Photo/IllutrationManyo Maeda, the archbishop of Osaka, is among 14 new picks for cardinals. Pope Francis announced the appointments May 20. (Mari Endo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Osaka's Archbishop Manyo Maeda, a descendant of "hidden" Christians during the feudal era, has been elevated by Pope Francis to cardinal, the second highest post in the Catholic Church.

Maeda heard in roundabout fashion from a friend that the pope on May 20 had named him one of 14 new cardinals.

The news was like a thunderclap for Maeda, 69, as there had been no advance word from the Vatican about the pontiff’s pick.

Maeda wrote of his astonishment over the appointment in a traditional haiku poem that has been an integral part of his sermons for the past 30 years.

He wrote: “Pentecost comes like a bolt out of the blue.”

The appointment, which is effective next month, will make Maeda the sixth Japanese to be elevated to the College of Cardinals. The members are known for their distinctive red hats, worn with matching robes.

No member of the Japanese clergy has held that rank since the death of Seiichi Shirayanagi nine years ago.

As a cardinal under the age of 80, Maeda will be eligible to be part of the conclave to elect a new pope, if the need arises.

There are currently 200-plus cardinals around the world.

Maeda hails from the Goto island chain in Nagasaki Prefecture, western Japan, which is famous for sheltering Christians trying to avoid persecution during the feudal era.

Christianity was introduced to Japan in the mid-16th century. But the Tokugawa Shogunate banned it nationwide in the early 17th century as the authorities feared its influence after the religion quickly drew converts.

Many hidden Christians maintained their faith by pretending to embrace Buddhism or other religious beliefs indigenous to the islands.

Maeda's great-grandfather was a hidden Christian. The ban on Christianity was lifted only in the late 19th century.

Christians account for about 1 percent of today's Japanese, according to estimates.

Maeda was on course to join the Catholic clergy from early on. His father, a Japanese language teacher, sent him to a seminary after graduating from elementary school.

Initially though, the young Maeda was not entirely free from doubts about the path laid out for him, partly because becoming a Catholic priest meant a life of celibacy. He also yearned to get an education at ordinary university.

Maeda is closely associated with the peace movement. When he served in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Maeda joined hands with Buddhist monks and those of other faiths to push for nuclear disarmament.

His commitment to wanting to rid the world of nuclear weapons was born out of having watched his mother suffer from the effects of the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombing of Nagasaki that left tens of thousands dead.

His mother, who worked in Nagasaki before she married Maeda’s father, was exposed to the blinding flash and heat rays that marked the detonation, and was plagued by swollen feet and fingers that fused together.

“If you think peace is being undermined, you should stand up and speak to politicians and other powerful people and tell them not to violate the people’s right to enjoy peace,” he said. “That is a role that members of the clergy must play.”

Maeda has made a point of visiting all the churches in the Archdiocese of Osaka, which comprises Osaka, Hyogo and Wakayama prefectures. He attends Mass even if only a handful of followers are present.

He sprinkles his sermons with haiku poems he composed based on Catholic teachings. Becoming a cardinal will not change his need to reach out to people in need, Maeda said.

“I will never abandon those who have drifted away from the Church and who make a living in sin,” he added. “I will always talk to those I am concerned about, and try to work with them.”