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Mission from France to Japan and back

YOKOHAMA (UCAN): Bishop Yoshinao Otsuka paid a visit to the town of Digna in the French diocese of Saint-Claude during August last year to visit the grave a long-forgotten supporter of the Japanese Church, Father Leon Robin of Saint-Claude (1802 to 1882).

The connecting link between the current bishop of Kyoto and the long-departed parish priest is a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that St. Francis Xavier is said to have smuggled into Japan in 1549.

Father Robin heard that missionaries were banned from Japan and formed a prayer group in France to pray for Our Lady’s intercession to touch the hearts of the Japanese authorities and open their lands to the missionaries.

He also shared the dream of St. Francis that a church would one day be built in Kyoto, the capital city of the country at the time.

Hundreds of years later, after Japan had closed and reopened its borders to foreigners, Father Robin used that same image of Mary as a model and had a set of six, featuring her her cradling the Christ Child on her lap, cast in Rome, where they were blessed by Pope Pius IX.

In 1866, one of the six was sent to Father Prudence Seraphin-Barthelemy Girard, a priest with the Paris Foreign Mission Society stationed in Yokohama, with the hope that St. Francis Xavier’s wish for Kyoto might yet become a reality.

This statue is known today as the Miyako no Seibo (Madonna of the Capital).

A church Father Girard built in Yokohama in 1862 was the first one erected in Japan after the opening up of the country and it became the temporary home of the Miyako no Seibo.

However, all was not well for Christianity in Japan in that era, as 1867 saw the beginning of a new wave of persecution.

In 1873, another priest took the Miyako no Seibo to the outskirts of Kyoto, where he buried it on a small hill overlooking the city. That same year, the persecution was lifted in a de facto, if tacit, recognition of Christianity.

The statue was dug up in 1879 and now stands in Kawaramachi Cathedral in Kyoto.

Recently, a replica of the statue was sent from Kyoto back to France, bringing the Miyako no Seibo full circle, back to the land of Father Robin, the man responsible for its creation.

“The grave site was right next to the town church,” Bishop Otsuka explained. “But these days, even the locals there have forgotten him. They didn’t even know where the grave was, so they had to search for it.”

The local French bishop said to Bishop Otsuka, “Thank you for helping us remember this story.”

The 150th anniversary of the construction of Father Girard’s first church in Yokohama was celebrated in 2012. Commemorative events were held on November 24 by the local diocese and attracted around 4,000 people.

During the memorial Mass, Bishop Masahiro Umemura, from Yokohama, made special note of Father Robin and the other French missionaries who worked to reestablish the Church in Japan.

He lamented that their accomplishments are all but forgotten these days, but spoke of his deep gratitude, saying, “This is the true face of evangelisation.”

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