Columbans Ireland

Nov 24th
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Two Sorrows

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two sorrows_1By Fr Eamonn Horgan

Over six long decades ago, in late October 1953, still a very callow cleric, I left my Littlefield Kilkenny home where, since birth my rural life had been happy and more or less carefree. The months since my ordination on the previous December had been pleasantly spent finishing my seminary course and visiting friends and relatives. My mission destination was to be Japan, where, God willing, I would spend the rest of my active life as a Columban missionary. My rudimentary knowledge of that land had been gleaned from books and from Columbans who had laboured there over the years. Japan had been the destination I had hoped for at assignation time. Suddenly, however, all too soon, accompanied by two of my sisters, and two friends from early school days, I found myself heading for Cobh to start the first leg of my missionary journey to Japan.

two sorrows_2The year since ordination had slipped by without much concern on my part about facing the ordeal of leaving kin, friends and country. Exile was something I had only read about, but here I was about to embark on my own. I’m afraid that during those final months before leaving, the missionary spirit in me had noticeably faded. Any tint of glamour attached to a missionary career suddenly grew dim. I had heard many tales of missionaries who, through accident, sickness or even martyrdom, had never come home. Would I someday find myself joining that brave company? Running through my mind were the parting words of Art O’Leary to his wife as he left for battle and death, “Táimse a’ fágáil a’ bhaile is ní móide go deó go gcasfad” (I’m leaving home and its doubtful if I’ll ever return).

two sorrows_3The October 1953 departure from Cobh with my five Japan-bound classmates was even more melancholy, and the north Atlantic crossing, two days storm-delayed en route, did little to raise the spirits. A fourday train trip across the USA and the final 17 days by freighter on the Pacific were scarcely more cheering. Yokohama, when we landed at dawn on 1 January 1954, was still an uncleared wasteland of rubble left by the blanket bombings of 1945. Happily we were welcomed, entertained and fed by a staunch Christian family whom Columbans had known since the war. Their hospitality and welcome during those early days in Japan worked wonders on our melancholy spirits. Their support during those days and the years that followed, did much to ease our entry into a fascinating land.

Language school behind us, we scattered to the various districts of Japan. Almost imperceptibly we found ourselves becoming acclimatised to the local scene and to the wonderful Japanese folk. Little by little the clouds of melancholy began to lift. It has been said that Japanese have difficulty understanding foreigners. My experience of them belies that opinion. On so many occasions I have found the Japanese understanding my peculiarities and idiosyncrasies better than I understood them myself. Their loyalty was inspiring and the virtues they displayed at every turn would match or surpass those of many ‘official’ Christians. One virtue patent and based on self-respect was honesty. With rare exceptions that virtue was universally evident. One always felt safe. Any man, woman or child, in any street, in any city, at any hour of the day or night, could walk unharmed. In country places, doors were often left unlocked.

On the social level, Japanese felt honoured when a foreign guest visited their home. Time and again, when overseas folk came to visit me, local friends or mere acquaintances insisted that I bring them to their homes. The welcome was ever genuine; the hospitality lavish. Over the years as Japan ‘grew on me’, I learned to appreciate more and more how kind the Lord had been to me, in bringing me to so charming a land and so loving a people. Almost imperceptibly I found myself feeling more and more at home among them. They seemed to reciprocate the feeling.

Forward to April 2013: the scene, a train station in Minamata City, South Japan. A group of 40 or so Japanese, men and women, baptised and non-baptised, bidding farewell to their pastor as he departs for retirement to the land of his birth. As the train pulls out, copious tears, theirs and mine, flow freely.

The heartbreak of separation still persists, not just on my side but on theirs too I think. Frequent letters and e-mails, genuinely nostalgic, continue to arrive here. January 1 2016 brought two members of an English conversation group of mine who had sacrificed their Japan New Year festivities, the biggest of the year, to fly all the way here to visit their departed friend. They left on 4 January. Two weeks later a group of three, a mother, her son and his wife, made the same long weary trip. Some years back that same family flew me twice to Japan from London, my temporary assignment, to officiate at their family weddings. More Japanese visitors are anticipated. I can hardly wait. Here in retirement I reminisce with former Japan colleagues on our days on mission and hope to make one last trip back before being labelled ‘returned empty’.

Fr Eamonn, from Littlefield, Co. Kilkenny, now lives at St Columban’s Retirement Home, Dalgan, Navan, Co. Meath.

Photos courtesy of the author.
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