History of Asian Missions

A bimonthly missionary letter to foster prayers for Asia
No. 2

I - History of the Asian Missions - Japan Part II
I - The 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki
II - The Great Missionaries
For the Missions of Asia: One Million Hail Marys Daily

I - History of the Asian Missions Japan Part II

Few events in Church history have struck so vividly the imagination of Christians all over the world as the glorious death of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan in the year 1597; and few places in the Far East appeal so strongly to the religious feelings of Christians as the Holy Mountain in Nagasaki where these martyrs sealed in blood their faith in Jesus Christ by dying on the cross in imitation of Christ Himself.

Among them were priests, brothers and laymen, Franciscans, Jesuits and members of the Third Order of St. Francis; there were catechists, altar boys, doctors, simple artisans and servants: old men and innocent children; all united in a common unshakable faith and a burning love for Jesus and His Church.  Thanking God for the grace of martyrdom they departed this earthly life singing from their crosses the Te Deum, and the children went to heaven with the words of the psalm on their lips: "Praise the Lord ye children, praise ye the name of the Lord" (Ps. CXII).

The memory of this event was never forgotten even in the darkest hour of persecution.  In secret the Christians came to the Holy Mountain to implore the martyrs to obtain from God fidelity for themselves and the conversion of their fellowmen.

For two hundred years, 1638-1854, Japan remained closed to all foreign influence.  A few missionaries did try to re-enter but were rapidly arrested and executed.  Finally, when Japan re-opened its doors for economic reasons in the mid-1850ís missionaries did not miss the occasion.

A first church was erected in Nagasaki and was blessed on February 19, 1865.  Less than a month later, Friday, March 17, Feast of St. Patrick, after having celebrated Holy Mass, Fr. Petitjean of the Foreign Missions of Paris, met a group of Japanese women who timidly asked him three momentous questions: Was he married?  Did he venerate Mary, the Mother of God?  Was he subject to the Pope of Rome?  Astonishing questions from total strangers but still greater was his wonderment when they informed him that in the neighbourhood of Nagasaki there dwelt 10,000 Christians who had preserved the faith of their ancestors in absolute secrecy.

By the grace of God, the true faith was alive!  What an example for us in this time of shortage of priest!  May we too plant and transmit the Faith in such a way that it still be maintained 8-10 generations later!

I - The 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki

After the edict of exile of 1587 of Hideyoshi, the Regent and actual ruler at that time, the underground missionaries found it difficult to visit regularly the many thousands of Christians spread over Kyushu and parts of Honshu.  No wonder then that these Christians on various occasions wrote letters and sent messengers to Manila begging the Franciscans to come to Japan.  Their letters were addressed in particular to a Franciscan Brother, Gonzalvo Garcia, who previously had spent eight years among them as a catechist with the Jesuits before joining the Franciscan Order in Manila in 1587.

In 1593, Hideyoshi revised his position and gave missionaries a certain freedom which lasted four years.  In December, 1596,  he believed calumnies told him by some of his governors, concerning the missionaries and decreed a new extermination of all missionaries and Christians.

On December 30th, Yakuin, a Christian hater, had an audience with Hideyoshi who then gave strict orders to mutilate the faces of the Franciscans and their Christians, to carry them around in the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Sakai, and to bring them to Nagasaki to be crucified.

The journey to Nagasaki

Only twenty-four names were on the official list condemned to die.  Twenty-six died at Nagasaki.  Two were added to the group on the way to Nagasaki.

The 800 kilometer journey from Osaka to Nagasaki was made partly by land and partly by sea in small boats and lasted twenty-six days.  They suffered much from the cold.  They traveled by way of Himeji, Ako, Okayama, Mihara, Shimonoseki, Hakata, Karatsu, Sukasaki and finally arrived on February 4 at Sonogi, 35 kilometers from Nagasaki.

Preaching by example

Father Peter Baptist urged his friars to be true Franciscans.  He was accustomed to say to them: "In Japan we are the first Franciscans and therefore we must not only portray a true image of St. Francis but also by our away of living make Jesus Christ and His perfectly holy life be known.  Our faith is based on poverty, humility and the cross.  Hence in propagating the faith the true disciple of the poor, humble and crucified Christ must use means in accordance with the crucified God Whom he preaches."

In Japan as in ancient Rome the cross was abhorred because the worst criminals died upon the cross.  More than once people said:  "A religion which adores a crucified man cannot be good."  Father Peter Baptist nevertheless insisted on the scandal of the cross and had in the previous years most solemnly celebrated the services of Holy Week and Good Friday in order to impress upon his Christians the wonderful meaning of the scandal of the cross.

The Execution

The place of execution of the twenty-six martyrs was a hill now called Nishizaka facing the city and Nagasaki Bay.  It was a place of execution.

On the way up the hill a nobleman tempted the youngest boy, Ibaragi, who was only twelve years old to renounce his faith.  He would not yield but eagerly asked: "Where is my cross?"  When they pointed out the smallest one to him he immediately embraced it and held on to it as a child clings to his toy.

As soon as all the twenty-six martyrs reached the top of their Calvary they knelt down and sang the Canticle of "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel because he has visited and ransomed his people" (Lk. 2, 68-79).  Then Father Martin of the Ascension delivered a beautiful discourse on the excellence and inestimable grace of martyrdom which God has bestowed upon them.  All were soon fastened with cords and iron rings to the crosses and raised aloft almost simultaneously.  Four executioners stood ready with their spears to pierce their sides.  Influential Portuguese had persuaded Hanzaburo to arrange the crosses in a semicircle with the Franciscans in the center facing the city.  Hanzaburo placed in the center of this semicircle a sign with the inscription:  "Condemned to death on the cross because they preached the forbidden Christian law."

Hanging on the cross Father Peter Baptist intoned the "Te Deum" in which they all joined.  They prayed together.  Brother Paul Miki seeing the crowds of people began to preach.  The general idea of his sermon was as follows: "The sentence of judgement says that these men came to Japan from the Philippines, but I did not come from any other country.  I am a true Japanese.  The only reason for my being killed is that I was teaching the doctrine of Christ.  I certainly did teach the doctrine of Christ.  I thank God that it is for this reason that I die.  I believe that I am telling the truth before I die.  I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you to become happy.  I obey Christ.  After Christís example I forgive my persecutors.  I do not hate them.  I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope that my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain."

The first to shed his blood was Philip of Jesus, a Franciscan cleric who had arrived on the San Filipe and was arrested in Kyoto.  The iron ring by which his neck had been fastened to the cross was suffocating him, so he asked that it be adjusted so he might die consciously.  The executioner answered by piercing forthwith his chest with a spear.  The last to arrive he was the first to die with the name of Jesus and Mary on his lips.
 The two boys Anthony and Louis, were placed to the right of Father Peter Baptist.  He had told them to sing from the cross the psalm "Laudate pueri Dominum."  Anthony now asked him:  "Should we start singing."  Father Peter Baptist lost in contemplation with his eyes fixed on heaven, did not hear him.  So the boys began to sing by themselves with a clear voice: "Praise the Lord ye children, praise ye the name of the Lord."  Scarcely had they finished this beautiful song of praise when their tender bodies were transfixed with a lance in each side, whilst their innocent souls ascended to the throne of God there to play for all eternity with the crowns and psalms of martyrdom, as the Church  so beautifully sings in the Office of the Holy Innocents: "Sporting with your wreaths and palms, at the very altar side."

St. Peter Baptist, the leader of this holy band of martyrs, was reserved till the last.  Filled with holy joy and consolation at seeing all the rest bravely shed their blood, he ceased not to encourage the assembled Christians to remain steadfast in the Faith and to exhort the pagans to be converted.  Then having pardoned the executioners he too was pierced with a lance in each side whilst a smile played on his lips.

Hideyoshi died September 16, 1598 at the age of sixty-three.  A new but short period of prosperity for the missions in Japan began under his successor, Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate which was to govern the country until 1867.

Besides the Jesuits and Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians and also diocesan priests came to Japan.  Several hundred thousand converts were made.  Then on January 27, 1614, Ieyasu issued his edict banishing all missionaries.  This persecution continued with increasing fury during the next twenty years till all outward sign of the Christian religion had been wiped out.  Thousands of Christians gladly suffered the most cruel torments rather than deny their faith.  Of those who suffered martyrdom between the years 1616 to 1632 two hundred and five were beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1867.

The church in Japan owes much of its progress to the survival of the faith amongst the Christians at Nagasaki.  This is easily seen when we consider that among the sixteen ecclesiastical divisions of Japan one fourth of the Catholics are living in the diocese of Nagasaki.  Surely the blood of the martyrs has not been shed in vain.

II - The Great Missionaries

St. Gonzalvo was born in India of a Portuguese father and an Indian mother.  He is the first canonized saint born in India and patron saint of Bombay.  At the age of sixteen he came to Japan and worked eight years with the Jesuit Fathers as a catechist.  Having met a Franciscan brother, John Pobre Diaz, who happened to visit Japan in 1582 Gonsalvo later went to Manila where he became a Franciscan Brother in 1587.

Brother Gonsalvo knew Japanese very well hence was selected to accompany Father Peter Baptist as interpreter in 1593.  In Japan he helped greatly to establish the Franciscan mission.  He was about forty years old when he died at Nagasaki continuously repeating the holy name of Jesus.

St. Thomas Kozaki was the son of Michael Kozaki, the bow and arrow maker.  As a boy of eleven he became acquainted with the friars helping the carpenter build the friary in Kyoto.  He then became a student of the friars.  He made good progress in doctrine and virtue and would certainly have become a good preacher.  Later Thomas was a server boy at mass and helper in the friary at Osaka.  After the arrival of the San Filipe he accompanied the cleric, Philip of Jesus where he was arrested.

After the martyrdom a Portuguese found a letter wet with blood in the sleeve of his father, Michael, but written by Thomas to his mother.  In it he told his mother not to worry about him and his father since they were going to heaven together and would wait for her to come.  "Please come early."  he wrote.  "You must fear sin very much, since that caused our Lord much suffering.  If you commit a sin, you must confess and ask our Lordís forgiveness.  The pleasures of this world appear like a dream and fade away to nothing as a dream does.  You must not forget everlasting happiness.  If there is anyone who persecutes you, never hate him.  Love him as our Lord did on the cross.  Please take care of my lovely young brother.  I am always praying for you."  This letter of fifteen year old Thomas is preserved in a Spanish translation.  


For the Missions of Asia: One Million Hail Marys Daily

    As An act of faith in the all powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mediatrix of all Graces, and as a token of missionary charity towards the very great number of souls in Asia, 

    I wish to pledge ____ decades of the Rosary everyday  "For the Missions of Asia"

    I understand that I need not necessarily add extra prayers but that simply need to add that intention "For the Missions of Asia" to my usual daily prayers. 
Name: _____________________________________________ 
Send this form (or a copy) toFather Superior, Our Lady of Victories, 2 Canon Road, New Manila, Quezon City 1112, Philippines. 
The progress of this ongoing spiritual bouquet will be related in the future issues of the Missionary Letter.  As of May 1, 1998, around 250,000 Hail Marys are being said daily for this intention.  This letter will be sent free of charge to all those who pledge to pray "For the Missions of Asia".  (Those who attend Asian Mass centers can get their copy there.)

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