UCA News
William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
They would not give in
Published: November 25, 2008 10:43 AM
They would not give in

On Nov. 24, around 30,000 pilgrims including bishops and groups from other Asian nations gathered in a baseball stadium in Nagasaki for a celebration marking the beatification of 188 Japanese martyrs who died between 1603 and 1639.

The newly beatified were chosen to represent perhaps as many as 50,000 Japanese Catholics who died in persecution that began in 1597 (though Christianity was outlawed 10 years earlier) and did not end until 1873, when Western nations pressured the Japanese government to recognize freedom of religion.

In order to be representative, the chosen are mostly lay men and women from various parts of the country as well as four priests and a Religious brother. They range in age from two 1-year-old babies to an 80-year-old samurai and his wife. Among them are members of the aristocracy and poor folk, families and individuals.

The martyrs were executed in various ways -- beheaded, drowned, crucified, burned at the stake, boiled alive, starved in prisons and hung upside-down in a pit of sewage. That last torture was especially used on priests.

The Japanese persecution may have been the worst in the history of the Church. The Roman persecution, which lasted about the same number of years, probably took 15,000 or so lives.

The Romans focused mainly on the Church´s leaders, which is why so many of the martyrs from that time were bishops and deacons. The authorities assumed that if they destroyed the heads, the members would give in and abandon their faith.

But they would not give in.

The Japanese persecution did not focus on any particular group. Any and every Catholic was a potential victim. For nearly 280 years, they hid, they gathered in secret, they prayed, they passed on their faith to the generations that followed, and when they were discovered, they suffered and died.

But they would not give in.

Such persecution, whether it be in Rome or Japan in the past, or India or Iraq today, can be easily ended. All it requires is that Christians be willing to abandon Christ who lived and died for them. Burn incense to the divine emperor, trample on an icon and register at a Buddhist temple, undergo a Hindu conversion ritual or declare that Muhammad is God´s prophet, and the danger will pass.

In other words, Christians in every age have held the means to end persecution.

But they would not give in.

The word "martyr" comes from a Greek word that means a witness. In English, "witness" has two meanings. The first is a spectator, one who sees something happening. In that sense, the officials who oversaw the execution of Catholics were witnesses.

However, the Greek word refers to the second English meaning, one who gives testimony.

Today in Japan we no longer face death for following Christ, but we are still called to bear witness to him, to testify that faithfulness to him is more important than life itself. We are called to a kind of martyrdom that does not entail physical suffering and death, though it may entail strange looks and derogatory comments from those around us.

The Japanese martyrs force us to face some difficult questions.

Have I ever said at work, at school, among friends, at home or even in the Church: "No, I cannot do that. I will not do that (because I am a Christian)"?

In this time of economic uncertainty, have I ever said to myself or my family, "We will have to change our plans, because money is tight and we must not cut back on the time and money we have budgeted to help others"?

When work, school or neighborhood events are scheduled for Sunday morning (a common occurrence in Japan), do I ever say, "I will be late or absent because there is nothing more important than gathering with my fellow Catholics to hear the word of God and share the Eucharist"?

In other words, in a world that does not understand or make allowances for my faith, do I testify to that faith? Am I a fitting member of this Church of martyrs? When the time comes for me, for us, to meet the Lord and the martyrs face to face, will they say of us, "They would not give in"?

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

Help UCA News to be independent
Dear reader,
Trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world, only outdone by drugs and arms trafficking, and is the fastest-growing crime today.
Victims come from every continent and are trafficked within and to every continent. Asia is notorious as a hotbed of trafficking.
In this series, UCA News introduces our readers to this problem, its victims, and the efforts of those who shine the light of the Gospel on what the Vatican calls “these varied and brutal denials of human dignity.”
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
UCA News
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia