LegalWorks Apostolate - Counsel for a Culture of Life

Japanese Martyrs for Religious Liberty

By Caitlin Bootsma

It seems to me that one of the recurring habits of mankind is to forget the lessons of the past and focus entirely on the present day. In the Church, however, we recognize a wealth of men and women who have reached our ultimate goal of heaven whom we can learn from. Their lives, in various places and times, instruct us (if we are willing to listen) not on how to form a utopia on earth or to achieve status, recognition or wealth, but rather on how to live a life close to God, regardless of the circumstances.

We've been talking a lot as a nation over the last year about the issue of religious liberty. We've questioned how our legal right to religious liberty is being protected, and many of us have contacted our legislators, prayed and spread the word about ways this fundamental liberty has been threatened. It is easy to think that we will always be able to worship and live our lives according to our beliefs. Yet, over and over again throughout history, we see that this has not always been the case.

Today is the memorial of St. Paul Miki and Companions (also known as the Martyrs of Nagasaki), 26 faithful Catholics who were martyred in Japan for practicing their faith. When St. Francis Xavier and the Jesuits first arrived on the shores of Japan (a very insular country at that time with little contact with other nations) they were tolerated and then even welcomed. However, while hundreds of thousands of Japanese converted to Catholicism, the freedom to practice religion ultimately depended on the perspective of the political rulers of the time. In the late sixteenth century, it became politically advantageous to ban Christianity, and these 26 Catholics were rounded up and then publicly mutilated, crucified and struck with spears.

The first obvious lesson here is that the freedom to practice our religion is not guaranteed and that it is worth fighting for. Yet, the second and perhaps more important lesson is the one that we can learn from the martyrs themselves. Upon his crucifixion, St. Paul Miki reportedly said from his cross that this was the "supreme moment of my life." It is hard for me to imagine being in such unbearable pain and being able to say that with any joy. And yet, that is the faith we profess: that without God, we are nothing.

These martyrs impressed everyone with their joy in being able to share in the suffering of Christ. St. Paul Miki had already given up the status of his noble birth by taking on the priestly cassock; he desired solely to be at the service of the Lord. In fact, upon his death, he was quoted as saying that through Christ, his blood would sanctify the largely Buddhist Japan. He cared more for the evangelization of souls than for his own life!

This is not to say they would have chosen this over being able to practice their faith freely. Rather, when asked to choose between Christ and every earthly good and pleasure, they chose Christ unreservedly.

St. Paul Miki and Companions, pray that I might have the strength to cling to Christ regardless of the political and social climate!

This article has been reprinted here by permission of the author after original publication at Encourage and Teach, published by the Diocese of Arlington.

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