BY Ian Dunn | November 29 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

Pope Francis delivers a message about nuclear weapons at Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki, Japan, Nov. 24, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See stories slugged POPE-JAPAN Nov. 23, 2019.

Pope’s visit reminds us to take inspiration from the martyrs of Japan

I wasn’t much interested in the Pope’s visit to Japan, until I read about the martyrs. Don’t get me wrong, the papal visit is very important, but he does a lot of trips this Pope, it’s not easy to keep up.

But somewhere along the line I caught a glimpse of a picture of Pope Francis paused for prayer on the hill where St Paul Miki and 25 others were crucified in 1597.

And then I read that hundreds more were killed in the decades that followed.

For more than 200 years, there was not a single Catholic priest in the country, but small communities of ‘hidden Christians’ kept Catholicism alive by secretly Baptising their children and teaching them the Faith.

It’s funny how patterns repeat through history because that last sentence neatly describes Scotland after the reformation.

Brutal crackdown

Whereas Scotland had a mass ‘conversion’ experience to Calvinism, in Japan the Faith was spread by Portuguese missionaries whose growing influence alarmed central government who cracked down brutally.

It’s the little details that really catch you, though, like the ‘Fumi-e’: in Japan anyone suspect of being Christian was summoned by Government officials. An image of Jesus Christ on the Cross was placed in front of them and they were told to step on it, a process that was memorably shown in the Martin Scorsese film Silence.

If the man steps on the image, it’s a public declaration that he has given up his Faith—and he will live to see another day.


If he doesn’t, he could face execution, crucifixion or torture—forced into boiling hot springs or suspended upside-down in a pit of excrement.

A bit more dramatic than the Calvinists. An estimated 2,000 people did eventually die as martyrs, refusing to renounce their Faith.

In 1858, the fumi-e practice was abolished in Nagasaki, and in 1873, Japan’s long ban on Christianity was finally lifted, more than two centuries after it was first put in place. The Christian population of Japan had dropped from 500,000 to 20,000 in the meantime.

Living inspiration

In the words of Pope Francis: “May we never forget their heroic sacrifice!” He was speaking of the hundreds of martyrs who ‘consecrated the ground by their suffering and death.’

“May [this heritage] not remain as a glorious relic of the past, to be kept and honoured in a museum, but rather as a living memory, an inspiration for the works of the apostolate and a spur to renewed evangelisation in this land.”

The message of the martyrs, he said, is that man’s destiny is not death but the fullness of life. “The blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the new life that Jesus wishes to bestow on us.

“May the Church in Japan of our own day, amid all its difficulties and signs of hope, feel called to hear anew each day the message proclaimed by St Paul Miki from the cross, and share with all men and women the joy and beauty of the Gospel.”

Much like in Scotland where, protected by remote islands and a few lairds, Catholicism clung on, so to in Japan, despite monstrous persecution. Which is a comforting thought in the odd doubtful moment. Despite what the world throws at us, no matter the brutality and betrayal, we endure.

The sacrifice of those who ensured the persecution is awe inspiring. Nowadays it can seem that we bend too easily to whatever the call of society is. Yet, inspired by the martyrs of the past, the Church endures.

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