One of the most outstanding displays of fidelity of all time is also one of the most ignored. This is tragic, not only because the story of the Catholic Church in Japan is important in its own right, but for what it teaches us about hope.
Christianity (which would be exclusively Roman Catholic for hundreds of years) was brought to Japanese shores by St. Francis Xavier in the mid-1500s. After some trial and error, over the next 50 years hundreds of thousands of Japanese would convert to the Faith. Catholicism in Japan began to prosper and flourish. The port city of Nagasaki became a thriving hub for Catholics.
However, this golden age was only possible because Japan was in a massive century-long civil war, the Sengoku Jidai. Warlords, called daimyo, were too busy fighting one another to worry about external threats. The arrival of the Portuguese brought wealth and firearms to many of them. With the flood of riches and cutting-edge weaponry Europeans brought with them, they were tolerated. And where the Europeans went, they brought Catholicism with them. Christian communities began to sprout all over the Japanese islands.
But opposition to Catholicism was already beginning to crystalize. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, European matchlocks were decisive in the defeat of the Takeda Shingen and his clan. The battle facilitated the eventual rise of the Tokugawa clan, which would be cataclysmic for Catholics.
By 1600, the Sengoku Jidai was winding down, and sporadic violence against Christians had already begun three years earlier. The Tokugawa clan eventually seized control of the entire nation, and their leader was made Shogun.
With a united Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate began to pay attention to what was happening in the rest of the Pacific. At this point, the European powers were seizing Asia's material wealth and aggressively colonizing China and the Philippines. Fearing Christianity to be a tool of the Western nations, and remembering the role Europeans played in the Sengoku Jidai, the Japanese began to crack down on Catholics.
Catholicism also clashed with many Japanese sensibilities. The concept of Hell and the harsh condemnation of homosexual activity (which was widely practiced at the time in Japan) were offensive to many Japanese. These features made Catholicism an easy target for officials wishing to brand them as "un-Japanese." In a very real sense, Roman Catholics in Japan would be persecuted harshly in part owing to their rejection of homosexual acts. Catholicism was seen as an affront to the prevailing traditional religions, an attack on Japanese values, and treasonous.
In 1614, persecution became official policy. All missionaries and clergy were expelled, and all converts were to be killed. Any clergy that dared stay behind were executed.
The shogunate succeeded in completely decapitating the Catholic Church in Japan. Within a few years, every clergyman had been murdered or banished. The remaining Christians were forced underground. Those that were found out were tortured and executed.
Meanwhile, during the 1630s, Japan began to seal itself off completely from the outside world, severing all contact with foreign nations. Any foreigner who landed on Japanese soil was put to death. Any Japanese who left was forbidden ever to return.
In 1644, the last remaining Jesuit was dragged out of hiding and killed. From this point on, lay Catholics in Japan were completely on their own, with no priests and no possibility of communication with Rome. Japan went dark.
Not even the Roman and Muslim empires or the police states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Germany managed to suppress Christianity to such an absolute degree. And for the surviving Catholics in Japan, these initial purges were only the beginning.
Anyone caught obstinately clinging to the Faith was given a death sentence. The executions carried out by the Japanese authorities were brutal enough to make the most ruthless Roman torturer uncomfortable. Many methods are too gruesome to be recounted here. The lucky ones were crucified, beheaded or burned alive. Many others met a terrible end after days of torture.
But where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. The hideousness of the death the martyrs suffered was matched only by the courage they displayed when their time came. During the extermination of the clergy, priests would bless crowds as they marched off to their deaths, promising that other teachers would come to replace them (their promise would be eventually fulfilled). Those who were to be burned kissed the stake they were lashed to, grateful to be considered worthy to suffer martyrdom for the Faith.
Saint Paul Miki, one of the first victims of anti-Christian violence, went as far as giving a sermon from the cross, an incredible physical feat considering the effects crucifixion has on the respiratory system.
The Japanese Church had to adapt to survive. It went underground, and Japanese Catholics came to be known as Kakure Kirishitans, or "Hidden Christians." One of the first things to go were the Bible and other written or liturgical texts. Catholics had to eliminate any physical proof of their existence. The Bible, liturgical rites, and the Faith itself had to be memorized and passed down orally.
All statuary or symbols were built to double as Buddhist or Shinto artifacts. Sculptures of Jesus were made in such a way as to disguise him as Buddha. Any visual representation of the Virgin Mary worked the same way.
Even liturgical worship was camouflaged. The liturgical services (there were no priests to offer Mass) took on several Buddhist superficialities, while retaining their Catholic essence.
When the Catholics' trail went cold, the Japanese government decided to smoke them out. It required citizens to receive a certificate from the Buddhist hierarchy affirming their religious conformity.
Furthermore, the authorities began instituting a policy called Fumi-e. The population was forced to stomp on images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Any who refused were tortured into renouncing the Faith. Those who held out were executed. Catholics faced an array of disgusting ends, including being tossed into an active volcano.
The Church continued to endure. Those who were forced to undergo Fumi-e "baptized" it, in a sense, regarding it as a liturgical practice celebrating the forgiveness of Christ.
This went on for 250 years unabated. It would not be until Japan opened its doors to the world once again in the middle of the 19th century that the Church in Japan would step out of the shadows.
Father Bernard-Thadée Petitjean was one of the first boots on the ground after Japan re-opened its borders. Arriving in 1865, he was approached by a woman asking if he was a priest from the Pope in Rome. Startled that she knew what a priest was, much less the Pope, he pressed further. Once convinced of his identity, she introduced him to the underground Church, a spiritually half-starved but tenacious community that had never seen a priest for two and a half centuries.
Father Petitjean discovered that the hidden Catholics of Japan pulled off one of the greatest feats in salvation history. Enduring 250 years of a campaign of annihilation, with no clergy, the Japanese managed to pass down the Faith through a dozen generations in total isolation. The Roman rite of baptism, along with the liturgical calendar, was kept intact. When the ban on Catholicism was lifted in 1867, more than 30,000 Catholics emerged from hiding. Today there are half a million Catholics in Japan.
We live in very dark times, and the future does not bode well. But the martyrs and hidden Catholics of Japan show us that even when we are outnumbered, surrounded and hunted like animals, with our spiritual fathers ripped away, the Faith can endure.
One must recall Christ's promise:
Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you. (Matthew 5:11–12)