In my homily for Easter Sunday (PDF download) I reflected on the theme of “memory” in connection with Resurrection faith. As part of this I told the story of the Church in Japan, “the Land of the Rising Sun” — a story which is extremely moving and, I think it fair to say, truly miraculous. I always get ‘verklempt’ when reading or telling it. Here is that section of the homily:
I mentioned that we sometimes fear that the powerful moments we record in the annals of our minds might be forgotten by subsequent generations. That is not what happened in Japan. St. Francis Xavier brought the Christian faith there in 1549, and other Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries continued his work until about the mid-17th century. But then, through a series of astonishingly brutal government persecutions, the Church was all but eradicated in Japan – or so it seemed. When French priests from the Foreign Missions Society of Paris finally gained entrance into the country in the mid-19th century, they made an astonishing discovery.
The date was March 17, 1865, and the location was Nagasaki. Fifteen “hidden Christians” revealed themselves to one of the priests and assured him there were some 50,000 more of their kind. They remembered the prayers that the missionaries had taught, handing them down through the generations. They secretly baptized their children. And they also taught them what to look for, on some future day: that men might arrive anew who were celibate, who venerated the Blessed Virgin Mary, and who heeded the authority of the Pope. That day arrived; in these French missionaries, their hopeful memories were now realized in the flesh.
The story of the resurrection of the Church in Japan is as powerful as it is remarkable. For we know how feeble memory is – yet those impressive souls preserved the memory for some 300 years. That has not happened everywhere; we know well the need for a “new evangelization”, for so many have lost the memory of the Lord – or perhaps not totally lost it, but have grown hard of heart and slow to believe. Look what happened in France – the land of incredible saints and magnificent Cathedrals, but where, in the past year, over 1,000 churches have been vandalized, with little notice given in the press. Then the “jewel” burns – how awful it was to see Notre-Dame in flames – and the resurrection begins. The touching prayer vigils and generous financial response suggest that the memories are indeed surfacing anew.
You can read a bit more about the history of the Church in Japan on its Old Catholic Encyclopedia entry (scroll at least halfway down to the subsection “Catholicism”).
Of course, the history of the Church in Japan did not conclude with the beautiful events of 1865. No, there would be more persecutions… then ultimately the atomic bombs dropped on some of the biggest Christian centers of the nation — Hiroshima and Nagasaki — in 1945, dealing another fatal blow to the Church there. The Catholic Church in Japan has experienced a bitter share in the Lord’s Passion over the centuries. More recently, I understand it is growing again. My heart goes out to missionaries who risk so much to spread faith in our Risen Lord in spite of present challenges and historical precedents!