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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2007

The Twenty-six Martyrs of Nagasaki

by Joanna Bogle

Imagine the scene: a group of exhausted men, some very young, and all showing grim evidence of having been tortured. They have been force-marched more than 600 miles across rough tracks and unmade roads -- their feet are cut and bleeding. They are weak and debilitated, and as they approach the crowd awaiting them, something horrible becomes evident: they have had their ears cut off. On some of them, blood oozes from these and other wounds.

There are more than twenty of these men, and crosses have been laid out on the ground, each one made specifically for its grim task -- the men are to be crucified. This is Nagasaki, Japan, in February 1597. The men are young Christians -- some priests, some laymen, some European, some Japanese. They will become known to history as the Nagasaki Martyrs -- Saint Paul Miki and companions. This year, 2007, marked 410 years since their deaths.

At one time, the stories of martyrs were taught widely in Catholic schools, to inspire courage and heroism and to show examples of faithfulness to death. Sometimes, of course, it was all overdone -- I distinctly remember a horrible visit to the Tower of London as a child, with a lugubrious nun showing us the dungeons where our English Martyrs were tortured and imprisoned.

But we do need to be reminded of the fact that witnessing to the Catholic Faith with martyrdom is a central part of the Church’s heritage. It is not right to dwell on gruesome details. But today’s young people -- perhaps especially boys, in this feminist-dominated age -- have a right to know of the colossal courage that is central to the Christian tradition, and the fact that the Catholic Church honors heroism as among the noblest of virtues, and hails martyrs so that they will be honored through the centuries. Courage is not, of course, a specifically male virtue. But in an era when men are much denigrated (all those TV ads with dad being made to look stupid, all those conferences praising women’s “giftedness” as if men didn’t have gifts too) I think that we need some specific reminders of heroic Catholic men to inspire us all.

The Nagasaki Martyrs were men, young men. One was a sword-maker. One came from a family of strong military tradition. One was just twelve years old.

Initially, the Japanese rulers had not opposed the Christian missionaries. On the contrary, because of the new opportunities opening up for trade and other contacts with Europe, the arrival of these teachers of the Christian Faith was seen as extremely useful, and its message fascinating. But then things changed when in 1596 political events thrust new people into power. Taikosama, the effective ruler of Japan under the emperor, announced wide-ranging measures against Christians and a savage persecution broke out. Among those arrested were Japanese laymen and Franciscan tertiaries, and missionaries from Mexico. Priests and laymen would share a common fate. The group of men force-marched 600 miles to Nagasaki included Paul Miki, born into a Japanese noble family and heir to a great tradition, Cosmas Takeya, a sword-maker, Martin of the Ascension from Spain, Gonzalo Garcia from India, and a youngster, Louis Ibaraki, only twelve years old.

The grisly march had been a long drawn-out public event designed to terrify and intimidate all the Christians along the route. Now the climax was to come with crucifixion. The local commander at Nagasaki, Terazawa, was in fact an old friend of Paul Miki and supervising these deaths would be for him an agonizing experience. But he obeyed his rulers and carried out the task.

Tied on to the crosses, the martyrs prayed and sang, and Paul Miki, on hearing the sentence of execution read out, started to preach aloud in a strong voice. The execution notice -- fixed to a lance which would be used to stab each man to death -- claimed that the men had come from the Philippines to undermine Japanese traditions and culture, but he stated clearly that he was Japanese. He proclaimed the truth of the Gospel of Christ and the salvation won by Him for all men: his listeners would never forget his words and they would form, through the centuries, a heritage for generations of Japanese Christians.

Then the stabbings began. As blood fell on the ground, Christians, who knew these men to be martyrs, slipped forward and took handfuls of the soil, which would be treasured in reliquaries.

The deaths had been planned to take place on a rubbish-strewn area where wild dogs and birds of prey scavenged, but Terazawa had at the last minute chosen a wheat field. Something had made him feel the dying men merited some dignity. His decision became a prophetic choice: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies....” The Japanese martyrs would meet God in a place where new shoots of wheat were already showing through the earth, a Eucharist symbol of Christian hope.

We in Britain do not know enough about some of the great martyrs of distant lands. It would make our Religious Ed classes and Confirmation groups more inspiring if we passed on these great stories of heroism. In the next few years, there will be tough choices for Christians to make in Britain and real commitment needed. It is the tradition of the Church that in honoring martyrs we learn lessons for our own lives. Their stories -- even in the grisly details of their sufferings -- are designed to link us all with Christ and to show us that He will ultimately prevail. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Today there is a great shrine at Nagasaki and huge numbers of pilgrims visit. The Church in Japan is small, but despite further times of persecution since Paul Miki’s day, it has never died out. Today in Japan there are Catholics who attend Mass and teach their children the Faith, are loyal to the pope, and who honor Mary. There are Catholic schools and organizations. There are people who carry the names of the martyrs, and there are books and holy cards and videos commemorating them and telling their story.

In a shrinking world, the stories of saints and heroes can be shared with a real sense of a common humanity. We have all been taught about the martyrdom of early Christian martyrs in pagan Rome. Now it is time to ensure that martyrs from every corner of the globe become known to young Catholics, so that they can learn from them, and recognize their courage and faith. For today’s teacher or youth leader, the story of Paul Miki and his companions is waiting to be told.

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.

Related Page: Saint Paul Miki and companions

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