Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 
17 Japan's Hidden Christians

Persevering in the faith without priests, bishops, or religious

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.

It is, in fact, only 11 years since the American Commodore Matthew Perry induced Japanese authorities to open up the island's ports, closed to all foreigners since the early 1600's; it is only ten years since a first Catholic priest was allowed into the realm as interpreter for a French commercial mission; it is only seven years since religious of his society were granted permission to open churches in three cities, Yokohama, Hakodate, and Nagasaki. It is only six months since he began to build; one since the church opened.

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 considers this to be the 17th day of the time of sadness (Lent), and whether the next day is the eve of the feast of Saint Joseph. He answers yes. she places her hand on her heart and says: "The hearts of all of us here do not differ from yours."

Then a young man speaks up. His name is Peter. He is a catechist, he says timidly, and wonders whether Father Petitjean owes allegiance to "the great chief of the Kingdom of Rome." The missionary answers that the Vicar of Christ, Pope Pius IX, will be very happy to learn of their interest.

Peter, however, wants to make sure he has been understood. He asks, "Have you no children'?" "You and all your brethren," answers the missionary, "Christian and others are the children whom God has given me. Other children I cannot have. The priest must, like the first apostles of Japan, remain all his life unmarried." At this, Peter and his friends bend their heads down to the ground and cry out: "He is celibate! Thank God." Then they mention their village: "At home, everybody is the same as we are. They have the same hearts as we."

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.

Long ago is 200 years.

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 Ieysau 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 sacrament than Baptism and marriage.

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.

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