This May and July saw the heavenly birthday of two Jesuits who were born in Europe, but embraced Japan as their second home. On the 20th of May 2020 the Spanish Adolfo Nicolás, former superior general of the Society of Jesus passed away in Tokyo, shortly followed by his Hungarian master and professor, Péter Nemeshegyi on the 13th of June in Budapest at the age of 97.
The two Jesuits, like many of their predecessors throughout the history, spent decades in Japan in missionary work, bringing the Gospel to thousands of locals. While doing so, they were both intermediators as well, enriching the Christian notion of life with the values of the Japanese way of thinking.
Born in 1923 in Budapest, capital of Hungary, Péter Nemeshegyi attended a Lutheran high school. Having finished his legal studies at university, first he worked as a bank clerk. However, he soon felt the call of God, so he entered the Society of Jesus in 1944. He became a Jesuit in times of turmoil.
After World War II drew to its end, the reconstruction of Hungary hardly began when the Communist party commanded an increasingly harsh campaign against all the churches.
His superiors advised him and his associates to leave the country before it was too late, and the religious orders would be banned, as it did took place in 1950; he did so with many of his fellow Jesuits, and first escaped to Austria, and later went to Italy.
It was in Rome where he became a doctor of theology at Pontifical Gregorian University and was ordained a priest in 1952. Then he was sent to missionary work to Japan, where he spent more than 40 years. At Sophia University in Tokyo he taught theology and was professor of patristic studies; he was appointed a dean of the faculty of theology for six years, in which capacity he did a lot for the inculturation of the Catholic teaching and the formation of the Japanese theological and liturgical language.
He oversaw the Japanese translation of the Bible and the Church Fathers, authored more than two dozen books and essays in Japanese. Between 1969 and 1974 Pope Paul VI. appointed him as member of the International Theological Commission, and also worked in the Society of Japanese Christian Scholars. He launched the series of the local Catholic Encyclopaedia and held university lectures on various subjects, including the morals and lessons of Mozart’s music.
Besides his scientific activity, he was involved in apostolic work, too, bringing the Christian faith to hundreds of Japanese believers.
He returned to Hungary in 1993 for “missionary work”, and did more or less the same as he had done in Japan, but this time in his native land. He worked as professor at theology, published several books, guided spiritual retreats, soon becoming a spiritual authority, especially with his famous sermons at the Jesuit church in Budapest. He remained active even when he was well above 90 years of age and lived in a home for the elderly, using wheelchair to fulfil his duties.
He was a person for whom the words “a living legend” are neither a banal commonplace nor undeserved exaggeration.
What is more, he has always been a man of God and a friend of Jesus, who was able to be a distinguished scholar and to convey the Christian message with simple and expressive words for anyone to understand. And a man whose death does not bear only grief and mourning, but first of all deep gratitude for a rich and fruitful life of someone with whom we were privileged to be contemporaries.
Péter Nemeshegyi’s funeral mass will be held on the 2nd of July at 6 pm in the Sacred Heart Jesuit Church in Budapest.
Obituary by By Robert Chiesa, SJ (Japan Province Secretary)
How can one even begin to recount and evaluate the enormous contribution Fr Péter Nemeshegyi made to the Church in Japan in the wake of the Second Vatican Council? Through his lectures to seminarians and lay people and through his many publications, both academic and popular, he exerted deep and wide-ranging influence on the post-conciliar Church in Japan. Then, upon the fall of the Communist regime in Hungary, he did not hesitate to follow the call of the Spirit to do the same in his own native land, where the results of Vatican II were still hardly known.
Nemeshegyi Péter (to use the normal Hungarian order of names) was born in Budapest, Hungary, on January 27, 1923 and was baptized on March 4. He was blessed with a happy childhood in a pious and cultured family. Péter’s father was a pianist who studied under the great Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók, and his mother was an opera singer, so he grew up surrounded by music. After graduating from a Lutheran high school (Fasori Lutheran Gimnázium), he studied law at the Royal Hungarian Péter Pázmány University and got a doctorate in political science. At that time, he could already handle French, German, and English.
On October 3, 1944, at the age of 21, Péter entered the Society of Jesus in Budapest. His mother had died many years earlier and his father passed on just two weeks before Péter entered the Society.
Thanks to his father’s influence, he himself was also a very talented piano player and could play classical music from memory.
This extraordinary memory was a great help to him in his further studies and future lectures.
At the time he entered the Society, Hungary, especially around Budapest, was afire with daily bombardments and fighting between the German and Soviet armies. After Christmas, in the cold of winter, the Master of Novices along with the novices left the novitiate and trudged 8 days 100 km to the south for a safer and quieter place in Kalocsa. Péter was a popular figure in the novitiate community, on account of his ever-smiling face and his readiness to help others. After a few months they moved on to Szeged, where Péter pronounced his first vows in the Society.
While he was studying philosophy at Szeged, Superiors considered that it was no longer possible for the young Jesuits to continue their studies for the priesthood in Hungary. Péter and many companions, secretly at night and at great risk, crossed over into Austria through the barbed wire barrier set up by the Red Army. The saga of these years is recounted in his autobiographical Pepi no Seishun Monogatari – Hangarī no Sensō to Heiwa (The Tale of Pepi’s Youth—War and Peace in Hungary, 1989).
Péter thus continued his study of philosophy in Innsbruck, Austria (until 1949), then did his theology studies in Rome (1949~53), where he was ordained to the priesthood on July 12, 1952. After a year of tertianship at St Beuno’s in Wales under Fr Edward Helsham, he studied for a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University (1954~56). His doctoral thesis, published in 1960, was La paternité de Dieu chez Origène (The Paternity of God according to Origen).
The Hungarian Jesuits who arrived in Japan after World War II were first destined for the Hungarian Province’s mission in China, but when that was no longer accessible after the Communist takeover, they went to Japan in answer to Fr General’s request for missionaries in post-war Japan.
Fr Nemeshegyi was the last of these to arrive in Japan. That was on October 6, 1956. While studying Japanese on his own, he immediately began teaching theology (in Latin) to candidates for the priesthood at St Mary’s College in Kamishakujii, Tokyo. He pronounced his final vows there on February 2, 1962.
Fr Paolo Dezza was in Japan from Rome at the time preparing for an official inauguration of the Ecclesistical Faculty of Theology. The Faculty was approved in Rome in 1956 and two years later, in 1958, the Japanese Ministry of Education gave its approval to establish a Faculty of Theology in Sophia University. Fr Nemeshegyi became a professor in that faculty, a position he held until his retirement at the age of 70 in 1993. He was Dean of the Faculty twice (1964~70 and 1973~78).
Students of his in the Interdiocesan Seminary and the Jesuit Scholasticate remember his lectures on traditional tracts, such as Grace, the Trinity, and the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Orders. The archival library of books published by Jesuits of the Japan Province contains 45 items written by him. Not all of these can be commemorated here. Among the first to appear, after the doctoral thesis already mentioned, were three of his basic lecture tractates:Kami no Megumi no Shingaku (Theology of God’s Grace, 1966), Shu no Bansan (The Lord’s Supper, 1968), and Chichi to Ko to Seirei (Father, Son, and Spirit, 1970). He was also overseeing translations of important Christian classics–works of Augustine, Ambrose, Cyprian, Leo I, and the Letter to Diognetos.
Thanks to his deep understanding and colossal knowledge of theology, he was appointed for some time to the International Commission of Theologians and was often asked to give lectures outside Japan, in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere.
Not being able to refuse any request, he gave innumerable conferences and retreats all over Japan in his lively, gesticulating style, which often brought smiles to the faces of his audience.
His classes for catechumens were always crowded. His kind manner, easily understandable and deep explanations appealed to the many people who listened to him. His first summaries of Christian doctrine were Kami yori Kami e (From God and To God) in 1968, Iesu wo Aogu (Looking up to Jesus) in 1972, and in the same year in English A Commentary to the New Japanese
Catechism. But the book which has been in the hands of many a catechist and catechumen for decades is Kirisutokyō to wa Nani ka (1977), which has been reissued a number of times, the 22nd reprinting occurring as recently as 2018, and which also appeared in English as The Meaning of Christianity (1982).
Fr Nemeshegyi’s poetic inclination is evident in the titles he gave a number of books of spiritual theology, like Himawari (Sunflower, 1971), Yuki no Hana (Snow Flower, 1975), Tanpopo (Dandelion, 1976), Hotaru (Firefly, 1979), Hibari (Skylark, 1983), and Niji (Rainbow, 1993). A number of books are collections of articles he wrote for the Catholic monthly Seibo no Kishi (Knights of the Immaculata): Ai to Inochi (Love and Life, 1987), Ai to Megumi (Love and Grace, 1988), Ai to Heiwa (Love and Peace, 1990), Kami no Kotoba to Hiseki (God’s Word and Sacrament, 1991), Ai to Yurushi (Love and Forgiveness, 1992), and Ai to Eien (Love and Eternity, 1993). We cannot enumerate here the many other items he contributed to Catholic magazines and educational bulletins.
Additionally, he became a great fan of Mozart and for years gave a very popular course on Mozart, which eventually resulted in Nihon no Wakamono no Mozart (Mozart for Japanese Youth, 1993).
His pianist father was more interested in Chopin and Debussy, and so, as Péter himself said, it wasn’t until he was 40 years old that he was captivated by the music of Mozart. And how surprised and gratified he was to learn that he and Mozart shared the same birthday, January 27!
Nothing has been said so far about Fr Nemeshegyi’s role in inaugurating the Shin Katorikku Daijiten (New Catholic Encyclopedia). The whole idea of such a project was broached in November 1977 as an undertaking befitting the coming 70th anniversary of Sophia University in 1983. An editorial board was formally inaugurated with Fr Nemeshegyi as chairperson in February 1979. A list of items to be covered and articles to be authored was drawn up. The list was gradually revised, and articles were solicited, especially once Fr Takayanagi Shun’ichi succeeded to the chairmanship in 1991. The first of what was to become a 4-volume work finally appeared in 1996, already 3 years after the 80th anniversary of the university and 3 years after Fr Nemeshegyi had left Japan.
Fr Péter Nemeshegyi loved Japan very much and it was surely a great sacrifice for him to be summoned to his home country in May 1993, upon retirement from the university, to engage in a further apostolate there after the collapse of the Communist regime. But when asked to lend his talents and energies to building up the newly established Hungarian Province and bring the Church into step with the reforms of Vatican II, he responded promptly and wholeheartedly. Over almost 30 years, he served as Jesuit community superior, taught at the Apor Vilmos Catholic College, the Sapientia College of Theology, and the Károli Gáspár Protestant University, served as president of the Hungarian Patristic Society, did pastoral work, gave the Spiritual Exercises and, of course, continued to write, now in his native Hungarian. The last translation into Hungarian he undertook was Endō Shūsaku’s Obaka-san (Wonderful Fool). Unfortunately, he was not able to finish the last 20 pages of it.
Details of his “second career” in his native Hungary will be told by members of the Hungarian Province. What has been recounted above was drawn greatly from some of his own writings, the Japan Province archives, and an account presented in 1994 by Fr Gellért Béky (of happy memory) in preparation for Fr Nemeghegyi’s golden jubilee in the Society. Fr Béky had entered the Society a year earlier, and he himself also underwent the novitiate experiences recounted above.
Fr Nemeshegyi spent the last few years of his life in the final mission given to Jesuits: “praying for the Church and the Society” until he passed over quietly to the Lord early in the morning of June 13, 2020. He was 97 years old and had been a Jesuit for over 65 years.
The following antiphon from the Liturgy of the Hours praising Doctors of the Church can well be applied to Fr Péter Nemeshegyi: Those who are learned will be as radiant as the sky in all its beauty. Those who instruct the people in goodness will shine like the stars for all eternity.