Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hidden Christians of Japan

Yesterday, March 17, we  remembered the 150th anniversary of the  finding of the Hidden Christians of Japan. Both the Peace Weekly and the Catholic Times had  articles on the history of the Church in Japan. In 1614 Catholicism was banned in Japan. Many  were martyred but many also went underground, passing on what they received to their  children for over 250 years.

Japan opened the door to foreigners only slightly in 1853, and Catholic Missioners from France belonging to the Paris Foreign Missionary Society  built a church in the Nagasaki area that was only for foreigners. The priest Fr. Petitjean  had just finished the church and shortly after  was visited by a small group of those living in the area.

The story of this first encounter of a French missioner with the ancestors of the Christians from the  16th and 17th century are well known. Details are  told in many different ways but the essential elements are  pretty much the same. A family of ten who were the descendents of the early Christians met the  French missionary with  trepidation and the expectations that this had something to do with their belief, and when they learned about the Blessed Mother, the Pope and that the priest was celibate, they knew the priest belonged  to the church of their ancestors from 250 years earlier. They had continued to use the word from the Portuguese--Christao, transliterated in Japanese meant Christian.

March 17th 1865 at  noon was the beginning of a new era in Japan of Catholicism. At the beginning of the 17th century there were 400,000 Catholics in Japan who because of the persecution were killed or forced underground, and this year is the 150th anniversary of their discovery in the  meeting with Fr. Petitjean. They have kept the history of Christianity in Japan alive. Little by little they began to appear from other areas of Japan.They  became the central figures of Japanese Catholicism.

Even after this meeting with the priest, however,  persecution of the Catholics continued,with death and  exile to remote areas of Japan. Because of the serious criticism of many of the countries of Europe the Meiji government withdrew the edict of persecution in 1873, but it wasn't until 16 years later that the constitution was changed,  allowing religious freedom for the country.

For seven generations Christians were considered wanted criminals; in  exterior action they acted like Buddhists and when they were  thought to be Christians and picked up for questioning, often would walk on the holy pictures  to save their lives  and on  returning to their homes would ask God for forgiveness. For hundreds of years without priests or books they remembered  the liturgical feasts and continued to baptize and have Catholic weddings. This year they are formally celebrating the Feast of the Hidden Christians, with the representative of Pope Francis present at the festivities.   

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