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The Nagasaki Martyrs 

by James Hitchcock
July 15, 1999

St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit and the greatest missionary in the history of the Catholic Church, arrived in Japan in l549, intent on converting it. He had some success in his few years there, and other missionaries took up where he left off. They succeeded in establishing a vibrant if small Catholic community.

For a time the Japanese rulers showed a certain friendliness towards the missionaries, primarily because the rulers valued trade with European merchants. But in l596 certain political changes caused a backlash against the Christians in which Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the actual ruler of Japan (not the emperor), outlawed Christianity and ordered the arrest of recalcitrant believers.

Eventually a total of twenty-six men, nineteen of them Japanese, some priests, others laymen, were arrested and sent on a forced march to the city of Nagasaki. Along the way they were periodically tortured, their treatment designed to intimidate other Christians.

Early in l597 the band of martyrs were crucified on a hill near Nagasaki, tied or chained to crosses, then pierced with lances. All of them, including two boys, remained joyfully faithful to the end. One of them, a Jesuit brother named Paul Miki, never ceased to preach fervently to the crowds, even as he hung on the cross.

As always with martyrs, this persecution had the opposite affect from what its perpetrators intended. It inspired the remaining Christians and attracted new converts, the site of the execution was venerated as a sacred place, and Nagasaki came to be the chief center Japanese Christianity.

For a time the persecution abated, but in the l620's the government expelled all foreigners from the country except for a small group of Dutch traders. As part of this attempt to expunge all European influence, the practice of Christianity was forbidden, and there were yet more martyrs.

More than two centuries passed, and this inspiring story was forgotten in the West except by a few people. But when Japan once again opened itself to Westerners in the l850's, French priests established a church in Nagasaki.

To their amazement, they were visited one day by a Japanese man who was a Christian and who asked the priests three questions: whether they venerated Mary the Mother of God, whether they were married, and whether they followed the pope in Rome. When the answers proved satisfactory, a whole community of "hidden Christians" began with great joy to practice their faith openly.

The survival of Japanese Catholicism is one of the most moving stories in the entire history of the Church. For over two centuries the people had no priests but lived the faith as best they could, in secret, not daring to keep written materials but handing down their beliefs by word of mouth.

Recently I had the privilege of visiting the Shrine of the Twenty-Six Martyrs in Nagasaki, crowned by a huge sculpture of the martyrs, all in a row, their hands open in prayer or in blessing.There is a separate statue of St. Paul Miki which wonderfully captures the power of his faith. I also visited the church where the "hidden Christians" first manifested themselves, a replica of the original, which was destroyed by the American atomic bomb in l945.

Japan today is of course a highly advanced industrial nation, and it has the same kinds of cultural diseases which affect all such countries, not least our own. Catholicism has never claimed more than a tiny fraction of the Japanese people and, as in the West, there has been a diminution of religious practice in the past few decades.

Although Europe was the center of the Catholic faith in the seventeenth century, it was in the missionary countries that the most heroic Catholics of the time were found, the Japanese story paralleled by the equally moving saga of the North American Martyrs a few decades later.

It is hardly fanciful to suspect that our own faith, tepid though it is in many ways, is sustained by the immense graces won by these amazing spiritual forebearers.


James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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