December 13, 1999

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


December 13, 1999
Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

In 1985, ceremonies were organized at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Japan) in memory of the victims of the atomic bombs dropped on these two cities forty years before. An eye witness to these commemorations remarked: "At Hiroshima, there was bitterness, much ado, it was very political  The symbol for it could be a fist raised in anger. At Nagasaki, there was sadness, but also tranquillity, reflection, it was not political, we prayed. We did not blame the United States, rather we wept over the sin of war and, more particularly, over nuclear war. The symbol: hands joined in prayer." More than that of any other person, the influence of Doctor Takashi Nagaï explained the spiritual climate that reigned over Nagasaki on that day. A priest said of him: "If we had a little of that faith that Takashi Nagaï possessed in the providence of the Eternal Father and in the universal value of the death of Christ, we could face any event in peace." So who was this Doctor Nagaï?

Takashi Nagaï was born in 1908, at Isumo, near Hiroshima, into a family with five children, of the Shinto religion. In 1928, he entered medical school at Nagasaki. He would write, "Starting in high school, I had become a prisoner of materialism. Right after I started medical school, I had to dissect cadavers  The marvelous structure of the entire body, the minute organization of its smallest parts, all of that provoked my admiration. But everything I touched was totally material. The soul? A phantom invented by impostors to fool simple people."

A mother's final gaze

One day in 1930, a telegram arrived for him from his father: "Come home!" He departed hastily, with a presentiment of some misfortune. Upon his arrival, he was numbed on learning that his mother had had an attack and that she could no longer speak. He sat beside her and read in her eyes a final "good-bye." This experience of death was to change his life: "With this final penetrating gaze, my mother demolished the ideological framework that I had constructed. This woman, who had brought me into the world and raised me, this woman who had never had a moment when she did not love me, in the final moments of her life, spoke to me very clearly. Her gaze told me that the human spirit continues to live after death. This all came to me by intuition, an intuition that had the taste of truth."

Takashi Nagaï then began reading the Pensées (Thoughts) of Pascal, a French writer of the 17th century, a poet and intellectual. "The soul, eternity  God. Our eminent predecessor, the physicist Pascal had seriously considered these things!" he said. "This incomparable intellect truly believed in these things! What could this Catholic faith be, in order for the intellectual Pascal to accept it, without going against his scientific knowledge?" Pascal explained that we encounter God in faith and prayer. Even if you are not yet a believer, he said, do not neglect prayer or attendance at Mass. "I am always ready to test an hypothesis in the laboratory," Takashi Nagaï thought, "why not try this prayer on which Pascal is so insistent." He decided to search out a Catholic family that would take him on as a boarder during his studies. This would give him a chance to learn about Catholicism and Christian prayer.

He was received into the Moriyama family. Mr. Moriyama, a livestock dealer, came from one of these old Christian stocks that, through 250 years of persecutions, knew how to keep the faith brought to Japan by Saint Francis Xavier. The purity of this Christian faith astounded the young Takashi Nagaï: Humble farmers taught him through their example what Pascal, the great intellect, had believed!

In March, 1932, a severe otitis left him deaf in the right ear and upset his plans for the future: no longer able to use the stethoscope, he had to give up on an ordinary medical practice. Thus he directed his studies towards radiologic medicine, just starting in Japan. He realized the enormous possibilities of this science put to use by doctors to discover disease.

Mr. and Mrs. Moriyama had a daughter, Midori, a teacher in another city. All three prayed for the conversion of Takashi Nagaï, thinking that perhaps God had sent him to them for this reason. On December 25, 1932, Midori was at her parents home for the feast of Christmas. Mr. Moriyama asked Takashi, "Doctor, why don't you come with us to midnight Mass?" He replied, "But I'm not a Christian!" Their response: "That hardly matters. The shepherds and the Magi that came to the stable were not Christians either. Nevertheless, when they came to the Child, they believed. You will never be able to believe if you do not come to pray in the Church." After a few moments, Takashi surprised even himself by answering: "Yes, I would like to come with you tonight." Five thousand Christians filled the Cathedral, all singing the same Credo in Latin. Takashi was greatly impressed and encouraged in his thoughts on the Catholic religion, although he was not convinced.

Midori's little catechism.

One night, Mr. Moriyama came and woke up Takashi: Midori was in bed racked with pain. The young doctor quickly diagnosed acute appendicitis. He heard Mr. Moriyama murmur: "It is God's will. Who knows what good will come of it?" Despite the heavy snow, Takashi ran to the neighboring school to telephone the hospital: "Hello, hello, 32 00 please, it's an emergency  Hello, this is Takashi Nagaï. Who's on duty in the ER tonight? Good. Could you please call him?" A friend answered the phone and Takashi asked him if he could do an emergency appendectomy. With his answer of yes, Takashi went back looking for Midori: "It will take too long to get a taxi, with all of this snow. We can't risk waiting." Turning to Mr. Moriyama, he said, "If you can carry the lantern in front of us, I can easily carry Midori." During the trip, Takashi noticed that Midori's heart was racing and that she was burning with fever. Her life was in danger. He hurried on. Finally, there was the hospital! The operating room was ready. Seven minutes later, everything was over. Midori had been saved. In recognition of this, she was going to do everything she could to convert her saviour.

The following year, Takashi was drafted into the Japanese army and he departed to fight the Chinese in Manchuria. In a package that Midori sent to him there was a little catechism that he read with interest. After a year, he returned home, almost desperate in the crisis of conscience caused by the turmoil in his life and the memory of the atrocious sights of war. He went to Nagasaki Cathedral and met there a Japanese priest who spent a lot of time with him. Encouraged, Takashi took up his practice of radiology again and started to study the Bible, the Liturgy, and Catholic prayers. But the moral requirements of the Gospel and the necessity of separating himself from the Shinto religion of his family still represented obstacles to his conversion. One day, in the middle of all of his doubts, he picked up Pascal's Pensées again and found a passage that caught his attention: "There is enough light for those who only want to see, and enough obscurity for those who are disposed to not see." Suddenly, everything was clear to him. He made his decision and asked for Baptism, which he received in June, 1934. He took the name of Paul, in memory of Paul Miki, a Japanese martyr crucified at Nagasaki in 1597. Two months later, he married Midori. Beforehand he wanted to tell Midori about the important risks that his job posed for him. Indeed, radiologists of that time lacked sufficient means to protect themselves from X-rays. Midori understood the dangers to Takashi's life, but she shared his views and his ideal of "pioneer" in order to save human lives. Nagaï was to become more than a doctor, an apostle of charity towards his fellow man. He wrote: "The doctor's job is to suffer and to rejoice with his patients, to learn to diminish their suffering as if it were his own. One must be sympathetic to their pain. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, it is not the doctor that cures the sick person, but the mercy of God. Once that is understood, the medical diagnosis leads to prayer."

Once again drafted, from June, 1937, to March, 1940, he worked as a doctor in the Sino-japanese war. His devotion to everyone, Japanese or Chinese soldiers, women, children, and old people pitilessly dragged into horrid butchery, took on a heroic dimension. Upon his return to Japan, demands for X-rays multiplied. Soon, Takashi noticed that his hands had some worrisome discoloration; in addition, he was often exhausted. He noted in his diary that sometimes, when he felt completely exhausted, he closed his door and went to sit before the statue of Mary in his office. He said the Rosary and little by little he found interior peace.

Three years to live

One of Takashi's colleagues persuaded him to have an X-ray himself. One morning in June, 1945, he did so. He said to his assistant, "Get the machine ready." The assistant replied, "But Doctor, there's no patient here yet." He answered, "Here's the patient," pointing to his own chest. The assistant asked, "And the doctor?" "Here's the doctor," he replied, pointing to his eyes. When he saw the X-ray, Nagaï's breath was caught short; on the left side there was a wide blackened area: hypertrophy of the spleen! He diagnosed a leukemia. He murmured, "Lord, I am only a useless servant. Protect Midori and our two children. Let it be done to me according to Thy will." Doctor Kageura, chief of the department of Internal Medicine, confirmed his diagnosis: "Chronic leukemia. You have three years to live." He had used up his own life to save countless sick, for whom no one but himself could have performed X-rays.

Returning home, he revealed everything to Midori. She knelt before the crucifix that the family had kept through 250 years of persecutions, prayed for a long time, shaken by sobs, until peace returned to her soul. Takashi also prayed; he was struck with remorse at the thought that he had always gone headlong into his work without thinking enough about his wife. But Midori rose to the occasion. The next day, it was a new man who left for work: total acceptance of the tragedy by Midori and her refusal to hear talk about "neglect" filled him with strength.

August 9, 1945, 11: 02 AM. A blinding flash. An atomic bomb had just exploded at Urakami, the Northern section of Nagasaki. In the war that they were waging against Japan, the leaders of the United States had available to them a new and terrifying weapon: the A-bomb. The first bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, and a second one devastated Nagasaki: Temperature 9,000° Centigrade, 72,000 dead, 100,000 wounded. At the medical school, located 700 yards from the center of the explosion, Nagaï, who was filing X-ray films, was thrown to the floor, his side riddled with glass fragments. Blood flowed heavily from his right temple  objects fluttered about like dead autumn leaves. Soon there was an uninterrupted flow of the wounded: bloodied shadows, clothes torn, hair burned, rushing to the doors of the hospital  A vision of Hell.

"Her Rosary!"

Fire was approaching the hospital. Patients were evacuated to the summit of a neighboring hill. Takashi worked to the very limit of his strength. At 4: 00 PM, the fire reached the Radiology Department. Thirteen years of research, instruments, valuable documentation, everything went up in smoke. August 10 was spent taking care of the wounded. On the 11th, work was a bit less hurried, and Takashi left to search for Midori, who had stayed at home while the children and their grandmother were safe in the mountains, since August 7. He found the site of his home with difficulty in an area of tiles and cinders. Suddenly, he came upon the carbonized remains of his wife. On his knees, he prayed and wept, then placed the bones in a container. Something shone weakly through the powder of the bones of her right hand: her Rosary!

He bowed his head: "My God, I thank You for permitting her to die while she prayed. Mary, Mother of sorrows, thank you for having been with her at the hour of her death  Jesus, you carried the heavy Cross until you were crucified upon it. Now, You come to shed a light of peace on the mystery of suffering and death, that of Midori and my own  Strange fate: I believed so strongly that it would be Midori that would lead me to the tomb  Now her poor remains are resting in my arms  Her voice seems to murmur: forgive, forgive." Takashi's pardon would be perfect. Later, he will lead Christians discouraged by the loss of their family to consider that the A-bomb was part of God's plan, who always brings good from evil.

On August 15, 1945, the radio broadcasted a message from the Emperor announcing the surrender of Japan. At the beginning of September, Takashi was dying. The radiation from the A-bomb aggravated his illness. He received the last rites and said: "I die happy," then he fell into a partial coma. Water was brought to him from the Lourdes grotto constructed not far from there by Father Maximilian Kolbe. He would write, "I heard a voice telling me to ask Father Maximilian Kolbe to pray for me. I did so. Then I turned to Christ and said to Him: `Lord, I place myself into Your Divine Hands.' " The next day, Takashi was out of danger and he attributed to Father Kolbe (now canonized) the remission from his illness that he enjoyed for six years.

"I want to be the first to live there!"

While the inhabitants feared to return to the Urakami section, Nagaï declared: "I want to be the first to live there!" He put up a shelter near his former residence: a few metal sheets leaning on the remains of a wall. In the front, two stones formed a hearth above which a pot was suspended. To the side, an old bottle without a neck: the water supply. For clothes: a sailor's uniform distributed by the army to the victims. He began to clear out the debris from his home. In it he discovered the crucifix that belonged on the family altar: He said, "Everything has been taken from me; only this crucifix is all I found."

On November 23, 1945, Takashi was invited to speak during a Requiem Mass celebrated beside the ruins of the Cathedral of Urakami. The holocaust of Christ on Calvary sheds light upon and gives meaning to "the holocaust" of Nagasaki: "On the morning of August 9," he said "an atomic bomb exploded over our part of town. In one instant 8,000 Christians were called to God. At midnight our cathedral suddenly caught fire and was burned down. At the same moment, at the Imperial Palace, His Majesty the Emperor made his decision public  On August 15, the imperial edict that put an end to the hostilities was officially transmitted and the entire world glimpsed the light of peace. August 15 is also the great feast of the Assumption of Mary. It was not a coincidence that the Cathedral of Urakami was consecrated to her  Isn't there a profound relationship between the destruction of this Christian city and the end of the war? Wasn't Nagasaki the chosen victim, the spotless lamb, the holocaust offered upon the altar of sacrifice, killed for the sins of all the nations during the Second World War?  Let us be thankful that Nagasaki had been chosen for this holocaust. Let us be thankful, for through this sacrifice, peace has been given to the world as well as religious freedom to Japan."

In the spring of 1947, Takashi's illness forced him to take to his bed in his makeshift home. He had to resign his position of professor and, because of this, he found himself to be without means. He said, "My brain still works. My eyes, ears, hands and fingers are still good." He began to write. For Makoto and Kayano, his still young children, he put together a collection of advice: "My dear children, love your neighbor as yourselves. That is the advice that I leave to you. That is how I will begin this writing, and perhaps it is also how I will conclude and also how I will resume." The single example of this message would have been enough to imprint it onto their hearts. Hadn't their father's entire existence been a heroic service to his fellow man, a service that now was bringing him to death's door? Takashi wished to consecrate himself to this service up to the end. He lay in his bed on his back and wrote holding a drawing board like schoolchildren use. He noted: "Upon awakening at one o'clock in the morning, my fever had broken. After a drink of coffee from my thermos, I was able to write until 7 o'clock in the morning, the work has made good progress!" He only had the night to write, because starting in the morning he had visitors, but he was never impatient with them. He wrote, "It tires me, but since they had the kindness to come here, shouldn't I try to put a little joy into their hearts and to speak to them of our Catholic hope? I cannot send them away."

It was under these difficult conditions that he wrote and published fifteen volumes in four years. What purpose did he set for himself in his writings? First, to give an accurate report on the atomic bomb explosion, through his exceptional experience and his personal competence; then, to work to establish peace. Above all convinced that a durable peace could only be based upon the spirit of love that shines through Catholic doctrine, he considered it his vocation to spread the Christian message.

A single guarantee.

At the end of his book The Bells of Nagasaki, he wrote, "Will humanity be happy in the atomic age, or truly miserable? What shall we do with this double-edged sword hidden in the universe by God and now discovered by man? A good use of it would be to make great strides of progress for civilization; an evil one would destroy the world. The decision rests in the free will of man. He holds his own destiny in his hands. When we think of it, we are struck with terror and, for my part, I believe that a true religious spirit is the sole guarantee in this area  On our knees, among the ashes of the atomic desert, we pray that Urakami will be the last victim of the bomb. The bell is ringing  O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."

In March, 1951, the doctor's health deteriorated alarmingly, but in no way affected his habitual good humor. In April, he wrote his last book. It was barely finished, when he had a stroke. He was taken to the hospital, where he lost consciousness. Then awakening, he said aloud: "Jesus, Mary, Joseph," then more softly: "I place my soul into your hands." Awestruck, the nurse gave the large family crucifix to Makoto, his son, so that he might take it to his father. Takashi took it and cried out in a surprisingly strong voice, "Pray, please pray "; soon it was all over  in truth, everything began in God, and Takashi Nagaï found "Midori at his side," as he had hoped for six years before. It was the first of May, the beginning of the month of Mary.

During the funeral services at the Cathedral of Urakami, the mayor of Nagasaki delivered the solemn reading of 300 messages of condolence, beginning with that of the Prime Minister. At the end of the ceremony, the crowd started down the road toward the cemetery, a couple of miles to the south; the head of the procession reached the cemetery when most of the people were still in the Cathedral. Takashi Nagaï was buried at Midori's side. For her tomb he had chosen the following epitaph: Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word (Lk 1: 38); for his: We are unprofitable servants. We have done what it was our duty to do (Lk 17: 10). His influence spread thanks to his books (beginning in 1948, they were read throughout Japan), which furnished a remarkable contribution to the social education of his fellow citizens and the evangelization of his country.

At the approach of Christmas, let us ask the Most Holy Family, for us and for all of those dear to us, for the grace of true conversion, love of one's neighbor even unto the ultimate sacrifice, and a blessed death that will lead us into the eternal happiness of Heaven.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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