Paul Miki: Japanese samurai and Christian martyr

March 16, 2007 in General, News

Paul Miki: Japanese samurai and Christian martyrOriginally published in The Corkman, this article by Mgr. Denis O’Callaghan looks at the powerful legacy of the martyrdom of St. Paul Miki, a Jesuit brother who was crucified along with his fellow Christians in Nagasaki in 1597.

With changes in the liturgical calendar in recent years many feastdays of obscure saints no longer rate a mention. Philomena was no longer considered a personal name. It is an adjective with the general meaning of “loved by the Lord”. Then the presenting of St. George as Patron of England does not have any hard evidence of a saint of that name.

Whatever about other feastdays the liturgy continues to venerate on 5th February the martyrdom of St Paul Miki and his twenty-five companions crucified at Nagasaki, Japan in 1597. Many of us may well feel mystified as to why this incident, so remote to us in time and place, could claim such attention. In Japanese Christian consciousness it is a red-letter day, recording an amazing story of the survival of the Catholic religion in a totally hostile environment not just for a generation or so but for centuries.

The Shogun in 1597 had decided to suppress the Christian faith as central to his policy of closing off Japan from Western influence. Nagasaki had a vibrant Christian community. The crucifixion there of Paul Miki and his companions was expected to terrorise that group of Christians into apostasy. The result was quite different. Paul Miki, a Jesuit priest convert from a family of Samurai warriors, intoned in Latin the Gloria In Excelsis Deo. The hymn was taken up by the others on their crosses. The Christians who had gathered joined in.

The little Christian community subsequently went underground and established itself in total secrecy on an island at Urakami outside the city. They lived by fishing. They preserved the truths of the faith and the traditional forms of prayer from century to century. The structure of their religious practice was built around three roles – the role of Leader Person, the role of Water Person, who performed Baptism, and the role of Calendar Person who marked Church feast days.

For three hundred years they waited for a priest! Eventually Japan eased its policy of exclusion and allowed in business people from the West.

Permission was granted for a little chapel in the business area of Nagasaki, strictly for foreigners. It was a capital offence for Japanese to attend, The word percolated through to the community in Urakami. On market day, as the women went to the city, two of them slipped aside from the group as they passed the chapel. Inside they spoke with the priest. One can imagine his amazement! They checked his credentials with three questions: Did he have an image of Mary, Mother of the Lord Jesus? Did he come from the White Father In Rome? Did he have a wife?

Satisfied, they rejoined their group on return to Urakami. At some later time the Jesuit priest was secretly brought to meet the community. As the years rolled by in a more liberal Japanese society, the story unfolded. There it might have ended, but there was to be a final chapter.

A young doctor, Tagashi Nagai, came to Nagasaki to qualify for consultancy. After a search for a place to stay he ended up in the home of the Morayama family. This family had traditionally provided the Leader Person for the Urakami community. The young doctor became a Catholic and married their daughter. One would like to say that they lived happily ever after.

In August 1945, as the doctor was at work in the hospital at Urakami, by then a major suburb of Nagasaki, the atomic bomb exploded. It obliterated downtown Urakami where his home was. Later, severely suffering from radiation sickness himself, he found some remains of his wife with her molten rosary beads in her hand. It is said that he found courage in the words of the Psalm: “Heaven and earth will pass away but My word will not pass away”. He worked for the dying until he collapsed. In that terminal phase his faith shone bright for all who met with him. His name is revered in Japan and those words of his are preserved as a haiku. It fits neatly into that popular form of Japanese poetry. What a proclamation of faith in the providence of God as Father!

The survival of the Christian faith in Japan is not unlike the experience in Stalinist USSR. Even In Albania, where Christians were victims of the most horrific persecution, under Envar Hoxha’s regime, the faith survived underground. The credit for this goes principally to the Babuschka, the grandmother figure who would not betray the family treasury of faith. In the Gorbachev springtime of glasnost and perestroika the faith blossomed from these roots long hidden under the Stalinist permafrost.

One can see how penal laws with external church structures and systems as their target had so little effect on this ingrained culture where Christian faith was woven like a gold thread into the web of everyday life. We see that deep spirituality in prayer life.

You will find many of those prayers in that evocative collection Ar bPaidreacha Duchais by an tAthair Diarmaid Ó Laoghaire. There were prayers and aspirations for everything that happened in the home scene: on hearing the cock crow, on welcoming the sunrise, on lighting the fire, right through the typical day, down to quenching the candle at night. Never a mention of locking the door!

The pastoral letter Handing on the Faith in the Home, published by the Irish Bishops over twenty years ago, reflects that. It is so down-to-earth and so true to the Irish experience of a culture suffused with the Christian faith. Where religion builds structures, catechesis instills attitudes. Those spiritual attitudes are best reflected in the traditional patterns of prayer, ideally in the home. This is catechesis at its best. Religion aims to convince the mind, Catechesis appeals to the heart.

This is exactly what catechesis means. Its emphasis differs from teaching religion because religious education is addressed primarily to the mind. Indeed many of those who teach and study religion see it as just another academic subject. Catechesis in the faith, on die other hand, is addressed primarily to the heart. Imagination and personal experience gained through coming to live the faith are at the core.

In the seventies when the proposal to add religious studies to the Junior and Leaving Certificate syllabus came up for debate, catechists in the schools expressed reservations. Their concern was that this new, more secular approach might siphon off interest in the more personal area of developing and deepening Christian faith. Ideally in Christian education imparting religious knowl¬edge should find a home in the context of catechesis. An ancient maxim sums up the link. Faith in search of understanding goes hand-in-hand with understanding in search of faith.

The Corkman
Thursday, February 15, 2007