by Mike Keating on Wednesday, 9th of September 2015
It is 12:30 at noon in Nagasaki, on March 17, 1865. Father Bernard Petitjean, a
priest of the French Societe des Missions Etrangeres hears a noise at the back
door of his little chapel. On opening he is surprised to find a group of 15 middle-
aged Japanese men and women - surprised because all native-born subjects of
the Mikado are strictly forbidden to associate with Christians and his chapel has
been declared to be reserved only for foreigners.
Christianity had been shut out of Japan for 200 years.
Until now he has had no visitors. But here, standing before him are these 15
people, looking very frightened and not a little unsure of themselves.
One 60-year-old lady kneels beside him and asks whether he is a Christian. He
answers ‘Yes’. She places her hand on her heart and says: "The hearts of all of us
here do not differ from yours."
By now the priest is weeping with joy. He invites the small group in. There are 25
"Christianities" in the area, they explain, and seven ''Baptizers." They have
longed for the return of priests. In a few days Father Petitjean will indeed meet
some 2,500 well-instructed, devout and practicing Christians. Later, in Kyushu,
another 15,000. They will all be fully instructed and devout. Cut off from all
contact with the outside world, they will have all lived faithful to the memory of
their ancestors who died for Christ, long ago.
In the wake of St. Francis Xavier's great mission in the early 1550's, they had
converted many of the more prominent daimyos (lords) of central Japan, built
churches, installed and operated a printing press, and administered an academy
of fine arts. In 1602 two Japanese Jesuit priests had been ordained; in 1604 the
first diocesan priest. By 1610 Japanese Christians numbered over half a million.
But politics intervened, as did the natural Japanese suspicion of strangers. The
ports of Japan were closed to European vessels, and sentences of death decreed
on all priests. In 1610, the Shogun Tokugawa Leysau ordered that all Christians
return to some form of Buddhism or be put to death. Within two generations, over
a quarter of a million Japanese Christians were so executed. By 1710, the Church
had effectually been destroyed.
But not quite. A faithful few fed and fostered their faith, without bishop or priests
or religious, without any other external assistance.
When the small remnant came to Father Petitjean's church at Nagasaki on March
17, 1865, they came, in fact, as witnesses to one of the most extraordinary acts of
persevering faith in the long history of the Church.
- Ps Mike