‘Why are you still with us?’

by Guest Contributor

Fr Barry Cairns was born in New Zealand in 1931. After studying to be a Columban missionary in Australia, he went to Japan in 1956. After eleven years in parish work in Japan, he spent the next 13 years on the staff of the Columban seminary in Sydney before he returned to Japan in 1983. At 88 years of age he still serves in a small parish in Yokohama City. A new book on missionary priests prompts him to think back over his long service in Japan.

I never thought that my photo would be on the front cover of a book – admittedly with 14 others! All of us, in our 80s, are foreign missionaries still working in Japan. The book in Japanese is titled ‘Father, why did you come to Japan?’ with the further question: ‘Why are you still with us?’

The fifteen missionary priests were interviewed by a Paulist Sister for the book. I am 88 and now semi-retired. I am a pastor and missionary in a very small parish in Yokohama City. In my last year of high school, at times I had a realisation that I possessed a great treasure in being a follower of Christ. I felt that I would like to share this treasure with others not so blessed. But then I also considered becoming a carpenter to build houses. I was better with my hands than my head. Well, I thought, let’s give the seminary a go! So in 1949 I went to St Columban’s to test my vocation as a missionary in other lands.

There followed seven up and down years in the seminary. The two years of philosophy were agony! In the following four years of theology and especially scripture I felt more at home. But mission history and anthropology were my favourite classes.

In 1955, at 24, I was ordained in my home parish of Sts. Peter and Paul, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. I received a letter from my superior: “Barry, you are appointed to Japan.” To tell you the truth, I was not happy at all! Could I survive another two years of intensive study of a difficult foreign language? (I had failed Latin in my University Entrance Exam. Good marks in history got me through!)

I arrived in Japan in 1956 after 31 days on a cargo ship from Sydney, with six port calls. After language school I was appointed to fishing villages. Japan was still staggering from the after-effects of war. There was poverty, sickness (especially TB) and down-heartedness. TV had not yet come to the country villages where ancient customs and ways of thinking had not changed for centuries. I had learnt in my anthropology class that it was important for an expatriate to have a “cultural curiosity” about one’s adopted country. Ask questions: Why? How? When? That was great advice! I came to know Japan and the Japanese. And also to learn the language.

Fr. Barry dressed as Santa Claus.

But more was to come. I started teaching a class for people preparing for Baptism. I met Japanese with no religious affiliation and saw and felt the stark emptiness of their lives. One man said his religion was the Osaka Hanshin Tigers baseball team. My own faith grew stronger together with the newly-given faith of those in the class. The feeling of sharing a treasure that I had felt in High School came back to me strongly.

After eleven years in Japan I got sick. I had big, fat swollen legs. It was Beriberi and other complications. I had nine months in hospital. My faith, and consequently my call to be a priest, was sorely tested. The support of my Columban confreres and my parishioners helped me. I went home on sick leave. I was desolate. I thought that I had lost my faith. It took me three years before I realised that behind the sickness and desolation Christ was with me at all times. I feel I matured, both as a person and as a missionary priest. There is a Japanese proverb that says: “Suffering makes a jewel of you.” How true!

Then for thirteen years I was on the staff of the Columban seminary in Sydney as a spiritual director. I returned to Japan in 1983 after being away for sixteen years. It was a different Japan. My second culture shock was worse than the first! I was posted in three large and busy city parishes for 32 years. I am now, at 88, semi-retired as pastor of the smallest parish in Yokohama City (about 70 at Mass on Sundays).

I stay in Japan because I feel called to live among the un-evangelised. I want to be beside the aged of Japan who feel so insecure about their future. I feel “at home” here, and likewise feel that the Japanese like me in their home. I also believe that the foreign missionary has a very small but important role. We foreigners can act as a concrete example that the Church is for all nations – that it is truly catholic. Island countries, and their churches, can become insular.

When the Paulist Sister asked me: “What has been your most unpleasant experience in Japan?” I explained that though trivial, I still feel it! I was born in the southern hemisphere in New Zealand. Christmas means summer picnics and swimming in the sea. I still find a cold winter Christmas hard to take. I hear the popular song in Japan, ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’. It is never my dream! But I do let my snow-white beard grow long. I dress up as Santa Claus for the children. We give them a small present and I ask them to give their mothers and fathers a present by showing them at least one kind act. One mother told me that she wished there were 52 Christmases a year!

I feel called to be living among the un-evangelised and pray with them and for them. I want to proclaim in a small way that our gentle God loves everyone unconditionally, as they are. It is by the grace of God that my enthusiasm for mission is still with me.

Fr Barry with parishioners and children after receiving their Christmas gift.