Artifact of Hope: The Journey of a Cross Across the Pacific

By: Hirokazu Miyazaki

May 12, 2020

On November 24, 2019, Pope Francis delivered an epoch-making address on nuclear weapons in Nagasaki. Viewers may have noticed in the television images an old, fragile-looking wooden cross near the podium from which he spoke. Although it received only a short acknowledgment in the pope’s remarks, for Nagasaki people, the quiet presence of this cross behind the pope pointed to a still unfulfilled peace built on what the pope in his remarks termed “mutual trust.”

In fact, this cross had only just reappeared in Nagasaki after many decades and was the subject of much fascination and speculation, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The cross had originally been found in the ruins of the Urakami Cathedral, sometime after the atomic bombing on August 9, 1945. How a wooden cross could have survived a nuclear bomb that leveled buildings was itself something of a mystery. It had been brought to the United States by Walter Hooke, a U.S. marine, who had served in the occupation forces in Nagasaki from October 1945 until February 1946. Hooke had kept the cross at his home until 1982, when he donated it to Wilmington College’s Peace Resource Center. Founded by Barbara Reynolds, a renowned anti-nuclear activist once based in Hiroshima, the Peace Resource Center is the largest repository of historical records related to Hiroshima and Nagasaki outside Japan.

For generations, however, the existence of the cross in Wilmington was largely unknown to people in Nagasaki. So, in 2019, when the Peace Resource Center decided to repatriate the cross, its reappearance inspired considerable doubt: Was the cross really the cross from the cathedral altar? Eventually, photos of the cross in the ruins surfaced, matching the features of the one formerly placed at the top of the cathedral’s main altar. The late Walter Hooke’s three children issued a joint statement in which they expressed their hope for the cross to “continue its work [in Japan] as a symbol of peace and love after 74 years of such work in the United States” [1]. 

Walter Hooke, who died in 2010, mentioned before his death that he had been given the cross by Bishop of Nagasaki Paul Aijiro Yamaguchi. Bishop Yamaguchi, who served as a chaplain for Catholic communities on Flores Island under Japanese military rule, had just returned to Japan in January 1946 [2]. Yamaguchi had lost his mother and other members of his family in the atomic bombing. Hooke, a Catholic, befriended the bishop, got himself assigned as his driver, and traveled with the bishop around his diocese, as the bishop ministered to his community in conditions of unfathomable loss. Years after his return to the United States, Hooke became a prominent anti-nuclear activist. In particular, during the 1970s and the 1980s, Hooke worked to seek compensation for U.S. veterans who had been exposed to radiation during the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as for those exposed to radiation at nuclear weapons testing sites in Bikini Atoll and Nevada.

The repatriation of the cross was an initiative of Tanya Maus, director of the Peace Resource Center. At a press conference held at the Urakami Cathedral on August 7, 2019, Maus noted that the cross had served at the center as a reminder of “the cruelty and suffering of war, the loss of humanity, religion, and values that are stripped away when human beings kill each other in war,” and she called on world leaders to “immediately end the use of all weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons” [3]. 

However, Archbishop of Nagasaki Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, himself an atomic bomb survivor and a descendant of Nagasaki’s “hidden Christians,” interpreted the cross’ return slightly differently, in the context of the painful history of the Urakami Catholic community. Urakami is a highly significant center of Catholicism in Japan because Christians in Urakami kept their faith in hiding despite centuries of prohibition and persecutions. It is also the place where over 8,000 parishioners were killed in the atomic bombing. In his homily for the Peace Mass on the evening of August 9, during which the cross was formally presented to parishioners in the opening procession, Archbishop Takami stated that the cross inspires us to reflect on the atomic bombing with reference to Jesus’ teaching: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). 

In light of the repatriated cross, Archbishop Takami offered an important new commentary on a controversial and yet influential Catholic interpretation of the bombing as divine providence. In a eulogy for the victims of the bombing in Urakami in November 1945, Dr. Takashi Nagai, a medical doctor and an intellectual leader of the Urakami Parish during the years immediately following the end of the war, famously suggested that Urakami parishioners had been offered as sacrificial lambs for world peace [4]. A heated debate about Nagai’s divine providence thesis ensued [5]. Some found the thesis fundamentally objectional, and many of them saw in Pope John Paul II’s declaration, “War is the work of man,” at the beginning of his 1981 “Appeal for Peace” speech in Hiroshima, a rejection of that thesis.

In Archbishop Takami’s view, however, Nagai did not actually mean to justify the bombing. Rather, Archbishop Takami suggested, Nagai was inspired by the Christian hope for reconciliation found in Jesus’ sacrifice. According to the archbishop, people in Nagasaki, especially, Urakami parishioners, including Nagai, were angry at Americans for dropping the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. Yet, Nagai did not want to condemn Americans, not because the bombing was justifiable (in Archbishop Takami’s view, it was not), but out of the spirit of Jesus’ forgiveness of humans on the cross. The archbishop also invoked Jesus’ well-known challenge regarding the woman who had committed adultery: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). The homily ended with a reflection on Japan’s own wartime sins committed against the rest of Asia. For Archbishop Takami, the cross inspired “the courage and hope to live toward an eternity by overcoming not only the tragedy of war but also death, and the human crimes and sins that cause death” [6].

The history of the “work” of this cross, and of what the cross has inspired in its beholders, speaks to what is at stake at this summer’s seventy-fifth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The repatriation of the cross highlighted the unreconciled sins on all sides, and in all directions across the Pacific, from the bombing and its health impacts on U.S. veterans to Japan’s wartime aggression. Archbishop Takami’s ultimate message was that Japanese and Americans still have painful and yet hopeful work of reconciliation to do after 75 years.

  1. ​Press conference, Urakami Cathedral, August 7, 2019.
  2. See Akira Hagiwara, S.J., Senso to shukyo: fushigina setsuri [War and religion: A mysterious divine providence] (Tokyo: Shinyu-sha, 1966).
  3. Press conference, Urakami Cathedral, August 7, 2019.
  4. Takashi Nagaki, The Bells of Nagasaki, trans. William Johnston (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1984).
  5. See Yuki Miyamoto, Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Commemoration, Religion, and Responsibility after Hiroshima (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011); Chie Shijo, Urakami no genbaku no katari: Nagai Takashi kara Roma Kyoko e [Narratives about the atomic bomb in Urakami: From Takashi Nagai to the Pope] (Tokyo, Miraisha, 2015); Chad R. Diehl, Resurrecting Nagasaki: Reconstruction and the Formation of Atomic Narratives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
  6. Press conference, Urakami Cathedral, August 7, 2019.
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