February 6, 2024
Twenty years after Christianity came to Japan, Paul Miki was born in Tounucumada, Japan, the son of a military general. In Paul’s youth, more than 200,000 people converted to Christianity across Japan, churches were built, schools flourished.
Paul’s family was among those converts. He attended those schools, learned the faith, and joined the Jesuits. He wanted to be a priest.
But with Christianity growing, Japan’s emperor evenutally decided that foreign religious influence was a threat to his rule. He began to believe that Jesuits were selling Japanese people into slavery, and he was concerned that Jesuit missionaries in the country were paving the way for Spanish military forces, bent on colonizing Japan as they had colonized the Philippines.
In 1587, imperial regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued the Bateren Edict, which prohibited Christian missionary activity in Japan, and ordered foreign missionaries deported. The Jesuits went underground. Paul continued studying for ordination. But in the years that followed the edict, crackdowns on priests and other Christian leaders became intense.
In December 1596, Hideyoshi ordered a wave of arrests — mostly Franciscans, but also Miki, along with another Jesuit, and a catechist who was entering the Jesuits.
The arrested men, 26 in total, were declared guilty of violating the Bateren Edict, and sentenced to death. As a sign of shame, each had the lobe of his left ear cut off, and then they were sent on a forced march of some 600 miles through Japan.
As they walked through villages over a grueling month, they reportedly sang the Te deum, a hymn of praise to God.
According to the Society of Jesus, the men — Jesuits and Franciscans — were tied to crosses on a hill outside of Nagasaki, and then each prisoner was pierced in the chest with a lance.
Eyewitnesses say that as Miki hung to die, he began preaching, speaking beautifully of uniting himself to Christ on the cross, and urging onlookers to accept the Gospel. He died proclaiming Jesus Christ.
Miki and his companions were Japan’s first martyrs.
The persecution of the Church is not only a historic fact. Miki was martyred almost 430 years ago. But today clerics, missionaries, and Christian families face the prospect of martyr’s death in countries around the world. They face the choice of dying for Christ, or abandoning him.
We are their brothers and sisters. Let’s pray for persecuted Christians today. Let’s pray that they be faithful to Christ. Let’s pray that God work through them. Let’s pray also that we will be faithful to Christ — radically and selflessly faithful — without fear, complaint, or mediocrity.
St. Paul Miki and companions, pray for us.