Today, February 6th, the universal Church honors and remembers the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki, consisting of native Japanese Catholics and foreign missionaries who suffered martyrdom for their Catholic Faith in 1597.
As a matter of background, St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), a Jesuit priest, went to Japan to bring the Catholic Faith, catechizing thousands of people. After St. Francis died, this evangelization continued, and approximately 200,000 Japanese entered the Church in or about 1587.
However, religious tensions and religious restrictions spread in 1587, wherein many churches were destroyed, forcing missionaries and/or priests to work in hiding. Nevertheless, few occasions of martyrdom occurred at this time, and within ten years, approximately 100,000 more Japanese became Catholic, in spite of the negative culture against Christianity.
In 1593, Spain’s King Philip II ordered Franciscan missionaries from the Philippines to go to Japan. These missionaries zealously spread the Gospel, performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, even though their presence in Japan created a sensitive relationship between the Church and Japanese authorities.
A Spanish ship was seized off the Japanese coast and was found to be carrying artillery. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful imperial minister, responded to this perceived military threat by sentencing 26 Catholics to death. This group of Catholics consisted of three native Jesuits, six foreign Franciscans and several lay Catholics including children. They marched 600 miles to the city of Nagasaki, ordered to die by crucifixion and lancing. During this perilous and difficult journey, they suffered public torture so as to make an example to other Japanese who believed in Our Lord Jesus Christ. But these 26 brave individuals kept walking, singing the beautiful hymn, “Te Deum“, all the way up the hill where they would be crucified.
Paul Miki, joining one of the captive Franciscans, gave an especially strong and heroic witness, preaching the Gospel, providing a brave and unflinching evangelization of his Faith. Though none of the 26 were priests, all were associated with the Jesuits: Miki was training to become a Jesuit priest, while Kisai was a lay brother and John of Goto was a catechist also preparing to enter the Jesuit order. Paul was born in 1562 and entered the Catholic Church as did the rest of his family. He joined the Jesuit order when he was a young man and helped to convert many Buddhists to Christianity. Indeed and in fact, his last sermon was preached while he hung upon a cross:
The sentence of judgment says 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 have taught the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason that I die. I believe that I am telling the truth before I die. After Christ’s example, I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain.
On February 6th, Paul and his companions were stabbed to death with lances. They were beatified in 1627, and Pope Pius IX canonized the Martyrs of Nagasaki in 1862.
In the 1860s, missionaries returned to Japan, at first finding no traces of Christianity. Yet, after they established their mission, they discovered that thousands of Christians resided around Nagasaki, secretly preserving their Faith.
What comes to my mind after studying about the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki, is a statement made by the incredible 20th century martyr, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, aka Edith Stein, having been gassed with her Jewish people during World War II by the Nazis. St. Teresa said, “That Truth is Love, and Love is Truth.” St. Paul Miki, whilst dying on the cross, told his fellow Japanese people that he died because he wanted to speak the Truth to them; the Truth is a Person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Our Lord Jesus Christ, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light. . .” Not only did these 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki die for their Faith, but they even spoke about Jesus whilst they were in agony hanging upon crosses. Keep in mind also that before they were crucified, they were tortured during the 600 mile walk to Nagasaki: True Love towards their Faith, towards the Triune God, can never be quashed or conquered. That Love speaks no matter what attempts are made to silence it, and that Love is unceasing.
God be praised for these magnificent people, the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki! Some day, we pray, that we can meet you in Our Lord’s heavenly kingdom! Please God, help us in every way to get there, so that we choose wisely, putting You first and our Faith always! Help us dearest Lord, to be prepared to suffer and die for You!