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This May and June saw the heavenly birthday of two Jesuits who were born in Europe, but embraced Japan as their second home. On the 20th of May 2020 the Spanish Adolfo Nicolás, former superior general of the Society of Jesus, passed away in Tokyo, shortly followed by his Hungarian master and professor, Péter Nemeshegyi on the 13th of June in Budapest at the age of 97.

The two Jesuits, like many of their predecessors throughout the history, spent decades in Japan in missionary work, bringing the Gospel to thousands of locals. While doing so, they were both intermediators as well, enriching the Christian notion of life with the values of the Japanese way of thinking.

Born in 1923 in Budapest, capital of Hungary, Péter Nemeshegyi attended a Lutheran high school. Having finished his legal studies at university, first he worked as a bank clerk. However, he soon felt the call of God, so he entered the Society of Jesus in 1944. He became a Jesuit in times of turmoil. After World War II drew to its end, the reconstruction of Hungary hardly began when the Communist party commanded an increasingly harsh campaign against all the churches. His superiors advised him and his associates to leave the country before it was too late, and the religious orders would be banned, as it did took place in 1950; he did so with many of his fellow Jesuits, and first escaped to Austria, and later went to Italy.

It was in Rome where he became a doctor of theology at Pontifical Gregorian University and was ordained a priest in 1952. Then he was sent to missionary work to Japan, where he spent more than 40 years. At Sophia University in Tokyo he taught theology and was professor of patristic studies; he was appointed a dean of the faculty of theology for six years, in which capacity he did a lot for the inculturation of the Catholic teaching and the formation of the Japanese theological and liturgical language.

He oversaw the Japanese translation of the Bible and the Church Fathers, authored more than two dozen books and essays in Japanese. Between 1969 and 1974 Pope Paul VI. appointed him as member of the International Theological Commission, and also worked in the Society of Japanese Christian Scholars. He launched the series of the local Catholic Encyclopaedia and held university lectures on various subjects, including the morals and lessons of Mozart’s music. Besides his scientific activity, he was involved in apostolic work, too, bringing the Christian faith to hundreds of Japanese believers.

He returned to Hungary in 1993 for “missionary work”, and did more or less the same as he had done in Japan, but this time in his native land. He worked as professor at theology, published several books, guided spiritual retreats, soon becoming a spiritual authority, especially with his famous sermons at the Jesuit church in Budapest. He remained active even when he was well above 90 years of age and lived in a home for the elderly, using wheelchair to fulfil his duties.

He was a person for whom the words “a living legend” are neither a banal commonplace nor undeserved exaggeration. What is more, he has always been a man of God and a friend of Jesus, who was able to be a distinguished scholar and to convey the Christian message with simple and expressive words for anyone to understand. And a man whose death does not bear only grief and mourning, but first of all deep gratitude for a rich and fruitful life of someone with whom we were privileged to be contemporaries.

Szőnyi Szilárd

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