One hundred and fifty years ago, on March 17, 1865, Fr Bernard Petitjean found 15 Japanese outside the door of a new church that had been constructed to serve the European community in Nagasaki. Three of the women among the group knelt and said to the priest, "The heart of all of us here is the same as yours."
There had been rumors that in spite of more than two centuries of persecution, there were still Christians in Japan, the kakure kirishitan, or "hidden Christians" who had secretly passed their faith from generation to generation.
Those people who risked their lives to visit Nagasaki’s Oura Church were proof that the rumors were true. Their visit to the church sparked the last spate of persecution in Japan.
Christianity had been outlawed in 1587 and persecution had begun 10 years later with the execution of 26 Christians in Nagasaki. It was possibly the most brutal and systematic persecution of Christians until modern times were underway.
The evangelization of Japan began with the arrival of St Francis Xavier in 1549, and aimed, like much of the Church’s missionary work at that time, at the baptism of as many people as possible. Many missioners saw their work as a rescue operation, saving souls that were otherwise bound for damnation.
One result was that catechesis was not stressed. Even today, we see the influence of this style of mission in Latin America and the Philippines where the Church has a broad, but not always deep presence. People were baptized, often under coercion, while having only a very rudimentary understanding of the faith. They knew some prayers (often in Latin) and some devotions to Mary and the saints who were often amalgamated with local divinities.
In Japan, some Christians went on to learn more about their faith and set up a system of lay leadership. When Catholics were driven into hiding, some communities were better equipped than others to remember and pass on their faith.
But over the course of two and a half centuries, people forgot doctrines that the missioners had taught their ancestors. They had no Scriptures or catechisms since books would be evidence of their religion. In addition, most of the kirishitan were illiterate.
They gathered in secret to recite prayers directed at bundles of cloth that were hidden inside Buddhist altars. The bundles contained medals, statues or crucifixes that had been passed down to them. Their religion became a mix of Buddhism, Shinto and half-remembered Catholicism.
Fathers taught the traditions of the community to their children. Village elders led worship services. If they were discovered, death was sure, yet these small bands held to a sense of identity as Christians even though almost all the theology of Catholicism disappeared from their religion. Loyalty to their ancestors and to each other bound them.
When missioners like Fr Petitjean came to Japan and met the kirishitan, they faced a dilemma. The people considered themselves Christian, but their practices and beliefs varied so much from the teaching of the Church that it was hard to see how they could be accepted as any kind of Christians.
The response was to call upon the kirishitan to renounce the traditions of their ancestors and enter the Church anew. About half of the estimated 30,000 kakure kirishitan did so. The rest refused to abandon the faith they had protected through centuries of persecution. In some places the differences between their beliefs and orthodox Christianity had become so great that the people could not recognize the original connection.
For those kirishitan who became Catholics, missioners built churches in their villages and began the work of teaching them the actual faith of their ancestors.
Today, the descendants of the kakure kirishitan still form the core of the Catholic Church in Nagasaki. They are proud to be descendants of men and women who remained faithful in spite of persecution, even though their beliefs had strayed from true Catholicism.
Because of that history of persecution, their Catholicism has had a different emphasis from that of people in other parts of Japan. Until recently, it has been more traditional than the Church in the rest of the country, with an emphasis upon keeping the faith and passing it on to the next generation, a legacy of their ancestors’ faithfulness.
However, lately the Church descended from the kakure kirishitan has changed. From a Church that keeps the faith it is becoming one that shares the faith. These Catholics revere their ancestors who kept at least some memory of the faith but they are dedicated to deepening their understanding of that faith for the sake of mission today. They have come out of hiding.
The Church at large has something to learn from the Nagasaki Catholics. We have come out of a period of decades in which "keeping the faith" was given priority over sharing our faith. We were in danger of becoming a closed community of the elect, protected from the ways of the world.
Now, Pope Francis is calling us to proclaim Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel. And that proclamation is not simply the name of a papal document. It is the definition of the Church. We, like the Catholics of Nagasaki, must now focus on the proclamation of the fact that God’s love is stronger than sin, stronger than persecution, stronger than death.
It is time to come out of hiding and into the open with faithfulness to each other and to the Lord.
Maryknoll Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.