Papal visit long sought by Japanese Cardinal

Pope Francis will make a rare trip to Japan on Saturday, visiting the atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cardinal Thomas Aquinas Manyo Maeda has been a driving force behind the highly anticipated visit. 

Leading up to the visit

Cardinal Maeda spent years trying to convince the Pope to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, working with religious leaders from across Japan. In 2014, one year before the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, they penned a letter to Francis, asking him to visit for the commemorative events. The pope's schedule at that time made a trip impossible.

Cardinal Thomas Aquinas Manyo Maeda. He is also the Archbishop of Osaka.

But when Maeda was appointed Cardinal last year, he got the chance to make his plea in person. And Francis accepted.

"The Pope squeezed my hands," says Maeda, looking back. "He understood how serious I was about him visiting."

Cardinal Maeda met the Pope at the Vatican on June 28, 2018.

Memories of his mother

Maeda was born in Nagasaki in 1949. During his childhood, he experienced firsthand the devastating effects of nuclear weapons. His mother had survived the bombing but radiation exposure ruined her health.

Maeda's mother passed away 5 years ago.

Kiyoko was working at a factory in Nagasaki City at the time. As a result of the radiation, her legs would often swell up, making it difficult for her to walk. She was rushed to the hospital for A-bomb survivors and had to stay there for some time. Even at home, she kept to her bed for weeks at a time. Maeda remembers her as increasingly weak in her final years. He says she didn't talk much about her experiences and suspects she suffered from survivor's guilt.

Maeda's conviction

After becoming a priest, Maeda served at various churches throughout Nagasaki Prefecture. In 2011, he was appointed Bishop of Hiroshima. It was during this period that he spoke to many atomic bomb survivors, or hibakusha.

He was appointed Bishop of Hiroshima in 2011.

This experience instilled in him the belief that nuclear weapons should be abolished.

"Some remained silent about their experiences while others were eager to talk," Maeda says. "But they all share an opposition to war because they don't want others to go through what they did."

He was convinced that Pope Francis also needed to hear their stories.

Pope's commitment

Pope Francis has said he believes it is unethical to produce nuclear weapons, let alone use them. Two years ago, the Vatican even held its own nuclear disarmament conference, inviting activists from around the world.

The Vatican organized a nuclear disarmament conference in 2017.

Maeda says he admires the Pope's commitment to always standing with people. He says he hopes Francis will listen to the atomic bomb survivors and understand their feelings.

"If a globally influential figure like Pope Francis sends out a powerful message from Hiroshima and Nagasaki about peace, it will have a massive effect," he says. "I'm looking forward to seeing how he presents his ideas."

Manyo says the issue goes beyond religion. He says he hopes the Pope's words can go some way toward helping achieve world peace.