HE CHURCH celebrates today an extraordinary group of martyrs who were called to give witness to their faith during a time of severe religious oppression in Japan. St. Paul Miki and his companions lived not long before the time in which the recent movie, Silence, is set. (See my thoughts on the film.)
The historical background to the martyrdom we recall today begins with the mid-1500’s missionary journey of St. Francis Xavier to Japan. We call him the “Apostle to Japan” now, because of his success in bringing the Catholic faith to the island. Not even 50 years later, though, the faith of the Japanese people was tested, since the Japanese authorities began to persecute those who had become Christians.
Paul Miki converted to the faith and became a Jesuit, himself, like Francis Xavier. On February 5, 1597, Paul was martyred along with 25 others. They were crucified, and many more after them were burned or otherwise executed. The authorities were trying to squelch the growing Christian presence in Japan by means of these executions, but they were largely unsuccessful.
The Office of Readings for this memorial includes a passage from a contemporary account about the martyrdom. It reads, in part:
Our brother, Paul Miki, saw himself standing now in the noblest pulpit he had ever filled. To his “congregation” he began by proclaiming himself a Japanese and a Jesuit. He was dying for the Gospel he preached.
He gave thanks to God for this wonderful blessing and he ended his “sermon” with these words: “As I come to this supreme moment of my life, I am sure none of you would suppose I want to deceive you. And so I tell you plainly: there is no way to be saved except the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.”
Then he looked at his comrades and began to encourage them in their final struggle. Joy glowed in all their faces. . . . According to Japanese custom, the four executioners began to unsheathe their spears. At this dreadful sight, all the Christians cried out, “Jesus, Mary!” And the storm of anguished weeping then rose to batter the very skies. The executions killed them one by one. One thrust of the spear, then a second blow. It was over in a very short time.
Japan closed itself to foreign visitors in the 1630’s, and remained that way until the 1860’s. So, for about 230 years—nearly as long as the whole history of the USA—Japan attempted to eradicate Christianity in its territory by keeping missionaries out and executing those who were left behind. Amazingly, when the borders of Japan were reopened in 1865, thousands of covert Catholics came forward, still clinging to the faith of their forefathers, which they had been practicing in secret for more than two centuries.
HE STRENGTH of faith we see in Paul Miki & his companions is extraordinary. It is beautiful, compelling, and challenging. It makes me ask myself the question: “Is my faith that strong?” Is your faith so strong that it would not only stick with you to martyrdom, but that it would survive underground among your descendants for 230 years?
From the Collect for today’s Mass: “O God, strength of all the Saints, who through the Cross were pleased to call the Martyrs Saint Paul Miki and companions to life, grant, we pray, that by their intercession we may hold with courage even until death to the faith that we profess.”
Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee ‘til death!