Remembering Hiroshima: Pedro Arrupe’s story

This year is the centenary of the birth of Pedro Arrupe, the former Jesuit Superior General. He was present at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. In both what he said and what he does not say he provokes reflection on the meaning of Hiroshima.

  Jesuit writer Andrew Hamilton produces here an account of the bombing of Hiroshima the 62nd anniversary of which we commemorated earlier this month (6 August).

This year is the centenary of the birth of Pedro Arrupe, the former Jesuit Superior General. He was present at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. In both what he said and what he does not say he provokes reflection on the meaning of Hiroshima.

Pedro Arrupe was a Basque. He studied medicine, then entered the Jesuits. In his noviceship he felt a call to become a missionary in Japan. It was not until after he was ordained that he had the opportunity to go there. Although he was tolerated as a citizen of neutral Spain, he was imprisoned for some time on suspicion of spying. But he was able to serve as novice master in Hiroshima, and was there on 6 August 1945.

Pedro’s account

Here is an edited version of his experience after the bomb fell on Hiroshima:

‘I was in my room with another priest at 8.15 when suddenly we saw a blinding light, like a flash of magnesium. As I opened the door which faced the city, we heard a formidable explosion similar to the blast of a hurricane. At the same time doors, windows and walls fell on us in smithereens. From atop a nearby hill we could see a ruined city—a decimated Hiroshima. Since it was at a time when the first meal was being prepared in all the kitchens, the entire city became one enormous flake of fire in two and a half hours. I shall never forget my first sight of the result of the atomic bomb: a group of young women, 18 or 20 years old, clinging to one another as they dragged themselves along the road.

We continued looking for some way of entering the city, but it was impossible. We did the only thing that could be done in the presence of such mass slaughter: we fell on our knees and prayed for guidance, as we were destitute of all human help. The following day, before beginning to take care of the wounded and bury the dead, I celebrated Mass at 5am in the house. In these very moments one feels closer to God, and more deeply the value of God’s aid. Actually the surroundings did not foster devotion for the celebration of the Mass. The chapel, half destroyed, was overflowing with the wounded, lying on the floor near one another, suffering terribly, twisted with pain.’

A view from within

Pedro Arrupe’s view of the bombing of Hiroshima is from within it. He is inside when it happens, tries to find out what happened, and then becomes preoccupied with tending to the injured. He was a doctor. In his account, Pedro Arrupe says little of the day before. It was apparently a lovely sunny day in a city that had become used to relative peace, so the arrival of the aircraft caused no great alarm. Then came the explosion. To our contemporary moral sensibility, the barbarity of the bombing emerges more clearly from this outdoor view. A defeated air force, a completely unprotected city visited at will by enemy aircraft, a city full of people preparing breakfast about to be made a laboratory to test the effects of new weapons. It is an image of man’s inhumanity to man.

Pedro Arrupe, however, reflected little on the morality of the bombing—for him, as for anyone who is the object of military action, lethal force was one of the necessities you had to endure in war. He focused on how the Jesuits could be of service: Japan had just gone through a deep-seated crisis. The Emperor was God and therefore invincible. Then suddenly came the unconditional surrender and the Emperor said: ‘I am not God’. This was a complete material and spiritual rupture. And we Jesuits who did not recognise the Emperor as God (from whence came imprisonment, persecutions, and continual suspicions), then defended the Emperor. ‘He is not God’, we used to say to the Japanese, ‘but he is the representative of God, he holds the authority: you ought to follow him.’

A view from a distance 

It was only slowly that the moral horror of the bombing became generally recognised. This was partly because those who had leisure for moral reflection lived mainly in the victorious nations. It was also partly because of the way in which Just War theory was commonly interpreted. One of the interlocked criteria in this theory was whether the harm caused was proportional to the intended action.

Pedro’s legacy

Pedro Arrupe’s contribution was significant in that he helped people to become aware of the human reality of the bombing. In his account the bomb is clearly seen to have contributed less to military strategy than to the suffering of innocent human beings. It created a world that needs to be healed. His insights into Hiroshima flowed into his contribution as Jesuit General. In his discussion of the ways Jesuits should serve the contemporary world, he focused simultaneously on the very large question of where God is leading us and on the small mystery in each human face.

Pedro Arrupe’s account, too, leads us to recognise two forms of intellectual curiosity: the curiosity of the scientists who conceived and designed the bomb and his own—that of a doctor and priest—about the human effects of the bomb and how to address them.

We may see in the devastated plain that marked the centre of Hiroshima the beginnings of the contemporary environmental sensibility.

Hiroshima suggested that even peaceful technologies could be destructive in the long term. An increasing number of people became interested in the environment. The movement has gathered force around the reality and threat of global warming.

Finally, in Pedro Arrupe’s description of the Mass on the day after the bomb fell, we can see a tension in religious sensibility that remains with us. He describes the presence of the sick and wounded as not fostering devotion. On the other hand his hospitality to the sick and wounded placed them at the centre of the mystery that he was celebrating. He leaves us with the question of how we bring together the different aspects of devotion: the presence of God in prayer and silence, and the presence of God in the world’s wounded. He did not solve this question, but characteristically he modelled personally under great pressure how we might address it.

This account was first published in the Jesuit online magazine, Eureka Street. An unedited version is on the Wel-com website:

In Wellington, there is a ceremony to mark Horoshima Day this afternoon (5 August) at 1.30 at the Hiroshima Peace Flame in the Botanical Gardens.