-rayed him to determine the extent of his chronic tuberculosis. Nagai prayed to Maximilian Kolbe and was cured. As physicians, he and the others knew it was an obvious miracle from God. He attributed it to the friar’s intercession.
A truly Biblical Holocaust
Meanwhile, and for the next five years of his life, Nagai lived with his two young children in a primitive hut, and spent these years devoted to helping the victims of the atomic bomb, partly by writing books on the topic.
The unique message that Takashi Nagai communicated, both in his writing and by the way he conducted himself, was peace. It was the peace of Jesus Christ, obtained as a great gift, finally, through the colossal suffering he experienced and accepted, without bitterness, as God’s holy will. These are cheap words—“accept your cross”—easy to say by someone who has not experienced great suffering and loss. Indeed, many who heard Nagai remained bitter. But because of Nagai’s books and lived example, many gained an astonishing peacefulness through this holy understanding and acceptance of suffering. The difference between the two groups of people is still noticeable today at the annual A-bomb anniversaries in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the regular participants in 1985 expressed the difference in this way: “Hiroshima is bitter, noisy, highly political, leftist and anti-American. Its symbol would be a fist clenched in anger. Nagasaki is sad, quiet, reflective, nonpolitical and prayerful. It does not blame the United States but rather laments the sinfulness of war, especially of nuclear war. Its symbol: hands joined in peace.”
Nagai fully discovered this profound message of the Cross three months after the holocaust. Asked by the bishop to speak at the funeral Mass for the victims held in the courtyard of the bombed cathedral, Nagai prayed for guidance on something meaningful to say. Then he remembered two strange stories, one by a nurse and some others in his radiology department telling of some women singing Latin hymns on the midnight after the blast. The next day they found the twenty-seven nuns from the nearby Josei Convent. The convent was demolished and all were dead, horribly burned to death; and yet they died singing! The other incident concerned girls from Junshin, a school where his wife Midori had taught, run by nuns that he knew well. During the dark days of 1945, when the people worried of being firebombed, the girls had been taught by the principal nun to sing, “Mary, my Mother, I offer myself to you.” Remarkably, after the bombing, though many of the Junshin girls were instantly killed, Nagai heard several reports of different groups of Junshin girls who had been working in factories, fields and other places, singing, “Mary, my Mother, I offer myself to you.” Many would be dead within days, but they were heard singing. Nagai now knew what he must say to the people:
“At midnight that night, our cathedral suddenly burst into flames and was consumed. At exactly the same time in the Imperial Palace, His Majesty the Emperor made known his sacred decision to end the war. On August 15, the Imperial Rescript, which put an end to the fighting, was formally promulgated, and the whole world saw the light of peace. August 15 is also the great feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is significant, I believe, that the Urakami cathedral was dedicated to her. We must ask: was this convergence of events, the end of the war and the celebration of her feast day, merely coincidental, or was it the mysterious Providence of God?
“…It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s Providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on the altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?”
Nagai used hansai, the Japanese word for the Bible’s “holocaust,” or whole burnt offering. The angry reaction of some mourners is well captured by the famous director Keisuke Kinosita in Children of Nagasaki, the most recent movie on Nagai’s life. Some of the congregation stood up and shouted in protest that Nagai should try to dignify with pious words the atrocity perpetrated on their families. Nagai showed neither anger nor surprise. Having traveled through the dark valley they were in, he was sympathetic to their response. He continued with a quiet authority that compelled silence.
“We are inheritors of Adam’s sin…of Cain’s sin…. Hating one another, killing one another, joyfully killing one another!… but mere repentance was not enough for peace…. We had to offer a stupendous sacrifice…. Cities had been leveled, but that was not enough…. Only this hansai in Nagasaki sufficed, and at that moment God inspired our Emperor to issue the sacred proclamation that ended the war. The Christian flock of Nagasaki was true to the Faith through three centuries of persecution. During the recent war it prayed ceaselessly for a lasting peace. Here was the one pure lamb that had to be sacrificed as hansai on His altar…so that many millions of lives might be saved… Let us be thankful that Nagasaki was chosen for the whole burnt sacrifice! Let us be thankful that through this sacrifice, peace was granted to the world and religious freedom to Japan.”
When Nagai finished and sat down the silence was deep. His finding of God’s Providence at work even in the horrors of August 9 had a profound effect on his listeners and, when repeated later in his books, on non-Christians in Nagasaki and throughout Japan.
When Nagai addressed the A-bomb mourners at the Nagasaki funeral Mass, he used the startling word hansai, telling them to offer their dead to God as a whole burnt sacrifice. Many were shocked and even angered by this. Sensitive Nagai examined his conscience about this in a book he wrote not long before he died. He concluded he was right in urging people to accept the deaths as hansai. The proof? The peace of heart this acceptance brought. Nagai had become a Word-of-God man, discerning major matters according to the words of Scripture. He concluded that the hansai insight was authentic because it brought him and many others “the fruits of the Holy Spirit.” For Nagai, Gal. 5:22 said it all: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” Nagai, standing at the crossroads of death, averred that hansai spirituality had brought great peace.
In Nagai’s final book, which he completed in great pain before being carried on a stretcher to his alma mater, the Nagasaki University Hospital, his last line was a quotation from the third-century North African theologian, Tertullian: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” Nagai died shortly thereafter on May 1, 1951, the first day of the month of Mary. He prepared for death by repeating, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” in Japanese Nenbutsu style, the Buddhist mantra style used as the mainstay of samurai in dire straits. Then he quietly uttered the last words of Christ: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”