Fr. Samuel Schneider reads to children during one of the “Sunday story time with Fr. Samuel” he offered throughout the summer. (Submitted photo)
Catholic Herald Staff
For Fr. Samuel Schneider, completing his first year as a Navy chaplain in Japan, “one of the hardest things has been to be away from Northern Wisconsin.”
“Military culture is not set up for a Catholic priest,” he acknowledged while emphasizing the “important and huge need” for his mission to sailors and their families.
“This is not a normal parish assignment,” Fr. Schneider said.
The priest, whose seminary education was co-sponsored by the Diocese of Superior and the Archdiocese for Military Services, serves the Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka (CFAY) on the Miura Peninsula’s Pacific coast south of Toyko.
With 26,000 personnel attached to the base – the largest overseas American naval base – the community is constantly changing. Besides the civilian contractors, many of whom are retired military, the population is primarily young sailors and families. Terms of duties range from six months to an average of three years, with teachers for the base’s PreK-12 school staying closer to 10 years.
“We are constantly bringing up new leaders,” Fr. Schneider said to describe the rotating dynamic for the local Catholic community. He added that COVID-19 has prevented a lot of new people from getting acclimated and involved.
While it is “very parish-like” and “vibrant,” the American priest recounted the busy schedule for weekend services with all its moving parts.
The general use chapel, and fellowship and classroom space, serves as a spiritual home for Catholics as well as a conglomeration of Protestants, Seventh Day Adventists, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish.
He added, “We’re very grateful that we do actually have a separate room reserved for the Blessed Sacrament.” Besides that dedicated space. which fits approximately 10 people, statues and the necessaries for Mass get set up and taken down multiple times between Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday morning catechetical services are attended by upwards of 250 children. These take place in between two Catholic Masses celebrated Sunday morning. and coincide with another faith’s worship service in the chapel space.
Fr. Schneider again acknowledged the important need of having a Catholic priest on base.
“There are so many good young Catholic families that need pastoral care and sacramental life; and so many sailors looking for something more,” he said. He also receives regular inquiries about becoming Catholic.
“Catholics travel pretty well,” he added, noting that it can be a more difficult transition for Protestants overseas.
“Mainly, if you’re not Catholic, you fall within the Protestant block,” he explained, which doesn’t fit many who are used to their State-side hometown church communities and have a harder time adapting to the different service and worship styles.
There are two other priests assigned to the base. One is the head of all the chaplains for the Navy’s Pacific fleet. The other is stationed on the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.
Fr. Schneider did comment there are a “huge amount of nones” and that participation in services across all faiths on base has steadily decreased although he believes it is in part circumstantial due to COVID.
“It’s a matter of constantly reinventing yourself,” he said. Nothing is normal anymore, and for those who were established on base pre-COVID, they are leaving soon.
He confirmed that the coronavirus has provided, despite the challenges, a “good opportunity.”
While the pandemic has restricted the priest’s in-country travel, Fr. Schneider noted how clean and safe he has felt in Japan. He said the police are very good and there is almost no petty crime. This situation makes one feel very safe and many Americans want to stay in Japan after their service ends.
Fr. Schneider called the Japanese people very “service orientated” and having a “great respect for the nature and dignity of each person.”
“When they’re helping you out at the 7-11” – the preferred convenience store he described as “just amazing,” like Kwik Trips in Wisconsin – “they use both hands to give you something back, putting their entire self into it.”
This is particularly striking, he explained, in informal settings. It contributes to what Fr. Schneider described as the more “Christian worldview” he has experienced in the general Japanese culture.
The Japanese Catholic history is a subject of particular interest for the priest, culminating in his one major trip to visit the “Catholic heart” of Japan, in Nagasaki.
Nagasaki is where the persecution of Catholics began in the late 16th century. Less than 50 years after the arrival and successful missionary work of St. Francis Xavier, the government cracked down on foreign influence.
On Feb. 5, 1597, St. Paul Miki and 25 others were martyred in what would become 250 years of struggle and the era of the “hidden Christians.”
“I love the Japanese Catholic history,” Fr. Schneider said.
“It’s struggle, but it’s beautiful,” he said and mentioned Martin Scorcese’s 2016 movie “Silence,” which is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 historical novel.
He explained how, in the early 17th century, once the Japanese leadership realized that violent persecution did not achieve the result of deterring Christians in their belief, they devised a more effective program by seeking Christians to deny their belief rather than die for it.
Christians were required to annually renounce their faith by stepping on the fumi-e, a representation of Jesus or Mary. While he admits it brings up larger questions of how to respond in the face of persecution, Fr. Schneider shared about the generations of Japanese Christians who admirably passed on the faith in secret while publicly agreeing to the renunciation act.
More than 400 people martyred in Japan have been beatified, with 42 of them canonized. The ban of Christianity was lifted in 1873, although that was a complex transition itself.
As another significant Catholic Nagasaki connection, Fr. Schneider spoke of how the second atomic bomb was dropped very near the historically significant Catholic cathedral north of the city’s commercial center and shipyards, decimating more than 70 percent of the area’s Catholic population, many of whom were descendants of the “hidden Christians.”
Referencing the words of Japanese scientist, convert and Servant of God Dr. Takashi Nagai in the eulogy he gave for the bombing victims, Fr. Schneider commented that Dr. Nagai actually called the detonation’s location providential.
Dr. Nagai called the thousands of Catholics who died sacrificial victims God received as expiation for the sins of the war. His assertion was made considering that Nagasaki was a secondary target, as well as how that bombing did bring about the end of conflict and coincided with the Aug. 15 feast of the Assumption.
The Urakami Cathedral, as it was known, was under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception and also known as St. Mary’s. It was only 500 meters from the detonation site. Some charred remains of the original church and statues still stand with the reconstructed cathedral at their side.
Despite the long and complex history between Japan and the United States, Fr. Schneider sees it currently as a “very strong relationship.”
In regards to his presence on base, the priest also sees a strong relationship – in both the Navy’s recognition of the freedom to practice religion and in how the military benefits from its personnel’s practice of religion.
“Everything is ordered ultimately towards the ships mission on the waterfront. Even the chapel is ordered to helping the active duty sailor on the ship and taking care of their families,” he stated. “One of the things we talk a lot about in the Navy is resilience … and statistically, those who are engaged in religious practice are more resilient than those who don’t.”
He said the Navy does as much as possible to assist its enlisted members’ sense of normal, especially being away from family and familiar comforts of home. This includes, Fr. Schneider said, the role of celebrating in divine worship.
“Certainly, that’s a huge part of Americans’ practice of Christmas, Thanksgiving and the New Year; and I am grateful to be able to be here for that.”
“It can be a hard time, a really hard time,” he admitted – especially for first time sailors. “And we we try to offer as much as we can.”
Even those on base or stationed there with immediate family are apart from extended relatives. The Catholic community hosted a potluck the day before Thanksgiving and tries to provide other similar opportunities for fellowship.
Although 2020 was Fr. Schneider’s first Christmas away from home, he said that with the number of Masses, his Christmases even in the U.S. are not like most families’ Christmas morning routines.
He appreciated the Christmas dinner shared with the two other priests in Yokosuka and has similar plans for this year.
“That priestly fraternity was really important and powerful,” he said, adding he is “really grateful” for it.
Continuing the theme of resilience, Fr. Schneider shared his reflections on how that virtue was lived by the Holy Family.
“Resilience is the ability to overcome difficulty – and difficulty all takes different forms,” he said. “I’ve continued to dive into how we often look at the Holy Family as perfect, and that everything was easy. True, they didn’t have to deal with sin, bad attitudes, complaining or other struggles, but the reality is that the Holy Family experienced great difficulty, and suffering.”
He stressed the adjective great, then said, “But they never responded with sin and drawing inwards. Instead, always with a greater amount of love and trust and faith.”
Fr. Schneider paralleled this with the Pieta’s image of Mary holding the dead body of her crucified son at the foot of the cross.
“That’s the sinless, privileged Holy Family?” he mused.
The priest finds that a beautiful reminder. He said how often, when experiencing difficulty, “We can beat ourselves up, blame ourselves” as the cause of suffering as retribution.
“Sometimes, it’s just because life is hard,” he said. “Even if you’re perfect.”
He spoke of a Christian stoicism that even non-religious sailors can relate to. How the reality of suffering as part of the human experience “can give hope and sometimes the will to continue to move on.”
Clarifying that this stoicism needs to be applied with a “right mindset,” Fr. Schneider said there are times that it is better to focus less on what happened or what other people did. What matters more than that is what you can do in the present moment.
“When we have that type of a mindset, it’s amazing the kinds of things we can do and move forward with, and rebuild and fix,” he said.
“That’s ultimately what we want the sailors to be able to do,” and he noted this applies to parish communities, personal hardship and family fallout particularly with the ongoing pandemic in mind.
“Keep on moving forward – we have hope,” he asserted.
“A lot of sailors get stuck in small or seemingly meaningless jobs and need to be reminded of the bigger picture.”
Christians often need to be reminded of the exact same thing he said.
“You have an important part to play – respond in love.”
Fr. Schneider maintains the email address but said that he is not able to respond with frequency. Using that email, he can be communicated with via WhatsApp.
In addition, he can be reach at: Chapel of Hope, Attn: LT Samuel Schneider, PSC 473 Box 10, FPO, AP 96349.