Newsletter of the District
- December 2000
of the Japanese Missions
The "Christian Era" (1549-1638)
Two great periods
divide that era: from the arrival of St. Francis of Xavier on August
15, 1549 to the edict of general persecution of 1614, and then from
1614 to the definitive "closure" of Japan in 1638.
At the beginning,
the Jesuits are alone but in 1592, the arrival of missionaries from
other religious orders coming from the Philippines make them share
the administration of the Mission.
Xavier spent just about 2 years in the Japanese soil, making numerous
openings for divine grace. When he left in November 1551, a little
thousand faithful had received the gift of faith, at their head
was his Spanish companion, Fr. Cosme de Torres, helped by a brother
fluent in Japanese. The minute nucleus of Christians, in the South
of Kyushu did not grow due to the hostility of the daimyo. In the
North of the island, in Bungo, Xavier had indeed got permission
to preach and baptize freely, however, he doesn’t seem to have made
any neophytes, by lack of interpreter. It is in Yamaguchi on the
other side of the strait on the greater island that the apostolate
of Fr. Torres and his brother gave some fruits. All seemed to collapse
though during the civil wars. But the situation eventually settled
age of Japanese Christianity, the period of quick conquests and
unlimited hopes, expands from 1551 when Xavier left until 1587.
The Southern churches, Yamaguchi, Bungo, Hizen very soon reached
a high degree of prosperity. In 1563, the first daimyo is baptized.
He would be followed by many others, some very influential in the
time, further North, in Kyoto, where Fr. Vilela had settled in 1559,
as well as in the central provinces, the success is not less spectacular.
Bonzes, samurai, daimyo, even Kuge are converted. If political troubles
interrupted the propaganda between 1564 and 1568, it continued afterwards
with Oda Nobunaga in power who openly took the Christians under
his wings. In 1577 the fathers erected in Kyoto the splendid church
of the Assumption. Nobunaga allowed another church with a school
for young noble men in Azuchi, on the shore of lake Biwa.
After the death
of Nobunaga and the fire of Azuchi (1582), the Jesuits settled in
Osaka, near the master of Japan Toyotomi Hideyoshi and found the
same favor with him. There too, famous conversions took place especially
that of Konishi Yukinaga, the grand Admiral of Hideyoshi and that
of Kuroda Yoshitaka, the general of his cavalry.
What were the
causes of these achievements? There were many Catholic Missionaries
arrived at the right moment, they profited of the confusion of souls,
of the decadence of Buddhism and of the contempt in which its leaders
was kept. In contrast, the missionaries edify by their disinterestedness,
their morals, by the absolute conformity between their life and
their teaching. People ran to them first out of burning curiosity
but this soon changed into real enthusiasm for these strangers who
preached the contempt of riches, and didn’t care to acquire any,
who preached humility and answered to insults with kindness, who
preached abstinence and did not get drunk, who preached purity and
did not live with women. As they practiced celibacy and organized
occasionally pompous ceremonies, they did not shock the traditional
concept Japanese had of the priest and of worship. Moreover, members
of the same Order, united not only by the same faith but by the
same discipline, guided by the example and advice left by St. Francis
Xavier, they tried to adapt to the native customs whenever possible
and were extremely prudent never to hurt the susceptibilities, so
easily enflamed of this people proud and jealous of its independence.
also found in the political state of the country favorable circumstances
for its free development. The central power of the Mikado being
only a shadow, the daimyo, local feudal lords, as the absolute master
of his domains. Thus, Christian propaganda did not risk a conflict
with a higher power. The daimyo could accept or prescribe in all
freedom the Christian religion with no one to contradict them. Moreover,
by embracing this religion, they gave themselves greater independence.
Through the missionaries, they could enter in relation with the
heads of foreign states, they could send and receive embassies.
That also explains why Christianity obtained then so much success
among the territorial nobility of which the example had obviously
a strong influence on the samurai of every rank and on the people.
Thus, the conversion of daimyo were the most characteristic trait
of the history of Japanese Christianity.
While in Central
Japan, the number of Christians did not grow very much between 1570-1579,
there were massive conversions in the Kyushu. In the state of Omura,
the daimyo Sumitada baptised in 1563 had only 5,600 Christian subjects.
In 1571, threatened by a local rebellion, he launched against the
bonzes; in 1575, there were no more non-Christians in his possessions.
persecution becomes official. The 'wanted sign' in Japanese.
and moving alternatives of success and failure, the regions of the
Kyushu seedbed of the new religion, finally saw another strong movement
of conversions crowned by the baptism of St. Francis Xavier’s old
friend Otomo of Bungo (28 Aug. 1578).
of the sign:
offered in this public notice For the denunciation
APOSTATE WHO HAS RETURNED TO THE FAITH
silver coins "
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.
arrest took place in Kyoto,
but the Martyrs were forced to walked the 300 km to Nagasaki,
in the heart of winter.
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).
of the execution of the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki (Feb. 5, 1597)
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.
Universelle des Missions Catholiques, Paris, 1956, vol. 1, pp.
the persecution, the faithful had to hide all their sacramentals.
But some clever ones designed this silver plate,
which looked just like a mirror.
However, when light was projected onto it, the result was...
this! The artist has carved inside the 'mirror' a relief of Calvary.
The sunlight going through the thin silver sheet revealed the hidden
the faithful were always reminded of Calvary,
of the Sacred Host, of the Mass which they were deprived for 200
Survival and Revival (1638 – 1865)
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-1850’s missionaries did not miss the occasion.
Petitjean, from the Mission Etrangeres de Paris, in Oura,
subburb of Nagasaki
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 at the door of his church.
Here is the account of this historical meeting from Fr Petitjean’s
Petitjean's church in Oura was blessed on December 28, 1864.
Then 3 months later, on March 17, 1865...
...Japanese Catholics, in hiding for 200 years,
revealed themselves to the priest
On March 17,
1865, towards 12.30 pm, about 15 people were standing at the door
of the church. Certainly moved by my Guardian Angel, I went near
them and opened the door. I had barely had time to recite an our
father when three ladies, in their fifties knelt beside me and said,
their hand on their chest and at a low voice:
of all of us here is no different than yours.
where are you from?
their village and added:
“At home, almost
everyone is like us!
You, O my God! for all the immense joy that then filled my heart.
What a reward for five years of sterile labor! As soon as our dear
Japanese opened up to me, they manifested a confidence in such a
contrast with the manners of their pagan brothers. I had to answer
to all their questions, speak to them about O Deous sama, O Yaso
sama, santa Maria sama, the names they used for God, for Our
Lord Jesus Christ, for Our Blessed Lady. When they saw the statue
of Our Lady with the Child Jesus reminded them of the feast of Christmas
which they had celebrated, they said, in the eleventh month.
me if we were at the 17th day of the month of sorrows
(Lent). St Joseph is no stranger to them; they call him ‘the foster
father of Our Lord –O Yaso samano yo fou.’
All of a sudden,
in the middle of these multiple crossed-fired questions, sounds
of footsteps are heard.` Everyone disappeared immediately. But
as soon as the new comers had been identified, everyone was back
laughing off their fright. “They come from the same village! They
have the same heart as ours.” Nevertheless, soon after they had
to leave in separate direction not to alert the attention of the
Japanese officers whose visit I feared.
“On May 15,
the delegates of an island at a little distance from here came to
see me. After a short conversation, we sent them away keeping with
us the sole catechist and the leader of the devout caravan. The
catechist, named Pierre, gave us the most interesting information.
Let us say first that the formula for baptism is identical to ours
and he pronounces it very distinctively. There are still, he says,
many Christians all over Japan. He gave one place in particular
where there were still 1000 Christian families. Then he questioned
us on the great Leader of the kingdom of Rome, leader of which he
wanted to know the name.
When we told
him that the august Vicar of Jesus Christ, the Sovereign Pontiff
Pius IX would be very happy to hear the consoling news that we had
just heard, Pierre manifested all his joy.
Petitjean's original statue of Our Blessed Lady in Oura church,
before leaving us he wanted to be sure that we were truly the successors
of missionaries of old.
have any children? he asked us timidly.
“You and your
Japanese brothers, both Christian and pagans, these are the children
the Good Lord has given us. But we cannot have any other children,
because as priests, we must, as the first Apostles, remain celibate.
Pierre and his companion bowed down all the way to the ground exclaiming:
‘They are virgins! Thank you! Thank you!”
The next day,
a whole Christian village asked for the visit of the missionaries,
and two days later, 600 other Catholics sent a delegation of 20
people to Nagasaki. On June 8, 25 Christian villages had been identified
by the missionaries and 7 ‘baptizers’ were put directly in touch
of all exterior help, without any sacraments except baptism; by
the grace of God, first of all, and thanks to the faithful transmission,
in the families, of the teaching and of the examples of the Christians
and Martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries,
the sacred fire of the true faith- or a least a burning spark of
it – had been maintained in a country ruled by government tremendously
hostile to the Christian religion. The only thing that now remained
was to blow on this spark to rekindle the flame.
Missions Catholiques Françaises au XIXe siècle, by Fr. J.B.
Piolet, SJ, (no publishing date but around 1900), vol.III, pp.440-445