St. Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs of Nagasaki

Today is the Memorial of St. Paul Miki and his companions, the Martyrs of Nagasaki.

St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, introduced Christianity to Japan in the middle of the sixteenth century.  By the 1580s, Catholicism had grown to over 200,000, despite the opposition of Buddhist priests and secular rulers.  In 1587, Emperor Hideyoshi banned Catholics from Japan, forcing the Jesuits underground.  In 1596, Hideyoshi began an active persecution of Catholics by rounding up 26 Jesuits, Franciscans and laypeople with the intention of executing them for their faith.

Paul Miki was among those rounded up.  Born around 1564, Paul was the scion of a noble Japanese family that converted to Christ when Paul was 5 years old.  Educated by Jesuits, he entered their novitiate at the age of 22.  Eleven years later, he was one of 26 preparing for martyrdom at the order of his Emperor.

After cutting off their left ears as a sign of disrespect, Hideyoshi paraded the group through the streets of Kyoto.  Hoping to inspire disdain among the people of the city, the pathetic display instead inspired compassion, and many of the witnesses who admired the courage of Paul Miki and the others would later convert to Christ.

Taken to Nagasaki, the victims were tied to crosses and their necks secured with chains.  From Bert Ghezzi’s book, Voices of the Saints, is an account of one of the witnesses:

“When the crosses were set up it was a wonderful thing to see the constancy of all of them. Our brother Paul Miki, seeing himself raised to the most honorable position that he had ever occupied, openly proclaimed that he was a Japanese and a member of the Society of Jesus. And that he was being put to death for having preached the gospel. He gave thanks to God for such a precious favor.

“He then added these 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 prisoners sang in unison the Canticle of Zechariah from the Gospel According to Luke. The guards holding the spears ready to kill them respected this final act on the part of the believers and allowed them to finish the chant.  Then, at a signal, the thrust their lances into the hearts of the martyrs.

Spoiler alert related to the book and movie, “Silence.”

Martin Scorsese adapted the book, Silence, by Shusaki Endo into a movie that was released in 2016.  The movie, just like the book, set amid the persecution of Catholics in seventeenth century Japan, has caused a great deal of controversy, mostly related to the decision of the protagonist, Fr. Sebastiao Rodrigues, SJ, to step on an image of Christ in order to save the lives of a group of Japanese Catholics held prisoner.  As Rodrigues reflects on the image of Christ, he believes he hears Christ speak, “You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” Rodrigues steps on the image of Christ, blaspheming Christ and denying his faith in order to save the Catholics held prisoner.

In the mind of Fr. Rodrigues, Christ is imagined as one who values more saving the temporal lives of his faithful than in those faithful following Him faithfully even unto death.  It is the opposite of the witness provided by St. Paul Miki and his companions.  It strikes me more the image of Christ desired by 20th century culture, especially the culture of Hollywood.  Christ is loving and kind.  No way would He want anyone to put everything on the line for Him.  No way would He ask anyone to sacrifice everything for Him.  He was the one who sacrificed Himself for everyone.  He would never ask that of us.  We’re not God, after all.  We’re not the Savior of the world.  We’re simply His followers, and the best way we can follow Him is to allow Him to be Savior and us to be saved including, apparently, saved for this temporal realm.

This is, of course, all backwards.  Christ asked us to pick up our cross and follow Him.  The cross is, by definition, an instrument of torture and death.  No one survives the cross.  No one.  Christ didn’t survive His cross.   We can’t expect to survive ours.  Rather, we unite our cross, our suffering, our death, with the cross, suffering and death of Christ.  In this way, we participate in the suffering of Christ.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in the suffering of Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church …” (Colossian 1:24).  What does this mean?  The Navarre Bible commentary quotes St. Alphonsus Liguori and Pope St. John Paul II.  Liguori writes in his Reflections on the Passion, “Can it be that Christ’s passion alone was insufficient to save us?  It left nothing more to be done, it was entirely sufficient to save all men.  However, for the merits of the Passion to be applied to us, according to St. Thomas [Aquinas], we need to cooperate by patiently bearing the trials God sends us, so as to become like our head, Christ.”  By uniting one’s sufferings with those of Christ, one shares in the sufferings of Christ.  In sharing in the sufferings of Christ, one “is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters” (Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici doloris).

In the climactic scene of Silence, Fr. Rodrigues doesn’t simply lose faith.  He loses hope and love, as well.  He loses faith in the saving power of Christ, and in our mission to share in His saving act.  He loses hope that Christ can turn the lonely martyrdom of a handful of faithful believers into an inspiration for the universal Church and into a witness of the gospel (the word martyr is from the Greek “witness”).  He loses his love for the Kingdom in favor of his love for this temporal world.  He also rejects the love of those willing to give all for their love for Christ.  He steals from them their martyrdom.

It’s not easy giving all for Christ.  Christ warned us that the world would turn against us, as it turned against Him.  But, His word of encouragement was one of cheer.  “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).

“The holy friends of Christ rejoice in heaven; they followed in his footsteps to the end.  They shed their blood for love of him and will reign with him forever.”  Antiphon for the Canticle of Mary, Evening Prayer, Christian Prayer: Liturgy of the Hours (emphasis added).

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.

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