February 5, 1597, near Nagasaki, Japan, 26 Christians suffered martyrdom: 6 Franciscan foreigners, 3 Japanese Jesuit catechists (Paul Miki was one of them), and 17 Japanese lay catechists. They were tied and chained to crosses and lanced by a sword.
An eyewitness wrote of Paul Miki: “Our brother Paul Miki as if standing on the noblest pulpit he had ever preached from, began by proclaiming he was a Japanese and a Jesuit and he was dying for the gospel he preached. He gave thanks to God for this wonderful blessing and ended his sermon with these words, ‘As I come to the end of my life you can’t suppose I want to deceive you. And so I tell you plainly there is no other way to be saved except the Christian way. I pardon my enemies and all who offend me, as my faith instructs me. I gladly pardon the Emperor and all who sought my death. I beg them to be baptized and become Christians themselves.’”
Christianity first came to Japan through the efforts of St. Francis Xavier who arrived there in 1549 and left in 1551, after bringing the faith to some 1,000 Japanese. The numbers grew, but Japanese political dissension brought strong opposition to Christianity. In 1587 foreign missionaries were forbidden to enter the country. The martyrdom of the 26 Christians in 1597 was the beginning of a series of persecutions in which thousands of Japanese Christians were cruelly put to death.
The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo tells the chilling story of one of those persecutions in his novel, Silence (Penguin 1988). The American movie director, Martin Scorsese made a film version of the novel in 2015.
In the prayer for their Mass, we ask for the courage and faith of the Japanese martyrs:
O God, strength of all the saints,
who through the Cross
were pleased to call the martyrs St. Paul Miki and companions to life,
grant we pray, that by their intercession
we may hold with courage even till death to the faith we profess,
Through our Lord Jesus Christ…
Our church calendar includes saints from every nation and time because Jesus commanded the gospel be preached to all the nations. As we celebrate the church’s presence and development in places like Japan we look to them for signs of the Spirit at work, then and now. What can we learn from the church in Japan? What must we do to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth?