The Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan (6 February)

Yesterday, 5 February, we recalled the martyrdom of the young virgin Agatha (+251), whose memory is venerated perpetually in the Roman Canon. In a lesser known event on that same date in 1597, twenty-six Japanese Catholics were hoisted upon crosses and thus received unfading crowns of glory from the hand of the Chief Shepherd. So valorous was the testimony of these martyrs that their own proper feast is celebrated the following day (according to the revised calendar of 1969), in order that their memory not be obscured by St. Agatha. In the Martyrology, immediately following Agatha’s citation among the saints of 5 February, we find this text:

Nangasachii, in Japonia, passio viginti sex Martyrum, e quibus tres Sacerdotes atque unus Clericus et duo Laici ad Ordinem Minorum, tres, et in eis unus quidem Clericus, ad Societatem Jesu, ac septemdecim ad tertium sancti Francisci Ordinem revocantur. Hi omnes pro catholica fide, in crucem acti et lancearum ictibus perfossi, inter divinas laudes ejusdemque fidei praedicationem, gloriose occubuerunt; et a [Beato] Pio Nono, Pontifice Maximo, Sanctorum fastis adscripti sunt.

At Nagasaki in Japan, the suffering of twenty-six Martyrs, among which were three priests with one cleric and two laypersons of the Friars Minor; three, including one cleric, of the Society of Jesus; and seventeen of the Third Order of St. Francis. All these, for the Catholic Faith, having been raised upon crosses and impaled with spears, while preaching the faith amidst giving divine praises, gloriously expired; and by Blessed Pius IX, Supreme Pontiff, they were enrolled into the calendar of Saints.

To understand the story of these martyrs, we must go back a few years to the origin of Christian missionary activity in Japan, begun by the indomitable St. Francis Xavier, SJ, in 1549, and continued under Alessandro Valignano, SJ, Apostolic Visitor to the Far East from 1578 onward. Spending only until 1551 in Japan, Francis had difficulty making inroads into Japanese culture, converting very few, but nevertheless planting the seeds for his Jesuit brothers who would come after him. Unlike his experience with Indian and Chinese languages, Francis struggled to master the Japanese idiom, for European contact with the archipelago was less than a decade old when he first set foot in Japan. The small Christian communities he founded were nevertheless very devoted to the faith, and eventually the rate of conversion increased such that by the time Valignano arrived in Asia, Christ had already claimed over 100,000 souls; all of this is remarkable from the fact that Japan never fell under the colonial yoke which bound other Asian peoples (like the Filipinos).

Valignano, unlike Francis Xavier, expended much effort into the education of Jesuit missionaries in Japanese language and culture. Two years of intensive study in the local tongue was made a requirement, while in Japan itself, the Jesuits adopted many of the cultural forms– food, dress, modes of address, etc., in order to bolster catechetical campaigns. Japanese men were integrated in the Society to a greater extent. Under Valignano’s watch, the Jesuits eventually published a Japanese dictionary and grammar texts, as well as biographies of saints; through his linguistically-rigorous approach to priestly formation and his adoption of certain Japanese cultural forms, Valignano became the driving force behind European-Japanese cross-cultural exchange. A young Japanese man named Miki was one of many Jesuit-educated youths under Valignano’s tenure, and he joined the Jesuit order as a seminarian, taking the Christian given name Paulo.

Paulo Miki he not only translated for his Jesuit brothers but earned fame as a preacher in his own right, winning converts to the Church by his fervent orations and eloquent ways. Through his efforts and the efforts of many like him, the Church in Japan grew such that dozens of daimyo (feudal lords) and 200,000 Japanese were Christian by the last 25 years of the 16th century. Locals flocked not only to the Jesuits but also to Dominicans and Franciscans, and it was not uncommon that in Christian communities the laypeople would join the Third Order of St. Francis.

By 1590, the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi had subjugated Japan under his control and, like other non-Christian lords, became wary of European influence in Japan. Three years earlier, he had issued a decree for the lands under his control, banning therein the Catholic religion. As the 17th century approached, Hideyoshi continued to consolidate power; he set his sights on controlling the highly Christianized port city of Nagasaki, the precious gateway to European trade. Spurred by false reports of forced conversions, slavery, and outright desecration of Buddhist practices (among other things), in early 1597 Hideyoshi decided to make a dramatic statement to both the missionaries and to the Japanese people of Nagasaki who would follow them.

After arresting Paulo Miki and twenty-fve other Christians (including the 12-year old Luis Ibaraki and two more youths), Hideyoshi forced them to march nearly 600 miles from Kyoto to Nagasaki, though this ordeal could scarcely dampen their spirits, for they repeatedly prayed with zeal, singing with great joy Te Deum Laudamus in anticipation of the celestial reward. Upon arriving at booming port city, the daimyo’s men proceeded to crucify the twenty-six in plain public view, in a horrific attempt to mock the foreign religion and dissuade would-be converts. But through Christ, mockery becomes glorification, and the condemned souls rejoiced at being found worthy to die as did the Lord. Paulo Miki, unfazed by this violence, forgave his executioners while continuing to preach the salvation of Christ from the heights of the cross. Finally, to silence the invincible piety of this group, Hideyoshi’s soldiers ran their lances through each one, launching their martyred souls heavenward unto the eternal abode.

The twenty-six martyrs were a diverse bunch: among them were missionaries and natives, priests and laymen, Franciscans and Jesuits, adults and children. Yet among them all, the layman Paolo Miki is most revered, so much that the Roman Calendar names today’s feast as the memorial of St. Paulo Miki and his companions. What this little fact can teach us is, as Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have often underlined, that the Church is not merely the clergy nor the hierarchy, but that laypersons also have a critical role in preaching Christ crucified. That Paulo Miki is remembered and mentioned before his ordained fellow martyrs is quite emblematic of the historical experience of Catholics in Japan. The massacre of the twenty-six was only the beginning of a systematically brutal persecution of Christians which would eventually result in the expulsion of all foreigners from Japan and a period of strict isolationism that would last from the early 17th century until 1853. In his General Audience of 15 January 2014, Pope Francis told the story and its relation to the all-important sacrament of Baptism.

On the subject of the importance of Baptism for the People of God, the history of the Christian community in Japan is exemplary. It suffered severe persecution at the start of the 17th century. There were many martyrs, members of the clergy were expelled, and thousands of faithful killed. No priest was left in Japan– they were all expelled. Then the community retreated into hiding, keeping the faith and prayer in seclusion. And when a child was born, the father or mother baptized him or her, because the faithful can baptize in certain circumstances. When, after about two and a half centuries, 250 years later, missionaries returned to Japan, thousands of Christians stepped out into the open and the Church was able to flourish again. They survived by the grace of Baptism! This is profound: the People of God transmits the faith, baptizes her children and goes forward. And they maintained, even in secret, a strong communal spirit, because their Baptism had made of them one single body in Christ: they were isolated and hidden, but they were always members of the People of God, members of the Church. Let us learn a great deal from this story!

To illustrate the how well the underground Church preserved the faith for over two centuries: when the Paris Foreign Mission Society built a church on the outskirts of Nagasaki in the mid 1865s, a group from the nearby village approached it catiously. A woman from the group approached the missionary, Fr. Petitjean, and she identified the group as Christian, to the priest’s surprise. The villagers had come to verify that a priest had returned to them: they wanted to see a statue of the Blessed Mother, to know that the priest was indeed celibate, and proof that he was sent to Japan by authority of Rome. Upon confirming that he was indeed a priest, more underground Catholics emerged and came to Petitjean’s church to worship. A report was drawn up and sent to Rome, which Pius IX himself read with great astonishment. We can scarcely fathom what superabundant elation must have flowed from the hearts of those Japanese Christians upon realizing the return of Christ’s true Priesthood!

As Pope Francis emphasized, the survival of the Church in Japan is a direct result of the efforts of lay people, and Paulo Miki is its model par excellence of a holy layman. Even as he died, he remained the same outspoken prophet of the Gospel who held fast to the faith even unto the shedding of his blood. Through his martyrdom, he taught the underground Church that the promise of eternal life is greater than the loss of the present one, and thus he encouraged them to guard the faith, despite the threat of death, and despite the temptation to assimilate into the wider culture. The story of Paulo Miki and his companions prove Tertullian’s famous saying sanguis martyrum semen Christianorum est, and today we rejoice with the Christians of Japan in thaksgiving for their loyal testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply