Remembering Hiroshima, Remembering Arrupe

On August 6, the world will mark the start of the 78th year since we first dropped atomic weapons on human beings. On that morning in 1945, the people of Hiroshima went about their business. They did not know that a few hours earlier, hundreds of miles away, a bomb dubbed Little Boy was being prayed over by the men who would then load it into the bay of a plane called the Enola Gay. They literally closed their prayer with the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ.”

The bombing of Hiroshima

At 0245, the 29-year-old US Air Force colonel, Paul Tibbets, took off with his crew, followed by 6 other bombers. They crossed the Pacific Ocean and at 0815, they opened the bay doors of the plane and released the weapon. On the ground below, two air raid sirens were sounded, alerting the commuting citizens that an attack was imminent.

They braced themselves for impact, but did not know what was coming.

The Enola Gay was already 15 kilometres away when the bomb detonated 44 seconds later, about 700m above ground. Bob Caron was the only crew member facing the city. He saw the air crinkle from the horizon and then three successive waves caused the plane to creak, groan, and shake. The crew reported their mouths filled with a sour taste. The captain remembers whispering, “My god, what have we done?”

The fireball erupted 0.15 microseconds after detonation. The temperature was immediately hotter than the sun. Every biological entity within the rapidly expanding circumference of explosion was dosed with unnatural amounts of ionizing radiation. All flesh was vaporised. Granite melted. The blast accelerated out in all directions at more than 11,000 kilometres an hour. In fractions of seconds faster than human brains can process, whole neighbourhoods were swallowed in the furnace. Within one second, 60,000 buildings disappeared. The force of the weapon impacted upon the mountains that surround the city and rebounded, and would have caused even more destruction, had there been anything left to destroy.

Just beyond that mountain, a small community of Jesuits in the town of Nagatsuka were preparing to celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration, when Christians the world over mark a moment in Jesus’ ministry when his disciples saw him transformed into a vision of light. Their leader, Basque Jesuit Pedro Arrupe, remembered the morning thus:

“There was a blinding flash, a huge explosion, and then doors, windows, and walls fell on the Jesuit community in smithereens. No one was injured. Now knowing what had happened, they climbed a hill and saw below the ruins of Hiroshima. Since the houses were made of wood, paper, and straw, and it was at a time when the first meal of the day was being prepared in all the kitchens, the flames contacting the electric current turned the entire city into one enormous lake of fire.”

Arrupe biography details impact of event on Jesuit worldwide community

Brian Grogan SJ, in his striking biography of Arrupe, recounts that the community fell to their knees in prayer. Then they rose and acted. They turned their house into a field hospital. Rain later in the day dampened the fire and by night they were able to make their way into the city for the first time. That first trip brought back 150 wounded people. Pedro had studied medicine in Madrid before becoming a Jesuit and he coordinated their ad-hoc efforts, which were often more palliative than reparative.

Arrupe and his companions were informed that the bomb had been an experiment, that the air was poisoned, that they were to stay out of the city. But they chose to stay to help to alleviate the suffering of people affected. Those Jesuits were the first rescue operation inside Hiroshima. Arrupe’s office desk became a surgery table and the Jesuits’ house remained a clinic for months as they worked to provide what relief they could.

As the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings approach, it is important to remember the details, not just the mushroom cloud image which dominates the public imagination. These attacks on innocent civilians would surely be considered a war crime in other circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of people died, people who had nothing more to do with the war than that they happened to live on the Japanese islands.

Grogan notes that Arrupe began that day thinking about divine transfiguration, and ended it immersed in the transfiguration of human violence, a thriving city turned into a real-life image of hell: “The event laid bare the chasm between good and evil, between God’s project for humankind and humans’ distortion of it. Humanity, Arrupe said, is trapped in a net of steel, out of which it is difficult to break.”

But the anniversary is also an appropriate moment to reflect on the changes that have occurred within the Society of Jesus in the last century. I am not a Jesuit, but I have spent the last few years working with them and am deeply impressed by their commitment to combine prayer and action – what Grogan calls contemplative activism.

The experience of Arrupe and his community in Hiroshima undoubtedly contributed to an increased focus on the marginalised in the worldwide Jesuit community. Also, its openness to liberation theology, and realisation of the need for ecological conversion can all in some ways be sourced to that terrible day and Arrupe’s experience of the depths of suffering that humans can inflict on other creatures.

Much later in his life, when he was the Superior General of the Jesuits globally, Arrupe was travelling through east Asia as the plight of the Vietnamese boat people became evident. Two million people fled the war in their homeland, having no place to go. Grogan recounts “It was another Hiroshima-like moment for Pedro.” Having prayed and consulted, the Jesuits discerned the path forward. They had always been famous for their mobility, a willingness to go where the need was greatest. Now, in an age of global displacement, that ancient virtue could be re-tooled to help those at greatest risk.

Arrupe established the Jesuit Refugee Service in 1980, to accompany, to serve, and to advocate for the rights of refugees and forced migrants. It has become, Grogan proposes, “a dramatic symbol of what the Society of Jesus is meant to be” as it serves in warzones, tent cities, and direct provision centres from South Sudan to north county Dublin.

A Heart Larger than the World is a book that would be classified in an obscure theological genre: it is a hagiography, a book about a saint. It is not a biography in the sense that the author does not get stuck into critical assessment of the character’s life as a modern historian would. It is more like a memoir, but written by another. Those who want an in depth consideration of the tensions in Arrupe’s life and ministry – his Basque identity and his global ministry, his upper class origins and his concern for the dispossessed, his conciliatory leadership style and his deep devotional commitment – might be disappointed. But those who want to sense the soul of this great Christian leader, and get some sense of how the Jesuits adapted and reacted to the modern world, will find a book to treasure.

Hiroshima is a flourishing city again. And the Jesuits are still there, working in the Gion parish. What seemed impossible on the night of August 6th 1945 is now straightforward reality. Perhaps we might say miracles happen, but they are so mundane we often do not notice them? Arrupe would likely concur. For him, as for the Jesuit community worldwide, the point was to find God in all things.