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The priests who survived the atomic bomb

The remarkable survival of the Jesuit Fathers in Hiroshima has echoes in the Bible and in the story of Fatima

By on Thursday, 5 August 2010

The priests who survived the atomic bomb

This Friday, August 6, will see the Feast of the Transfiguration celebrated in the Church. It commemorates the occasion when Christ, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, went up a high mountain – traditionally identified with Mount Tabor in Galilee – and was there “transfigured” before them, so that “his face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as light” (Mt 17:2).

The Greek word for transfiguration is metemorphothe, from which we get the word “metamorphosis”. So the Transfiguration was a complete and stunning change in the appearance of Jesus, as his divinity shone through his humanity, in a way which completely overwhelmed the awestricken disciples. Its purpose was to prepare them for the reality of the crucifixion, so that having once seen – in some sense – his divinity, they would be strengthened in their faith.

August 6 is also an important date in world history: the fateful day on which the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. On that day, a Monday, at 8.15 in the morning, an American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, dropped its bomb “Little Boy”, which fell to a predetermined detonation height of about 1,900 feet above the city. It exploded with a blinding flash, creating a giant fireball, which vaporised practically everything and everyone within a radius of about a mile of the point of impact. It is estimated that up to 80,000 people were directly killed by the blast, and by the end of the year, that figure had climbed considerably higher, due to injuries and the effects of radiation. Over two thirds of the city’s buildings were completely destroyed.

But in the midst of this terrible carnage, something quite remarkable happened: there was a small community of Jesuit Fathers living in a presbytery near the parish church, which was situated less than a mile away from detonation point, well within the radius of total devastation. And all eight members of this community escaped virtually unscathed from the effects of the bomb. Their presbytery remained standing, while the buildings all around, virtually as far as the eye could see, were flattened.

Fr Hubert Schiffer, a German Jesuit, was one of these survivors, aged 30 at the time of the explosion, and who lived to the age of 63 in good health. In later years he travelled to speak of his experience, and this is his testimony as recorded in 1976, when all eight of the Jesuits were still alive. On August 6 1945, after saying Mass, he had just sat down to breakfast when there was a bright flash of light.

Since Hiroshima had military facilities, he assumed there must have been some sort of explosion at the harbour, but almost immediately he recounted: “A terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunderstroke. An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me [and] whirled me round and round…” He raised himself from the ground and looked around, but could see nothing in any direction. Everything had been devastated.

He had a few quite minor injuries, but nothing serious, and indeed later examinations at the hands of American army doctors and scientists showed that neither he nor his companions had suffered ill-effects from radiation damage or the bomb. Along with his fellow Jesuits, Fr Schiffer believed “that we survived because we were living the message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the rosary daily in that home.”

There is actually a biblical precedent for what happened to the eight Jesuits, in the book of Daniel. In Chapter 3, we read of the three young men who were thrown into the fiery furnace at the orders of Nebuchadnezzar, but who survived their ordeal and even walked around in the midst of the flames, accompanied by an angel who looked like “a son of the gods”.

After this first bombing, the Japanese government refused to surrender unconditionally, and so a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki three days later on August 9. Nagasaki had actually been the secondary target, but cloud cover over the primary target, Kokura, saved it from obliteration on the day. The supreme irony is that Nagasaki was the city where two-thirds of the Catholics in Japan were concentrated, and so after centuries of persecution they suffered this terrible blow right at the end of the war.

But in a strange parallel to what happened at Hiroshima, the Franciscan Friary established by St Maximilian Kolbe in Nagasaki before the war was likewise unaffected by the bomb which fell there. St Maximilian, who was well-known for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin, had decided to go against the advice he had been given to build his friary in a certain location. When the bomb was dropped, the friary was protected from the force of the bomb by an intervening mountain. So both at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can see Mary’s protective hand at work.

The apparitions at Fatima in Portugal took place in 1917, when from May to October three young children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, and their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, saw the Blessed Virgin six times, culminating in the “miracle of the sun” on October 13, when 70,000 people saw the sun spin in the sky and change colour successively, before falling to the earth in a terrifying manner. Many of those present thought it was the end of the world, but the sun reassumed its place in the sky to great cries of relief.

The essence of the Fatima message concerns conversion from sin and a return to God, and involves reparation for one’s own sins and the sins of others, as well as the offering up of one’s daily sufferings and trials. There was also a focus on prayer and the Eucharist at Fatima, and particularly the rosary, as well as the Five First Saturdays devotion, which involves Confession, Holy Communion, the rosary and meditation, for five consecutive months with the intention of making reparation to Our Lady (for more details visit Theotokos.org.uk).

It’s interesting to reflect, then, on the theme of “transfiguration” which links these various events. Christ’s face shone like the sun on Mount Tabor, and at Fatima, Our Lady worked the great miracle of the sun to convince the huge crowd which had gathered there that the message she was giving to mankind was authentic. Consider, too, that the poor people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered as man-made “suns” exploded in their midst causing horrific devastation. But at Hiroshima the eight Jesuits, who were living the message of Fatima, and particularly the daily rosary, were somehow “transfigured,” protected by God’s divine power, from the terrible effects of the bomb.

Surely there is a message here for all of us, that living the message of Fatima, in a world which grows ever more dangerous, and which is still threatened by nuclear war, is as profound a necessity for us as it was for Fr Schiffer and his companions.

  • home

    Awesome. Pray the Rosary daily, or else!

  • Sdent

    But what about the Catholic Communities in Nagasaki, the Hansai?

  • Jdandrow

    I am sure there were some Catholics who were victims of the bomb. But the fact that these priests were spared is miraculous .
    God will do the miraculous to draw peoples attention to his goodness and presence in the midst of evil,to call us closer to Him and his ability to bring good out of evil. It also shows us His providential care and omnipotence.
    The same circumstances of this miracle that call us to pray the Rosary also call us to recognize that we all will have to share in it's mysteries, including the sorrowful. But if we do this in union with God, as Jesus and Mary did then we will find that nothing is impossible and that he truely does suffer with us.

  • Mark

    Thank you for the wonderful article. Not many people “live the message of Fatima” these days, which is shameful. The message is still relevant and it is evident that we are experiencing the results of not heading God's command through Our Lady at Fatima. The horrible happenings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki will pale in comparison to what will happen to mankind if the church does not head Our Lady's request. The consecration of Russia has not been accomplished and as a result has not been converted and we are not living the period of peace promised by Our Lady if our Holy Father would consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart. We must “pray much for our Holy Father” and “live the message” daily and may the Immaculate Heart of Mary triumph!

  • Eric

    What about the Catholic communties in Nagasaki was asked. One of the nuns said that they considered their lives the sacrifice acceptable to the Almighty – as war is a direct consequence of sin, and sin as we know it is a direct affront to God.
    We've been warned by Mother Theresa of Calcutta that America risks atomic ruin if it does not stop abortion – and what have we done with that warning – elect officials who mock God, His natural law and appoint women to the US Supreme Court who promote partial birth abortion.

    This country is hanging by a thread.

  • john-gerard

    I realize that America is in a perilous state because of abortion, contraception, etc. But I wonder about why people don't seem ever to mention OTHER countries as being EQUALLY at risk. After all, there are 40-million abortions EVERY YEAR around the WORLD. Furthermore, what about the Muslims — so many of them are persecutors of Christians, and murderers, such as happens in the Sudan and Nigeria. Why do these prophecies seem to apply to us alone? Isn't this a bit of over-dramatization of our plight, saying that America is uniquely at risk? No… the whole world is at risk!!!

  • http://twitter.com/teriyo Eterio Herrera

    We are just Thankful to GOD that 2 H-BOMB was not repeated back and scientist are only using the Hadron Collider to study the effect of the Atoms one of the source of the power of the omnipotent almighty Creator of the Universe.

  • Peterman

    I'm not sure where you're reading all the prophecy about America. I've read through many including Desmond Birch's book and Yves Dupont's “Catholic Prophecy”. These hardly mention America. Europe, and the future Roman Empire (that rules the world) yes, but America, hardly at all. But it's just common sense that the US will be chastised. Too much abortion, contraception, porn, weapons, and bad movies/culture flow out of the US into the rest of the world for this country not to get chastised.

  • amused

    You guys are just crazier than a pack of addicted monkeys trying to open a lock box of cocaine. Thanks for the entertainment, and keep it up. As long as you're home praying your rosaries, you can't hurt anybody else with this nonsense.

  • bluecoral

    True, the world is at risk, but America is “uniquely” at risk because our blessed nation influences the world. Our country uses millions of dollars to offer to fund birth control in other countries i.e., the Phlippines which created a dilemma since some of the laws were created under catholic influence. That country also does not allow divorces and abortion. As for the movies, many rich and third world countries import U.S. films including porn which are sometimes deemed illegal to produce. Some people admire America since it was founded by “freedom.”

  • Lee

    Does anyone know where there is actual documentation of the good health of the priests involved? Sorry, but I've seen this story circulating for years and never any “real” proof…. like copies of medical records… etc.

  • Josefina Ponciano-AlbisObeedoc

    I like this article very much and want to share this to other people. The Information is very relevant in our present time. Everyday i read the articles in spiritdaily.com. Thank you for your wonderful apostolate.

  • Tom

    I actually met one of the nuns back in the mid 90's who was at the epicenter of the bomb. She was in her mid-80's when I met her, and I'll never forget her name. Sister Mary Christmas. It was at the convent where St. Bernadette's body is incorrupt in Naverre, France where I met her. What an amazing woman!

  • Marie Ostermann

    The consecration of Russia and the world was indeed accomplished. That is the position of Sr. Lucia, the Pope, and the official position of the Church. Either one is one in mind and heart with the Church or one sets oneself against Her…which is one of the many sins that offend Our Lord and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. What has not been done is the Communions of reparation on the First Saturday of the month. Our Lady asked for the consecration of Russia AND the Communions of repartion in order to avoid the “annihilation of nations”. Jesus later appeared to Sr. Lucia and told her that the Pope must promise: “At the conclusion of this persecution (of Russia) he will approve and recommend the practice of the devotion of reparation mentioned above.” Who will help me promulgate this in parishes to support this effort to prevent the chastisement? info@wafpdx.org

  • Marie Ostermann

    I know a priest who knew and spoke to Fr. Schiffer personally. He is located at the Blue Army Shrine in Washington, NJ. His name is Fr. Ruge. The number at the Shrine is (908) 689-1701.

  • Tony R

    For those who have been given much, much is to be expected. This country was Blessed more than any other in the history of the world for a specific purpose. In the late 60's we decided we did it all ourselves and turned our backs on God.

  • Martin

    The source of the story, which has not been accurately recounted here, is an eye-witness report written by Fr. Siemes SJ for the journal “Jesuit Missions” some time before 11 February 1946 when an edited version of it was published in “Time Magazine” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,917

    The full account can be found at the website of the Avalon Project of Yale Law School where it forms chapter 25 of a report by the Manhattan Engineer District (sic) of the US Army: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/mp25.asp

    Fr. Siemes was at the novitiate, some 6 kms from the detonation zone. He suffered minor cuts from broken glass. The south-east section of the novitiate was severely damaged, but the wooden building itself, with the adjoining chapel, remained intact, both having been strengthened by Brother Gropper. Other wooden buildings in the vicinity of the novitiate were still standing, although some had caught fire – later extinguished by a providential downpour. Clearly, there was nothing miraculous about the survival of the novitiate, or about the relatively minor injuries sustained by the eight or nine priests who were there (having previously been evacuated from the Mission in Tokyo).

    At the parish mission and school in the centre of Hiroshima, there were four priests two of whom were badly injured, and two of whom were not. Fr. Schiffer SJ (mentioned in the article above as having escaped “virtually unscathed”) had been buried by a portion of a wall that collapsed on him, suffering head injuries including a deep incision behind one ear which caused so much loss of blood that his rescuers feared for his life.

    The church and school were destroyed by the initial blast, but the priests' wooden house remained standing – it, too, having been strengthened by Brother Gropper. It burned down overnight in the general conflagration which consumed the city. No miracle here either.

    Nothing in Fr. Siemes' version suggests anything remarkable (let alone miraculous) about the immediate survival of the Jesuits or of their various buildings. The exposure to radiation of the four priests in the city centre and of the rescue party from the novitiate who brought them out is, of course, another matter. Nothing, however, is to be gained from hagiographic excess.

  • RidersontheStorm

    Penance, Penance, Penance

  • Mary

    There are so many miracles through the intercession of Our Blessed Mother in the rosary. The power of the rosary, especially prayed in a group, is boundless.

  • JEFF

    The Jesuit Priests were the people responsible for setting up the bomb in Hiroshima! they were’nt saved by God. The Most High hates the pagan roman catholic church – The great whore in revelations. It was a magnesium flash bomb that was dropped by plane, the detonation was ground based both mixed together looked like the classic mushroom.
    Fatima was the devil in disguise, says nothing in the KJV bible about praying to mary or the rosary or following the doctrine of dirty old men, says also priests should be married not single and not paedophiles either…

  • Mr. Martin Savage

    Martin, good measured response – prudence forbids blind obedience after all.

    However, if one couples the above story with the accounts from the three poor Portuguese infants who in 1917 prophesied:

    - An end soon to the then Great War (America fires first shots in western front two week later and the sun begins to set on the day of war).
    - A world chastisement by means of the spreading of the ‘errors of Russia’ (Russian Revolution explodes two weeks later and the sun dawns on the day of errors).
    - A more terrible war will come announced by a sign in the sky (25 Jan 1938 London Times reports Aurora Borealis across the whole of Europe “from Budapest to Gibraltar” and two weeks later Hitler appoints himself Supreme Commander of the German Army and immediately organises the Annex of Austria. The sun rises on the second day of war).
    - A vision where a descending fire-ball from heaven looked to be about to consume the whole Earth only to be extinguished by Our Lady who stands in the way (Hiroshima, Nagisaki…)

    Surley it is imprudent, if not willful blindness to ignore these unexplainable elements here?

  • Fullerton54

    I will cotinue to pray the rosay daily,Jesus,Mary,Joseph.

  • Fullerton54

    I will continue too pray the rosary daily,sorry about thr spelling mistake,Jesus,Mary,Joseph.

  • Dominic Higgins

    Major Oak Entertainment is producing a new feature film on
    the life of Dr. Takashi Nagai, scientist, Catholic convert and survivor of the
    atomic bombing of Nagasaki, but needs your help to make it happen. Please visit
    - http://www.indiegogo.com/All-That-Remains?a=152526&i=addr

  • Sweetjae

    Right on the mark! Sad indeed when good is considered evil and evil is good.

  • Walt

     “To those much has been given, much is expected.”  True, the entire world is on a tail spin course, being saturated with evil, however, clearly and in particular we in America have been particularly blessed in virtually all manners.  This is not egoism simply a factual observation.  Given this, if, hypothetically, is accepted as factual, we will have the greatest “debt” to pay;  as well we should. 

  • Walt

    When considering the current horrific state of affairs throughout our world,  I take great solace in recalling the vision of Pope Leo XIII’s vision.  After saying Mass in October of 1884 at the Vatican he went into a sort of ecstasy and heard the voices of our Lord and satan (de-emphasis my intent).  Satan stated to our Lord that, granted enough time. he could destroy our Lord’s Church.  Our Lord asked how much time he would need and was told 100 years.  Our Lord granted satan his request.  Of course, a price would be exacted upon satan’s actions at the conclusion of this test.  I believe we are at the end of this rather “successful” experiment by satan; we are on the cusp of experiencing the “payback” for our sinfullness and satan is taking his last, albeit, strong breaths……..