Lessons to be learned from the Hidden Christians of Japan

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A cross is seen on a peak on Ikitsuki Island in Nagasaki, Japan (CNS photo/Issei Kato, Reuters)

Father Bernard Petitjean must have been discouraged. He had dreamed of being another St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary who had brought the Gospel to Japan and laid the groundwork for hundreds of thousands of Japanese to be baptized. So when Japan had finally opened her borders after 250 years, Father Petitjean had high hopes for the Japanese people.

It had been two years. Nobody had come.

They had built a beautiful church. Nobody had come.

They had named it for the Japanese Martyrs, canonized only two years before, hoping that a reminder of their Christian ancestors might draw the hearts of the Japanese people. Nobody had come.

And that St. Patrick’s Day, as he sat praying in his big, empty church, Father Petitjean may have been wondering just what he had been trying to do, waltzing into a country where the Faith had been so thoroughly eradicated and attempting to convert a people that clearly had no interest in the Gospel.

Around noon, Father Petitjean heard the sound of a small crowd outside the church. In a country where converting to Christianity remained a capital offense, where even contact with a missionary was illegal, the presence of 15 Japanese people at his door was intriguing. The young French priest invited them in.

Then, as he knelt for a moment before the high altar, Father Petitjean heard an urgent whisper in his ear: “We have the same heart as you!”

Startled, he turned to look at the speaker, a middle-aged woman.

“Who are you? Where are you from?” he asked.

“From Urakami,” she said, naming a village only a few miles off. “There, almost all have the same heart.” Then she asked, as though it was a question she’d longed to ask all her life, “Where is the statue of Santa Maria?”

Father Petitjean was stunned. This woman knew the Blessed Mother. She was looking for a statue. Could it possibly be? Were they Christians, descendants of those men and women who had given their lives for the faith two and a half centuries before?

He led them to the statue of Our Lady, where the group knelt in prayer. Soon, though, they were surrounding him, with a series of very important questions. Did he follow the great ruler in Rome? Did he have children? On hearing his answers, the group was elated: they had waited for 250 years and finally, finally, their priests had come back to them!

They wept as they knelt before that statue. Imagine how they wept when they finally went to confession, after generations of having to settle for an act of contrition, when they received the Eucharist for the first time.

Missionaries of Japan

The Gospel had first been preached in Japan in 1549 and was generally tolerated (even embraced) by the ruling class. The persecutions began in 1587: minor at first, then deadly but localized, and eventually nationwide. By 1614 all missionaries had been expelled from the country and the Christians were being forced to decide between life and faith. For 25 years this persecution continued in earnest, slowing only after the 1639 martyrdom of Blessed Peter Kibe, the last known priest in Japan.

After that, there were only a handful of western priests who attempted to infiltrate the closed country. Each was captured immediately and either martyred or tortured into apostasy. The Christian problem, it seemed, had been solved. And though the government continued to require suspected Christians to trample on an image of Jesus, it was rather a cursory effort: Christianity had clearly been destroyed.

Catholicism without priests

The government must have been just as surprised as Father Petitjean when tens of thousands of hidden Christians came out of the woodwork after that remarkable 1865 encounter in Nagasaki. These people weren’t supposed to exist, and yet here they were, telling stories of secret baptisms and Marian images made to look like Buddhist goddesses. They recited “Latin” prayers that were barely intelligible to the western priests and sang hymns modeled on Buddhist chants as another layer of camouflage.

But they had appointed men as catechists, men to baptize and serve in a pastoral role, and others to keep the calendar. They abstained from meat on Fridays, observed Lent and Easter, even attempted to celebrate feast days. As best they could, they gave their children Saints’ names. Many had resigned themselves to the need to deny their faith publicly, but they prayed acts of contrition, again and again, longing for the day when they would once again be able to receive sacramental absolution.

They knew the priests would return. They knew because the missionaries had promised, and they knew because a martyr named Bastian had prophesied in 1660 that after seven more generations, confessors would return to Japan. So they counted down the years until that fateful day in 1865 (seven generations later) when Father Petitjean received them at the church named for their ancestors.

Lessons of longing

As churches around the world lock their doors, leaving tens of thousands of priests celebrating Mass in empty chapels, attempting to livestream the holy sacrifice for their people, we would do well to ask the intercession of the Hidden Christians of Japan. For 25 years, they had only sporadic access to the Mass, and then only if they were willing to risk their lives.

For 225 years after that, there was no Mass. There was no confession. There was the hope that Mass was being celebrated somewhere on the planet, though they couldn’t be sure. There was the promise that one day — one day — the priests would return. And with them, the sacraments.

So they prayed together by candlelight, murmuring words that brought comfort more than understanding. They remembered the Eucharist in ritualized meals of fish and rice and saké, all the while longing for the bread of life. And in each generation, the longing swelled their hearts more and more. Each whispered family legend of a time when their grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother had been able to attend one Mass made the Hidden Christians of Japan hungrier, so hungry that even a statue of the Blessed Mother would move to tears a crowd of people who had survived for centuries on their ability to conceal their religious feelings.

But when the missionaries returned, not every Hidden Christian became Catholic. Half, it seems, felt that they were doing just fine on their own. The others gave their lives to be Catholic, several thousand of them being sent into exile just before Japan finally offered its citizens religious freedom. Some sources say that 20% of them died, martyrs who gained heavenly crowns scant months before Christians were given the freedom to worship.

The question for us is: what will this sacramental famine do to us? Will we grow in longing and desire for Jesus, like the holy Hidden Christians who gave their lives for the Eucharist after centuries of hunger? Will we take every opportunity for adoration, for Mass, for confession? Will we hunger for Jesus even after this is all long over?

Or will we fade away, finding that a Sunday without an obligation is rather more peaceful?

May the martyred Hidden Christians of Japan pray for us, that like them we would learn to hunger for the sacraments. May this time of physical distance from the Lord draw us ever more deeply into his Sacred Heart.

Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a Catholic author and speaker. Visit her website at piercedhands.com.