Yamao Ritsko, known in her native Japan as Yamao-san, was a catechist at Momoyama parish in the Kyoto Diocese, where I began my Overseas Training Program as a Maryknoll seminarian in 1993. She took care of the parish books, played the piano or organ at Sunday Mass, and was the rectory cook. “Without her, the parish would collapse,” said Maryknoll Father Joe Luckey, the pastor. I soon experienced the fruits of her generosity.
Besides cooking my meals, she mentored me. When I needed to give a reflection at Mass, she corrected my Japanese. On a home visit, I told my mother about this wonderful woman. “She is your Japanese mother,” my mother said. How true!
When I was transferred to Hokkaido, she continued helping me with my weekly reflections. I would fax my jottings to her, which she would edit and send back. On the phone I would practice my homily. Like any mother, Yamao-san wanted me to do well.
After my ordination in 1997, I was assigned to Japan, and went to the Momoyama parish to celebrate my first Mass. What a joy it was to share this sacred moment with people who were like family to me, especially Yamao-san.
One day she asked to see me. She needed to tell me in person that she had stomach cancer. Yamao-san acknowledged she had always related to me as her son, but today, she said, I was her priest.
She kept visiting her doctor, Dr. Mishima. He saw what a big-hearted woman she was and how she handled her suffering with dignity. He began to fall in love with her.
Dr. Mishima was a widower. He was not a Catholic but knew much about the Bible and considered himself a spiritual man. He wanted to give Yamao-san a new life before she died, and he proposed marriage to her. At first, she refused. But three days later she asked if I would preside at their marriage.
Her new husband took her around Japan to see the many beautiful places that were new to her. Unfortunately, it was not long before he called to tell me Yamao-san had only two months to live. I was heartsick and visited as often as possible.
Eventually, Yamao-san was hospitalized. One day while visiting her, I asked her, “How is it that you didn’t get married at a young age?”
She shared her story, which, she said, she had never told anyone. She was born in Manchuria, when her father, a Japanese military officer, was stationed there. Baptized as a baby, she was given the name Bernadette. When she was young, she entered a Carmelite Convent, where she contributed her beautiful singing voice and played different musical instruments. But before her final vows, she decided this wasn’t to be her life. Instead, she dedicated her life to helping missionary priests.
As I listened to her, I thought, “What a life of private service!”
I kept visiting her. We never spoke about death, but I knew she was ready. Then early one morning her husband called to tell me Yamao-san had passed away peacefully in her sleep.
Two days later was the funeral, and I was the celebrant. During my homily I said, “Now I am burying my mother. Even at her funeral she is teaching me what it means to be a missionary priest.”
It was providential that God brought me here to meet her. She became a missioner through relationships with other missioners, including me. I will always be grateful to God for the gift of my Japanese mother.
Featured image: Dr. Mishima and Yamao Ritsko pose for a picture on their wedding day in Momoyama parish in Japan’s Kyoto Diocese, where Maryknoll Father Alfonso Kim first met the bride and later presided at her wedding and funeral. (Alfonso Kim/Japan)