Amid the many horrors of the bombing of Nagaski, Japan by the American Air Force in 1945, this one is often overlooked: in a country where Christians are few, Nagasaki was the site of a Christian community. It was near Nagasaki in 1597 that the first Christian martyrs of the Far East, St. Paul Miki and his companions, were killed.
St. Paul Miki joined the Jesuits in 1580, during a time when Christianity was spreading rapidly through Japan. Paul became known and loved for his preaching. He was a novice, studying for the priesthood when he and twenty-five other Catholics were arrested and killed by order from Emperor Hideyoshi. They were canonized as the Martyrs of Japan in 1862.
The martyrs had their left ears cut off as a mark of shame. Mutilated, they were forced to walk through the streets of Kyoto.
Then they were taken to Nagasaki and tied to crosses, with their necks anchored to the cross by iron rings. An eyewitness gave this account of the martyrdom:
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.”
It is said that the martyrs then sang together the Canticle of Zachariah (which we sing at Morning Prayer each day.) When they had finished their song, the executioners killed each one of the martyrs.
Let us pray in thanksgiving for the witness of the Martyrs of Japan and let us pray for those who, in our time, are dying for the faith.