Niigata (AsiaNews) - The faith of Kakure Kirishitan, Japan's 'hidden Christians, "must leave the history books. The Church of Japan is working to make them living witnesses to inspire today's Catholics. However, there are many difficulties. In Japan, it is hard to talk about religion, any religion. However, exactly this should prompt us to do more for our predecessors," said Mgr Tarcisio Isao Kikuchi, bishop of Niigata and president of the local Caritas, a few days before the Church celebrates the country's 'Hidden Christians'.
The event will begin on 14 March and last until 17, which marks the 250th anniversary of their re-emergence. In fact, after about two and a half centuries of total secrecy, Japan's underground Christian community came out of nowhere after the inauguration of the Church of Oura (near Nagasaki), which the Japanese government had granted to French missionaries.
Known as Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians), these early Christians had converted in the 16th century, remaining faithful to the Church despite the absence of missionaries and priests as well as the lack of freedom of religion and worship.
On 17 March 1865, as he was praying in the new church, Fr Petitjean - a missionary with the Missions Étrangères de Paris who later became the first bishop of Nagasaki - was joined by a small group of local farmers who asked him if "it were possible to greet Jesus and Santa Maria." After a moment of astonishment, the priest heard the story of the large Christian community that was still loyal to Rome since the persecution of the 16th century.
Pope Francis spoke several times with a lot of respect about their story. As a priest, the future pope hoped that he might be sent to Japan as a missionary, but for health reasons, he could not go. However, as a bishop of Buenos Aires, Card Bergoglio on several occasion cited the "great example" of Japan's Christian community.
According to Mgr Kikuchi, "what happened in Nagasaki has great importance for all of us. However, to be fair, it must be said that the Japanese, even Catholics, believe that it is something closely tied to the area, which has long been considered 'Christian'. Most Japanese Catholics lovingly pay homage to the hidden Christians, who came through two and a half centuries of persecution without abandoning their faith, but feel little connection to them. That is why, as bishops, we are looking to go beyond history."
The problem does not concern only the Kakure Kirishitan. "It is very difficult to evangelise in Japan. The Japanese are not interested in any religion, and it is difficult to talk to people. There is a sort of criticism against the Church, which is seen as too interventionist. A good example is the Message of Peace for 2015 released by the bishops. Most people - including Catholics - were critical of the decision to talk about political issues."
Nonetheless, Catholic social works are doing a great job. "Thanks to them, and to volunteers, we have been able to raise awareness about our values in a healthy way. The terrible earthquake and tsunami that hit the country four years ago have caused many tragedies. What we have done, and continue to do through Caritas in the affected areas, has greatly impressed people. This is the real living testimony that penetrates the hearts of the Japanese."
The prayers during the upcoming '24 hours for the Lord' will be dedicated to the victims of this tragedy on the day Pope Francis proclaimed in his Message for Lent 2015, an event set to take place all over the world.
"In my diocese, we have decided to focus the day on worship and confession. However, the main point is related to the fourth anniversary of the tsunami. We shall pray for the peace of the souls of those who perished, as well as for the welfare of those who survived and for the rehabilitation of the affected areas."