February 6: Saints Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs

St. Paul Miki: c. 1562–1597; Late Sixteenth Century
Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
(When Lenten Weekday, Optional Memorial; Violet)
Patron Saints of Japan


<<<      Native Japanese die to gain the pearl of great price   >>>

The words of the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier capture the pathos of today’s memorial: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been!” The swift rise, and sudden fall, of Catholicism in Japan is one of the great “might-have-beens” in human history. Portuguese and Spanish priests, mostly Jesuits and Franciscans, brought the Catholic religion to the highly cultured island of Japan in the late 1500s with great success. Tens of thousands of people converted, two seminaries were opened, native Japanese were ordained as priests, and Japan ceased to be mission territory, being elevated to a diocese. But the rising arc of missionary success just as quickly curved downward. In waves of persecutions from the 1590s through the 1640s, thousands of Catholics were persecuted, tortured and executed until the Catholic religion, and indeed any outward expression of Christianity, was totally eradicated. Japan almost became a Catholic nation, coming close to joining the Philippines as the only thoroughly Catholic society in Asia. Japan might have done for Asia in the 1600s what Ireland did for Europe in the early Middle Ages. It could have sent scholars, monks, and missionary priests to convert nations far larger than itself, including China. It was not to be.

Paul Miki was a native Japanese who became a Jesuit. The Jesuits would not accept into their seminary men from India or other nations they considered to be of inferior education and culture. But the Jesuits had immense respect for the Japanese, whose culture was equal to, or even exceeded, that of Western Europe. Paul Miki was among those who, after being educated in the faith, evangelized their own people in their own language. He and others blazed a new pathway forward, allowing the Japanese to not only understand but to see, in flesh and blood, that they could retain the best of their native culture while being faithful to the newfound God of Jesus Christ.

Paul, a Jesuit brother, and his companions were the first group to suffer mass martyrdom in Japan. A military leader and adviser to the Emperor feared Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the island and ordered the arrest of six Franciscan priests and brothers, three Japanese Jesuits, sixteen other Japanese, and one Korean. The captured had their left ears mutilated and were then forced to march, bloodied, hundreds of miles to Nagasaki. On February 5, 1597, Paul and his companions were bound to crosses on a hill, like Christ, and pierced with lances. An eyewitness described the scene:

Our brother, Paul Miki, saw himself standing in the noblest pulpit he had ever filled. To his “congregation” he began by proclaiming himself a Japanese and a Jesuit… “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…Then, according to Japanese custom, the four executioners began to unsheath their spears…The executioners killed them one by one. One thrust of the spear, then a second blow. It was over in a short time.

The executions did nothing to stop the Church. Persecution only fanned the flames of faith. By 1614 about 300,000 Japanese were Catholics. So more intense persecutions followed. Japanese leaders eventually chose to seal off their ports and borders from virtually all foreign penetration, a policy that would last until the nineteenth century. Only in 1854 was Japan forcibly opened to foreign trade and Western visitors. Then, thousands of Japanese Catholics suddenly came out of hiding, mostly near Nagasaki. They bore the names of the Japanese martyrs, spoke some Latin and Portuguese, asked their new guests for statues of Jesus and Mary, and sought to verify if a French priest was legitimate with two questions: 1) Are you celibate?; and 2) Do you come from the Pope in Rome?  These hidden Christians also opened their palms to show the priest something else—relics of the martyrs who their remote ancestors had known and honored centuries before. Their memory had never died.

Saint Paul Miki, you accepted martyrdom rather than abandon your faith. You chose to serve those closest to you rather than to flee. Inspire in us the same love of God and man so that we too can know, love, and serve God in the heroic fashion that made you so brave and composed in the face of intense suffering.

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