Monday, March 17, 2008
Survival of Catholic Japan
Oura Tenshudo. Site of meeting, discovery and reunion.
Father Bernard Thadée Petitjean was in the newly constructed church in Oura, dedicated to the 26 recently canonised japanese martyrs, on the 17th of March 1865, in Nagasaki (yes, the same Nagasaki that suffered atomic destruction), Japan. A group of fifteen peasants from the Urakami district to the north came to him, and said they believed as he believed, and had been waiting, over two hundred years, for him to come. Their leader and catechist, Peter, spoke and questioned Petitjean to ascertain his genuineness. The christians of Japan found their absent priest. They stood firm in secret faith, the same faith of the original apostles, which they tried to maintain and persevere in the direst of bloody persecutions, tortures and martyrdoms. They had survived wave after wave of persecution and martyrdom. They had been isolated and hidden. They lived secretly. They had only the availability of two sacraments, baptism and marriage. Yet, they believed as Peter in Galilee, Antioch and Rome, and as Peter in Urakami.
The first to speak, to Petitjean, was Yuri Isabelina Sugimoto. She said softly to him, “The hearts of all of us are the same as yours.” Petitjean and other frenchmen had wondered if the faith had still survived. Now they would know. He was asked if he was observing kanashimi no setsu (season of sorrow). Yes, it was Lent. They had kept the calendar.
The seeds of their faith were planted by Saint Francis Xavier in 1549 and their keeping of the faith was highly perilous since 1614, when the last public celebration was allowed for Easter, and most deadly dangerous after the closing of Japan in 1639. They had sometimes drifted into admixture of other beliefs, in order to mask and camouflage, and through loss of contact with the rest of the church had some confused practices, yet they were Catholic christians still and wanted communion.
At one time, the figures tell us, that 300,000 japanese were of the faith, 10% of the country. Over the years, tens of thousands were murdered, yearly tests were given to apostatize and detect the remaining catholics. The nobles and warriors left, the peasants clung to their beliefs. When the french built the first church, in Japan in 250 years, which was permitted only for foreigners, it is estimated that 50,000 natives still believed. Roughly half were reunited. Some would not recognise the newcomers as genuine. These cryptic believers were separatists, hanare.
Father Petitjean, recognised that they were the descendants of the 16th and 17th centuries, and he encouraged the Kakure Kirishitan to come out in the open. They suffered continued persecution and martyrdom. Christianity was not free till 1873. After a time Petitjean went to Osaka, but eventually saw that Nagasaki was the center of christianity in Japan. The largest church in the orient was completed in 1925, and was the cathedral dedicated to Mary in Urakami. It was ground zero for the second atomic attack.
Would the faith survive such conditions in America? The faith was mostly suppressed in England from 1533 to 1829, a longer time, but less thoroughly and less severely than for the nipponese, the communists from 1917 or 1945 to 1989 in eastern europe, the 1790s in France and different times for other lands, and from the early 7th century and ongoing under the mohammedans. Father Faber wrote the hymn, Faith of our Fathers, to describe the english situation, is it not more à propos for our japanese brothers? But now, though free the rest of the japanese nation seems not very interested.
A good place to begin reading, is with Shusaku Endo’s, Silence, and Neil Fujita’s, Japan’s Encounter with Christianity.