Tokyo (AsiaNews) - After four days, the Catholic Church in Japan has ended its solemn celebrations marking 150 years since the 'Hidden Christians' of Nagasaki came out of the shadows, a pivotal moment in history but also a crucial event in the life of the Catholic Church.
On several occasions, Pope Francis has in fact described Japan's Catholic community as a "great grace". In view of this, Japanese Catholics will dedicate the entire year to remember their forebears in the faith.
What follows are some of the thoughts of Fr Mario Bianchin, regional superior for Japan of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).
The historical significance of what happened on 17 March 1865 in the newly built Ōura Church, on a hill overlooking Nagasaki harbour, went certainly unnoticed to the people of the city, though perhaps not to the authorities, for trouble soon followed.
At the time, Japan still had laws that banned the Christian religion. They would eventually be abolished in 1873, but only after a protracted struggle that saw a renewed wave of persecution whose martyrs are still relatively unknown, the martyrs of Tsuwano.
The event is so significant that the Church in Japan has included it in its liturgical calendar. This year, it celebrates the recurrence as a feast, that of Nippon no Shinto Hakken no Seibo or Holy Mother of the discovery of the Christians of Japan.
When it happened, the discovery caused so much joy that it moved to tears Blessed Pope Pius IX. And today's pontiff, Pope Francis could not avoid seeing its importance for the Church. For him, it remains an eloquent example of the crucial importance of baptism, as the sacrament that gives us roots and enables us to bear witness and truly pass on the holy faith.
What happened at that time can be found in the annals (or chronicles) of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (cfr. Bulletin de la Société des Missions Étrangères).
Its importance was such that the then newly-established Lombard Seminary for Foreign Missions (PIME's old name) started immediately to translate them into Italian and publish them under the title of Le Missioni Cattoliche (The Catholic Missions), now renamed Mondo e Missione (World and Mission).
The story of the 'Hidden Christians' can be found in Fr Renaut Mep's 'Journal' for 13 September 1875. Here is a summary by Fr Joseph Leonard Van Hecken CICM in The Catholic Church in Japan, since 1859.
Fr B. Petitjean arrived in Nagasaki in August 1864 after the construction of the Ōura Church was completed. His predecessor, Fr L. Furet, had started the building a year earlier. In the city, he deliberately walked around town in his frock, showing locals that Catholic priests were back.
When the "Hidden Christians" living in the villages around Nagasaki - and they could be counted in the hundreds - noticed the presence of these foreigners, who were different in appearance from the others, they began to wonder if the "Bateren" (Fathers) who had taught the religion of Jesus to their ancestors had come back.
Of course, the cross on top of the beautiful Ōura Church was the sign of Christ's redemption. So, they began to discuss the meaning of the foreigners' arrival, and decided that they would be willing to recognise them as true successors to the ancient 'Bateren' if they were in communion with the pontiff of Rome, if they honoured the image of the Virgin Mary, and if they lived in perpetual celibacy.
Thus, a small group from Urakami left on the morning of 17 March 1865, arriving in Ōura around noon. Fr Petitjean received them and took them to church, with the intention of speaking to them of the faith.
As he performed a brief act of worship before the altar, someone touched his shoulder. When he turned around, he saw a woman, who told him, "We have the same heart as you."
Seeing the astonished face of the priest, she asked insistently where was Saint Mariasama. The priest took her the altar of Our Lady. Seeing the baby in the arms of the Virgin Mother Mary, the woman said that it was Jesussama.
She told Fr Petitjean that there were 1,300 underground Christians in the area and explained some of their customs. "A few days ago, we entered 'the sad season' (Lent)", and "We celebrate the birth of Jesus on the 25th day of the cold month" (December).
The woman, whose name was Elizabeth Tsuru, was a midwife from Hamaguchi.
These are the known facts that even today fill us with gratitude, wonder and joy. What happened before them is probably less known but perhaps it might be useful to remember them.
It is very likely that both the missionaries and the Hidden Catholics had a deep desire of knowing more about each other. For 240 years, the latter had lived in the shadows of persecution and isolation, passing on the faith of their forebears, which St Francis Xavier's original mission had brought to Japan in 1549.
What made possible the meeting that realised both sides deepest desire? Here is what happened.
Commodore Perry's expedition shook Japan out of its isolation when his small fleet entered Tokyo bay in 1853. After he handed a letter from the US president to representatives of Japan's shogun, a friendship treaty (Convention of Kanagawa) was signed on 31 March 1854, granting the United States access to the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate.
The first American consul, Townsend Harris, arrived in Shimoda in 1856, paving the way for the first 'Ansei Treaty,' or 'Treaty of Amity and Commerce' signed with the United States in July 1858, followed soon after by similar treaties with the United Kingdom and France.
The treaty with France set in motion events that led to the return of Catholic missionaries to Japan and ultimately the discovery of the Hidden Christians.
This historical note might suffice now, but the history of the mission is full of important events that might be worthwhile exploring at a later date.
As a final digression, there is an interesting parallel between events in Japan and the apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes, both of which occurred in the same year, 1858.
In fact, Bishop Theodore Forcade (MEP), the first apostolic vicar to Japan, was unable to take up his post because the country's laws of persecution were still in effect. Eventually, he became the Bishop of Nevers, where he did his utmost to welcome Saint Bernadette in the local convent, as well defend the authenticity of her apparitions.
Even today, the pictures of the Lourdes grotto are a familiar sight in Japanese churches and convents. Are they not a sign of Mary's special protection for the Church of Japan, the Mother so venerated by the faithful during the period of prohibition, hidden under the guise of "Mary-Kannon", whose image was placed in front of the Ōura Church with the title "Our Lady of Japan ", on the second anniversary of that momentous moment?
* PIME regional superior for Japan