St. Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary, introduced Christianity into Japan in the mid-16th century. By 1587, the Jesuits who followed him and other European missioners had raised the Catholic population of Japan to 200,000.
That very year, however, the chief ruler, Hideyoshi, took a firm stand against the Faith and foreigners in general. He ordered all missionaries to leave the country within twenty days. Persecution of the Catholics mounted after that. On February 5, 1597, six Franciscans, three Jesuits and seventeen lay Japanese were crucified at the southern city of Nagasaki.
Especially between 1615 and 1651, there was a relentless drive to stamp out Catholicism. The government aimed at apostasy rather than death, so the torments devised were long and cruel. Although some Christians yielded to the pressure and denied their faith, the majority held out. There were 400,000 Catholics in Japan by 1614. At least 4,000 of these died as known martyrs, and it is likely that as many more suffered death whose names are not recorded. Whole families were killed, children as well as adults, apparently on the argument that the whole family was tainted by the Christianity of one member.
In 1862, Pope Pius IX canonized the twenty-six martyrs who had died at Nagasaki in 1597. Their feast is celebrated on February 6, as the Memorial of St. Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs. In 1867, the same pope also declared blessed 205 other martyrs of Japan, whose feasts are observed on June 1 and September 10.
The group honored on September 10 are the 52 who perished in the “great martyrdom” of 1622, also in and around Nagasaki. A number of the victims were small children, like the four-year-old son of Isabel Fernandez, a Spanish resident condemned for sheltering a priest. Blessed Isabel carried her son to the place of execution. “I brought him with me,” she said, “to die for Christ before he is old enough to sin against Him.” The youngster watched them behead his mother. Then he loosened his own collar for the swordsman.
Nagasaki had been a Christian city as early as 1580. Despite the fact that the government excluded priests and persecuted Christians for two hundred years, when missionaries were permitted to resume work in 1865, they found 15,000-20,000 “Hidden Christians” in the islands near Nagasaki. Though without priests and without Mass, they had continued their baptisms and prayers. A diocese was established at Nagasaki in 1891.
It is ironic that this most Catholic of Japanese centers should have been targeted for the second atomic bomb of 1945.
One of the original martyrs executed at Nagasaki in 1597 was a Mexican-born Franciscan friar, canonized in 1862 as St. Philip of Jesus. As he was about to die on his cross, he is reported to have foretold that one day Nagasaki would be destroyed by “a ball of fire dropping from the sky.”
His Japanese enemies no doubt sneered at the warning then, but we have seen it tragically fulfilled.
–Father Robert F. McNamara