Eternal message of Japanese martyrs: Faith, Hope, and Love.
Shinzo Kawamura,S.J. Jesuit Priest; Associate Professor of Sophia Unive rsity.

    On November 24th of this year the Catholic Church of Japan will conduct the beatification ceremony of Pedro Kibe and 187 other martyrs, an event for which the special Committee of the Bishop Conference of Japanese Church has been earnestly preparing for a period exceeding four and a half centuries. These 188 martyrs included 4 Jesuits and one Augustinian, but the rest were lay people. These lay people comprised 60 women and 33 children below the age of 20, and of these 33 children 18 had not yet attained the age of five. A little girl aged three was burned alive with her mother, a child of five was beheaded along with its father, and Catholic priests, after being subjected to the excruciating agony of ‘suspension in the pit,’ and incessant urging by officials to apostatize for periods extending from a week to ten days, were ultimately martyred.

Kirishitan doukutu(wando)    Although the Church of Japan is by and large keen on celebrating the occasion yet I am aware of some conflict in certain quarters with regard to this issue, for there are people who dislike the idea of laying undue stress on events that occurred four hundred years ago, and publicly commending the persons involved as Saints or Blessed. As a matter of fact, quite a few Catholics have serious doubts regarding the Church’s system of elevating individuals to Sanctity or Beatitude. Nevertheless though on this occasion I feel that rather than commend the role of the martyrs what we need to do is highlight the PERSON they testified to, and the message those martyrs have passed down for our people of today.

    A 17th century Christian clearly defined martyrdom as ‘dying in a mood of non-resistance for the sake of the teachings and virtues of Jesus Christ.’( 丸血留の道), and accordingly, it is logical for those contemplating martyrdom to emphasize the issue of death. Earlier when we honored the 26 Saints and 205 Blessed of the Meiji Period, what struck people most was the fact that they died for the sake of the teachings of Christ, that they died as heroes. On this occasion though, on considering the case of these 188 blessed martyrs individually, I feel that what matters is not the fact that they were martyrs to their faith, but that they so to say endowed that faith with a living significance carved in relief.

     I would first like to consider the feeling of assurance the martyrs had with regard to the object of their faith, that is, the certainty they had regarding the existence of God. In the current view of martyrdom, it was mostly the courage and tenacity of the martyrs themselves that was the point of focus. Yet, what should not be overlooked here is the PERSON who constituted the goal of their faith, a faith on which they staked their lives. In contemplating the martyrs, cannot we of the present age get a glimpse of that PERSON, for the sake of whom they persevered solidly to the very end? People like Kasui Kibe, Julian Nakaura, Yuki Ryosetsu, Kintsuba Jihyoue, and Nicolao Fukunaga Keian, all these grimly persisted in holding on to their faith despite the horrors of the pit, and doubtless experienced an agony that surpasses our imagination. Also, due to the fact of their having undergone nonstop tortures to the extent of not knowing even if they were dead or alive, they were often perhaps plunged into a state of spiritual gloom, a state where they risked losing sight of the object of their faith.

    It may have been due to experiences like these that the martyrs, having made the agony of Christ their own persevered to the very end, and thereby testified not only to their own tenacity and the horrors they had experienced, but even more to the existence of that PERSON towards whom their faith was oriented. As for us, even though we may not have experienced the horrors of the pit, even though we have not had to face martyrdom, yet we can always encounter the PERSON revealed to us by the martyrs when we say, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

    A message conveyed to us by the martyrs that merits reflection, is the fact that we should never give way to despair. Many today experience despair in a variety of ways. A few years ago it was stated that annually in Japan over 30,000 people were resorting to suicide, and that number is said to be gradually increasing. Almost daily we read of people murdered by family members, and this mood of despair imbuing the nation seems to be spurred on by the use of odious keywords such as ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ In nations like those of Africa we read of the anguish undergone by victims of ethnic massacres, and are often amazed and horrified at cases of educated people being coaxed by terrorists into becoming human bombs. In fact, one might almost say that living in a world such as ours without giving way to despair, would be unusual.

    In these circumstances I do not believe it a waste of time to recall cases of people from our past, who refused to yield to despair. We have the case of Genomosui, who after tasting the delights of this world and leading a high social life was thrust down into what seemed like the lower-most pit of hell, a witness to the murkiness of life. We also have Kagayama Hayato, who despite being in the good graces of his lord was abruptly condemned to death, Ogaswara Gennari and the Miya family who died after 13 years of intense poverty, Hashimoto Thecla who was burned alive with her infant child in her arms, and many others. All these martyrs bear witness to the fact that regardless of what the situation may be, we should never give way to despair.

    What is essential for us to bear in mind here is not just the death of those martyrs, but the fact that they died for love. Jesus said, “greater love has no man than to give his life for his friend,” and the martyrs in their hour of need had no friend other than Jesus himself. Our everyday world teems with people and yet we hardly get space to breathe, and the pain and stress we undergo daily arise largely from our contact with others. Despite being encircled by crowds we feel isolated, and the reason for this is our inability to accept others as friends. We feel capable of loving those who are likely to give us something in return, but not the others. While on the cross Jesus prayed for all mankind, and not just for those who could offer him solace. His was the love of a friend extended to every person created as a child of God, and the martyrs too while offering their lives, prayed not just for their loved ones, but for their officials, their persecutors, and everybody else. Nicolao Fukunaga Keian has left behind for us the following words, that reveal clearly the fact that he prayed for his friends: “There is one thing I regret, and that is the fact that I was unable to gather the Shogun and all the others into the fold of Christ.” In other words, the martyrs by dying clearly emulated the love of Jesus Christ.

    To love, to trust to the very end, and never to give way to despair, are decisions of major value for us. They are best exemplified by the attitude of Christ on the cross, for despite his agony his trust in the Father endured to the very last. As a man he faced the limits of pain and it seemed as though even God had forsaken him, and yet, despite it all, his faith, hope, and love continued to persist and decisively overcame the machinations of the devil, who strove to evoke within him feelings of mistrust, despair, and indifference.

    The martyrs sought to emulate Jesus to perfection. In earlier times martyrdom was referred to as the ‘baptism of blood,’ and taken together with the blood of the cross it was viewed as a direct step towards the glory of the resurrection. Death for us is not an end, but a moment of liberty leading to genuine life. We can never attain a true awareness of faith, hope, and love other than in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, for as we learn from the Imitation of Christ, the fullness of beatitude shone forth upon the martyrs during their final hours.

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