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Japan's history of 'hidden' Christians and what the Pope said about it

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Credit: Takayukl Miki via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

In a recent meeting with Japan's bishops, Pope Francis discussed how the country's brutal history of Christian persecution has given way to the survival of a small but fervent Catholic community today. In 2015, less than one percent of Japan's population of 127 million people identify as Christian. Pope Francis called the group of faithful who remained after the expulsion of priests and missionaries in the 16th century the “hidden” Christians of Japan. In his view, they created a lasting legacy which began with the Jesuit missionaries – especially Saint Francis Xavier and his companions. Many of these missionaries, along with the nation's early Christians, were martyred, which in turn “brought many blessings to the Church, strengthening the faith of the people,” the Pope said during his March 20 address to the bishops during their ad limina visit to Rome. Some of those counted among these martyrs were seminarian Saint Paul Miki and his companions, who were killed for their faith in the year 1597. Sentenced to die by crucifixion and lancing, they were first marched 600 miles to the city of Nagasaki. During the journey, they underwent public torture meant to terrorize other Japanese believers in Christ. But all of the 26 held out courageously, even singing the hymn of praise “Te Deum” when they arrived at the hill where they would be crucified. St. Paul Miki offered an especially strong witness to his faith during the group's month-long march to Nagasaki. He preached to the crowds who came to mock the prisoners – still preaching even as he hung on his cross, dying. “The embers of faith which the Holy Spirit ignited through the preaching of these evangelizers and sustained by the witness of the martyrs were kept safe,” Pope Francis said, “through the care of the lay faithful who maintained the Catholic community’s life of prayer and catechesis in the midst of great danger and persecution.” The pontiff described what he sees as the two pillars of Japan's Catholic history: its “missionary activity” and these “hidden Christians.” Throughout the ages and in every nation, “the Church remains a missionary Church, seeking to evangelize and make disciples of all nations, while continually enriching the faith of the community of believers and instilling in them the responsibility to nurture this faith in the home and society.” Pope Francis voiced his gratitude for those missionaries who continue to contribute to the nation's dioceses, meeting the needs both of the Catholic community and “broader society.” “I encourage you also to be attentive to their spiritual and human needs so that they do not become discouraged in their service but persevere in their labors,” he told the bishops. Evangelization is not reserved for those who go out to preach the Gospel, he said: rather, all Christians “are called to be evangelizers and to witness to the Good news of Jesus wherever we are” by virtue of our Baptism. “We are called to go forth, to be an evangelizing community, even if that simply means opening the front door of our homes and stepping out into our own neighborhoods.” Pope Francis went on to commend the Christian community's work in various areas of service to the community. This service was particularly evident following the massive earthquake and tsunami which devastated the country in 2011, causing a nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima plant, claiming the lives of nearly 16,000 people. “If our missionary efforts are to bear fruit, the example of the 'hidden Christians' has much to teach us,” the Pope emphasized. “Though small in number and daily facing persecution, these believers were able to preserve the faith by being attentive to their personal relationship with Jesus, a relationship built on a solid prayer life and a sincere commitment to the welfare of the community.”    

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