The Catholic Defender: St. Paul Miki and Companions
Nagasaki, Japan, is familiar to Americans as the city on which the second atomic bomb was dropped, immediately killing over 37,000 people. Three and a half centuries before, 26 martyrs of Japan were crucified on a hill, now known as the Holy Mountain, overlooking Nagasaki.
Among them were priests, brothers, and laymen, Franciscans, Jesuits, and members of the Secular Franciscan Order; there were catechists, doctors, simple artisans, and servants, old men and innocent children—all united in a common faith and love for Jesus and his Church.
In the latter 1500's, Japan was mostly a Buddhist/Shinto nation when St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) introduced the Catholic Faith in Japan near the middle-late 1540's. In a short period of time St. Francis converted over 200,000 converts despite the jealousy of the Buddhist priests who still maintained influence with the regional rulers.
The Emperor of Japan (Hideyoshi) himself felt threatened very similar to the Roman Emperors who thought of themselves as a god. In Japan, Jesus again finds Himself competing with another Emperor claiming to be a god. In 1587 the Japanese Emperor ordered the banishment of all Christian religious and a persecution of the Church soon followed. The Church went underground as the religious went into hiding. Over 3,000 Christians were martyred.
On December 8, 1596, Twenty-six Jesuits, Franciscans, and laypeople to include alter servers were captured, but these the Emperor wanted to make a warning to all the Japanese what would happen to any who would follow in their footsteps. Of the twenty-six condemned, there were three Japanese Jesuits, six Franciscans, seventeen Japanese laymen, four of which were 10, 13, 16, and 19 years old. After being tortured, they were forced to march over 1,000 miles from Miako to Hagasaki in the toughest of times. They traveled through snow and ice and freezing waters making it unbearable.
Through all of this, St. Paul Miki encouraged his fellow travelers reminding them that they were on their way to the land of milk and honey, the place where Jesus reigns in Heaven.
They sang songs and hymns maintaining their joy through all the suffering. Along the way, people came out to watch them as they prayed the Rosary as a group. They gained the respect of many of the people.
On February 5, 1597, upon seeing their crosses upon a high mountain overlooking Nagasaki, the people were amazed to see the condemned run joyfully to their crosses singing praises to God.
St. Paul Miki was baptized at an early age (5) as a result of his parents becoming Catholic through the teaching and preaching of St. Francis Xavier. St. Paul Miki was a Japanese whose father was a military leader, knew his Nations history, he understood the Buddhist religion and was able to best their priests which fueled their anger and jealousy. At age 22 (1580), St. Paul Miki was in training to become a Catholic priest.
To add insult to injury, the Emperor ordered that the left ear of the condemned as a sign of disrespect, they were dragged through the streets of Kyoto which the people watched. St. Paul Miki was Japanese, he was not like the others who were foreigners.
To the people assembled watching this happening unfold, St. Paul Miki was a noticeable person whom they could recognize, he was Japanese dressed in a black cassock. He was raised in nobility. The crowd was reduced to silence many of whom were converted to Christ through the preaching of St. Paul Miki.
Soldiers bound them to the crosses with iron bands at their wrists, ankles, and throats. Then they thrust them through with lances. Many people came to watch the cruel deaths. Hideyoshi and his solders had hoped the example would frighten other Christians. Instead, it gave them the courage to profess their faith as the martyrs had.
Eye witness accounts that Japanese Soldiers tied the Christians to the crosses holding their necks on the beam with iron rings. Each had an executioner at the ready with a spear ready to strike the condemned. Upon the cross, St. Paul Miki preached from the cross proclaiming he was Japanese and a member of the one true God, Jesus Christ. That he was a Jesuit serving Christ and prepared to died for Christ. He was being put to death for the sake of the Gospel.
These are his last recorded words:
"Having arrived at this moment of my existence, I believe that no one of you thinks I want to hide the truth. That is why I declare to you that there is no other way of salvation than the one followed by Christians. Since this way teaches me to forgive my enemies and all who have offended me, I willingly forgive the king and all those who have desired my death. And I pray that they will obtain the desire of Christian baptism.” At this point, he turned his eyes toward his companions and began to encourage them in their final struggle. The faces of them all shone with great gladness. Another Christian shouted to him that he would soon be in paradise. “Like my Master,” murmured Paul, “I shall die upon the cross. Like him, a lance will pierce my heart so that my blood and my love can flow out upon the land and sanctify it to his name.”
“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 certainly did teach the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason I die. I believe that I am telling only 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 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.”
As they awaited death, they all sang "the canticle of Zachary (Luke 1:67-79):
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
The executioners found themselves respecting these brave souls who has shown such bravery through the whole campaign against them. They stood respectful until the last verse was sung before thrusting their spears into their victims sides.
It would be more than 250 years before missionaries would be allowed to return to the shore line of Japan, what they found were true Catholic followers who were sustained through the story handed down by the Christians surrounding Nagasaki. The faith endured as an underground entity without a priesthood. They maintained the prayers of the faith left to them.
The Martyrs of Japan were Beatified in 1627 and Canonized in 1862
When missionaries returned to Japan in the 1860s, at first they found no trace of Christianity. But after establishing themselves they found that thousands of Christians lived around Nagasaki and that they had secretly preserved the faith. The Martyrs were Beatified in 1627 by Pope Urban VIII, and were finally canonized in 1862 by Bl. Pope Pius IX. Their Feast day is celebrated on 6 February.