Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his admiration for the “hidden Christians” of Japan, who miraculously reappeared with their faith intact in the second half of the nineteenth century, after two and a half centuries of centuries of ferocious annihilation of Christianity in that country.
But few know the real story of this miracle on the brink of the incredible. It was reconstructed on Thursday, October 12 in a fascinating conference in the aula magna of the Pontifical Gregorian University, by the Japanese Jesuit Shinzo Kawamura, professor of Church history at Sophia University in Tokyo and an author of the most up-to-date studies on the issue.
The complete text of his conference, given at the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and the Holy See, is reproduced on this other page of Settimo Cielo:
An extensive extract from this is published below. From reading this – which is a must – it can be gathered that what allowed the intact transmission of the Catholic faith, from generation to generation, among those Christians devoid of priests and entirely cut off from the world was essentially an oral tradition made up of a few decisive truths concerning the sacraments and in the first place confession, according to what was taught by the Council of Trent.
It is “Tridentine” Catholicism, therefore, that nourished the miracle of those “hidden Christians.” With its doctrine of sin and of sacramental forgiveness, anticipated in them by repeated acts of perfect contrition, in the absence of a confessor but also in the prophetic vision that one day he would finally arrive.
These were acts of contrition that followed, at times, the sin of apostasy, which involved publicly trampling on the “Fumie,” the image of Jesus, as they were forced to do by their persecutors in order to prove that they abjured the Christian faith, on pain of death.
Sin and forgiveness. Curiously, however, at that same academic presentation on December 12 at the Gregorian, Kawamura’s conference was followed by that of another scholar of the subject, Adelino Ascenso, a Portuguese missionary in Japan, who approached the question of apostasy from an opposite perspective.
In fact, right from the title of his conference Ascenso spoke of “conflict and reconciliation” instead of sin and forgiveness.
He took as a paradigm the story of the Jesuit Rodrigo in the famous novel by Shusaku Endo “Silence,” recently made into a film by Martin Scorsese.
Rodrigo too – Ascenso explained – abjured by treading on the “Fumie,” but reconciled himself with that action of his by interpreting it as identification with a “weak” and “fragile” Jesus, entirely different from and more true to life than the “heroic” Jesus brought in by the first missionaries in Japan in deference to the “stereotypes” of Western Catholicism.
It is no mystery that this change of paradigm – under the banner of so-called “inculturation” – is today upheld by large sectors of the Church and by Pope Francis himself, as seen in the discussion that accompanied the release of the film by Martin Scorsese:
But it is all too easy to intuit that such a paradigm – much less Protestantism, as Kawamura pointed out – could ever have had the power to generate an “exceedingly Catholic” miracle like that of the “hidden Christians.”
“HIDDEN CHRISTIANS” IN JAPAN. THE HISTORY OF AN ORIENTAL MIRACLE
by Shinzo Kawamura, S.J.
On January 8, 1867, His Holiness Pope Pius IX dispatched a special message to Fr. Bernard Petitjean of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, who at the time was involved in missionary work in the city of Nagasaki. The purpose of His Holiness was to personally bless an event, which he exuberantly described as a “Miracle of the Orient.”
What he referred to as a “Miracle of the Orient,” was the fact that three years before this message was dispatched, that is, on March 17, 1865, an incident had occurred within one of Japan’s oldest churches, namely the “Oura Tenshudo” of Nagasaki, which is also known as the Basilica of the Twenty-Six Holy Martyrs of Japan.
A group of approximately 15 people, descendants of the Hidden Christians of Nagasaki Urakami, visited the Oura Tenshudo that had just been built, and engaged in a dialogue with Fr. Petitjean.
They spoke to Fr. Petitjean saying: “We are of the same faith as you. Where can we find the image of Saint Mary?”.
No sooner had these Hidden Christians ascertained the fact that Catholic priests had entered Japan, more and more of them began to come out of hiding, and their numbers in course of time exceeded ten thousand.
After having duly confirmed the fact that the faith of these priests was the same as that which had been adhered to by their ancestors 400 years ago, these Hidden Christians returned to the Catholic Church.
These Hidden Christians had endured about 250 years of persecution, due to the prohibitions imposed upon them by the Tokugawa government. Even so, they faithfully continued to preserve their faith, and when they eventually felt that the time was appropriate to do so, they rejoined the Catholic Church. This was indeed a miracle, but my question is, what was it that made this miracle possible?
I now wish to present three keywords that I consider most vital, with regard to the possibility of this Oriental Miracle.
The first keyword is “confraternity” or “confraria.” It was this that enabled them to discover a systematic means of preserving their faith during this lengthy period.
The second keyword comprises the expression, “Catechist Bastian’s Prophecy.” Bastian was the name of a catechist who suffered martyrdom during the period of persecution around 200 years ago, and we have a work of his entitled “Future Resurrection Prophecies of the Church of Christ.” This work served as a source of hope for the Hidden Christians, and hence it was accepted and transmitted by them to the later generations. For the Hidden Christians, it was a message for the future.
The third keyword refers to a booklet entitled, “Book of Contrition and Prayer.” This booklet consisted of the memories or recollections of their ancestors. These memories were lovingly cherished by those Hidden Christians, and it served as a motive force for them. The booklet also served to authenticate their knowledge, regarding the sacraments that were used during the Christian period.
I shall hereafter provide in turn a simple explanation for each of these keywords.
1. The “Confraria” or Lay Communities
Since the time of St. Francis Xavier, communities that were governed and supervised by the laity alone existed as territorial organizations, in diverse regions of the country.
Japan’s earliest Church community was constituted of lay Christians, who adopted as their model the “Confraria da Misericordia” of Portugal. When Europe began to spread out during the period of the great navigations, this “Confraria” too expanded to diverse sections of the globe, and in course of time it even entered Japan, where among other activities it focused chiefly on the running of hospitals.
In every area, aside from periodic visits made by missionaries, the maintenance and government of the community was carried out by the lay leaders and the group members.
According to statistics of the 1590s, the total number of Christian believers was 220,000, and the priests constituted merely forty Jesuit missionaries.
In 1587, Hideyoshi promulgated the “Bateren tsuihō-rei,” which was an ordinance expelling the missionaries. This initiated the first persecution.
An outcome of this expulsion ordinance was the fact that these lay communities, which hitherto had been bound together through to their involvement in charitable activities in diverse regions, now began active preparations to face this persecution, and their structure consequently underwent a change. They were now transformed into communities of mutual support and aid.
In other words, they were reborn as communities of Hidden Christians, who were prepared to face the ongoing persecution. Their lay leaders conducted baptismal ceremonies and conveyed the teachings of Christ to the members of their communities.
That is to say, these communities of Hidden Christians, which were totally devoid of priests, constituted a secret that remained unrevealed to the authorities, a secret that persisted for a period of 250 years. The primary reason for this is the fact that throughout the Christian period, these communities, whose structure was modeled upon the “Confraria”, were groups that were deeply rooted within the soil of Japan.
2. The “Prophecy of Catechist Bastian”
There existed an oral tradition entitled the “Prophecy of Catechist Bastian,” and this tradition provided these Christian communities with hope, regarding a future resurrection.
The individual referred to as Bastian, was a catechist. He is said to have served as the disciple of a certain Joāo. In 1657, he was captured by agents of the Nagasaki Magistrate’s Office, and was beheaded after three years and three months of incarceration.
On that occasion, he was believed to have left behind a prophecy. The most crucial component of that prophecy was the following: “After seven generations have passed a black ship will arrive, in which there will be some confessors. People then would be able to make their confessions, even on a weekly basis.”
The fact that Bastian prophesied that the “confessors” would return, is an issue of critical value.
Those Hidden Christians were people who were obsessed with the idea of having the authority to forgive sins.
In other words, for those Hidden Christians, it was absolutely crucial that those people who returned to Japan at a future time, should be Catholic clerics or Church workers.
In order to ascertain whether those confessors who returned were really priests, Bastian told the members of the Christian community to ask them three questions, and to see if they could provide answers for them. The questions are as follows:
The first question was: “Are you single?”
The second question was: “What is the name of your leader in Rome?”
The third question was: “Do you venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary?”
On the occasion when the Hidden Christians were first discovered, the question they posed to Fr. Petitjean was, “Where is the statue of Saint Mary?” This question has now become virtually a legend, and thanks to the oral transmission of “Catechist Bastian’s Prophecy”, we have been able to grasp its meaning.
Initially the Hidden Christians of Urakami entered a Protestant church in Nagasaki. On doing so however, when the wife of the Pastor received them and offered them some English tea, they promptly withdrew from the place.
3. The role of the “Konchirisanoriyaku” and the “Orasho”
The Council of Trent, which concluded in 1563, declared that at least once a year all believers should receive the sacrament of Penance, that is, Confession, for to die in the state of mortal sin would mean that the individual would go to hell.
In particular, people who were bed-ridden and on the verge of death, were in great fear of dying without having received forgiveness for their sins.
In response to this crisis faced by the Christian believers, the Jesuit missionaries of that time began to contemplate measures aimed at alleviating their woes, by a broad interpretation of the following words of the Council of Trent, namely, “reconciliation between the individual and God can be attained by true contrition.”
In cases where priests were not available, they permitted the following exceptional procedures for the Christian community: If the sinner experienced true contrition, that is to say, if he or she had genuinely repented of their sin, then the actual confession of the sin could be deferred until the time when a priest was available.
On this basis, a booklet entitled “Konchirisanoriyaku” was published and printed out in Japan. The word “Konchirisan” is the same as the Portuguese word “contrição”, when pronounced in the Japanese language.
The “Konchirisanoriyaku” describes the critical significance of “true contrition.” It also states that when embarking upon lengthy voyages, or when we find ourselves in situations of war, conflict and so on, if there happens to be no priest available, then we should reconcile ourselves to the fact that we shall have to make our confession at a later date.
For use on such occasions the members of the Christian communities composed a prayer known as the “Orasho”, and arrangements were also made for the Christian believers to recite this prayer on a daily basis.
This prayer known as “Orasho” served to greatly console the members of the Christian communities, who due to the persecution were unable to get into contact with the Catholic priests.
For instance, on occasions when officials of the Tokugawa government compelled the Christians to step on the “Fumie,” that is, an image of Jesus, there were certain believers who stepped on it with no qualms whatsoever. Yet, these same believers, on returning to their place of residence, recited the “Orasho” over and over again, and by this means they tried to atone for what they had done. They did this with the awareness that sometime in the future a priest would appear, to whom they could confess their sin.
This rule, which enabled the Hidden Christians to make their confessions at some later period in the future when priests were available, also served to instill within their hearts the firm conviction, that the Church at some future time would revive again. It was a hope that arose within their hearts, owing to the memories they had carefully sustained regarding the sacraments.
In other words, we may perhaps assert that it was largely due to the memories they had preserved of the sacraments, that those Hidden Christians were able to survive so long as a community of faith.
One must admit that this entire episode is exceedingly “Catholic,” for if Protestant Churches had existed in Japan during the Christian period 400 years ago, one wonders whether such a miracle could have really occurred.