Overseas Missionary to Japan: Personal Reflections

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by Father Ward Biddle, C.P.


Holy Cross Province began the Japan Passionist mission in 1953. Several years ago I met Father Ward Biddle, C.P. With energy, reflection, and thanksgiving he spoke to me about his mission experience in Japan since the early 1950s. I was impressed by his kindness and honesty. Consequently, as part of the centennial celebration of Holy Cross Province he graciously accepted my invitation to write a personal reflection on his Japan missionary experience. He was born in 1923 in Kansas City, Missouri. He professed his Passionist vows in 1944 and was ordained in 1951. He remains active in Japan. His email is [email protected]-editor

“Man proposeth, God disposeth.” In one form or another that old adage comes true and is recognized as truth in all of our histories. And of course it holds true for the history of the Passionists in Japan.

In 1951 the Holy Cross (Chicago) Province of the Passionists decided to accept an invitation from Bishop Paul Taguchi to make a foundation in his Osaka diocese. Surely the Provincial at the time, Fr. James Patrick White, spent many a sleepless night wondering whom he should appoint to this mission. After much prayer and discussion with his consultors he chose a man who by common consent was well suited for the task, Fr. Julius Busse. He was a purple heart decorated veteran chaplain of the Pacific front in World War II. A strapping man, blessed with courage and ingenuity, warm and opti­mistic by nature, he was chosen and consented to take on the responsibility. So man proposed, until… A medical exam revealed inoperable cancer. Fr. Julius made an enviably resigned and expeditious passage, not to Japan, but to heaven. Thus did God dispose.

It can be reasonably assumed that Fr. James Patrick at that point spent many more nights tossing and turning in bed as he sought a replacement for that excellent first choice. Now, after 50 years have passed perhaps it can be safely tested in the wind that Fr. Barnabas Ahern was the man who put the proverbial bug in the ear of the provincial to choose little Fr. Matthew Vetter as the superior of the Japan Mission. How­ever the appointment came about, Fr. Matthew and his Passionist companion, Fr. Carl Schmitz, set out from San Francisco in late February for the 16-day voyage to Japan. They landed in Yokohama on the 9th of March, 1953. Was this proposal of man also the disposition of God? Only time would tell.

In many ways the opposite type of character of Fr. Julius, Matthew Vetter proved to be a spiritually wise and holy founder of the Passionists in Japan. In the summer of that same year three other men were sent to join them-Frs. Paul Placek, Clement Paynter and Peter Kumle, the latter two having been ordained but a year before. These five original men made their home in an old, formerly Buddhist school, remodeled into a monastery and quasi retreat house, in the suburb of Osaka, called Hibarigaoka. Japan in those days after the War was still poor, as was their dwelling, but they got busy at once at language schools and in giving English retreats to the many foreign missioners. It was not long before they were conducting parish missions as well as retreats of all sorts in Japanese.

In the years that followed others were sent from the Chicago Province, and in 1957 the Passionist Nuns arrived from Pittsburgh, along with Frs. Denis McGowan and Ward Biddle, on the Topa Topa, an old beatup freighter. The Nuns took over the Hibarigaoka house as the Fathers moved to a newly acquired property and house about 10 miles away in an area called Mefu. This Mefu Retreat House has become well known throughout the Japanese Catholic Church for its pine and maple tree studded grounds with the outdoor Stations of the Cross on the extensive hillside closeby. How well I remember the dedication of those Stations with a diocesan priest and his group of Catholic students.

Again in the storehouse of my memories is the first time I preached to a group of Japanese men in the straw-mat chapel which fronts on the garden. That same year I had a wonderful experience preaching parish missions with Frs. Clement and Peter for six weeks, covering all the little churches on a large island in the extreme south of the country, thirteen hours by boat from the city of Kagoshima, nearby where St. Francis Xavier first landed in the country. The first tiny parish was in a chapel for people with Hansen’s disease. I wonder now how much they could have understood of my halting Japanese language. The people on that island were very poor and as we approached a village over the mountain top in our jeep it looked to me like pictures I had seen of African straw-thatched huts huddled together. I have always considered those weeks of preaching as among the most precious experiences I have ever had in Japan.

On the boat trip back to the mainland I made the acquaintance of a high school lad who was on his way to take a school exam in Kagoshima. We corresponded a bit later, and then I heard that he had entered the diocesan seminary. He was duly ordained a priest, and years afterward we were together working as team priests for the Marriage Encounter Movement. But to my surprise and delight in January of this year he was ordained bishop of that diocese. What a thrill it was to attend the ceremony and get a good big hug from the new bishop.

Surely no experience of my time in Japan can surpass the joy I have known in being able to help several young men to discern and follow their vocations as Passionists. Nothing is more humbling for me and heart-warming than the recollection of those encounters as a most undeserving instrument in aiding those men to recognize their re­ligious calling. My enriching years in the Cursillo Movement, in prison chaplain work, in directing couples in pre-Cana courses and in Marriage Encounter, as well as these last seven years in charge of a small parish-all have added up to a life of amazing graces. There comes to my mind a line from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that I learned as a student “I can no other answer make, but thanks, and thanks and thanks”.

As I enter my fiftieth year in Japan and look back I feel only deep gratitude for the experiences I’ve had and the wonderful people I have met and worked with. Very dif­ficult as the language has been (and is), I have been able to make myself understood. And I am confident in writing that the Japanese people also came to understand my heart, my love for them. We missioners try to get into the ways of thinking and feeling of the people we serve. Some succeed better than others. No one is a judge in his own case. But I would wager that the Japanese people, clergy and religious with whom I have lived and worked have found me by and large “compatico” with their hearts. I have never doubted that God called me here, even from my teenage years when I was mainly conscious of following only my own inclinations and hunches.

We are now only eighteen Passionists here, including us four non-Japanese priests. (Only one of the original four Passionist Nuns from Pittsburgh survives, Sr. Mary Amhrein.) Many have come and gone, and we are aging fast. Our two lovely retreat houses, a parish and the house of formation in Tokyo are difficult to staff adequately. We continue to pray and work for more to join our ranks. But we try to keep before our eyes our vocation to promote the memory of Jesus’ Passion in people’s hearts. Perhaps it is the wonderful layfolk here who have been associated with us since many years back who will help us carry on our mission. Perhaps the Congregation of the Passion will flourish as a cross-section of the lay-clergy commitment that characterizes our Catholic Church today worldwide. Who knows, maybe we will be united as well with Protestant brothers and sisters who will share our desire to imprint deep in people’s memories the love Christ our Lord showed us so overwhelmingly during his Passion. We call it the Gospel of the Passion. May it live brightly in our hearts!

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