Today’s feast day teaches us about patience and hope in the midst of suffering and the fact that God has a plan. St. Paul Miki was a native of Japan who lived from 1564 – 1597. He became a Christian when his family converted to the faith and eventually joined the Jesuits at the age of 20. As Providence would have it, he was an eloquent speaker (a God-given gift about which we will speak shortly) who was arrested by the Japanese authorities just a few months before his ordination.
St. Paul Miki’s presence was made known shortly after St. Francis Xavier’s initial missionary work in Japan beginning in the year 1549. According to some accounts, the Japanese leaders at the time feared that the introduction of Christianity to the people by these Spanish Catholic missionaries was merely the first step in Spain's effort to conquer their country. This is likely because something similar had occurred when the Spanish conquered the Philippines. Therefore, Japan's ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, banished all foreign ministers in 1587, but the decree was not rigidly implemented and Jesuits were able to continue their work under the threat of persecution.
St. Paul Miki along with his contemporaries James Kisai and John de Goto were among those who remained in the precarious mission field there. However, as certain circumstances escalated the situation, St. Paul Miki and his companions were arrested and imprisoned along with six Franciscans and 15 tertiaries. The 24 prisoners were taken into the public square and condemned to be executed by crucifixion. The lobe of each man's left ear was cut off before they were led away. The prisoners left the following day for a month-long walk to Nagasaki where they would be killed. Along the way people insulted and mocked them.
While hanging upon a cross, Paul Miki used that God-given gift in order to exhort the people to faith. Here is an excerpt: “The sentence of judgment says these men came to Japan from the Philippines, but I did not come from any other country. I am a true Japanese. The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I certainly did teach the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason I die. I believe that I am telling only the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you to become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain.”
The famously known adage of Tertullian yet again proved to be true: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Such blood was indeed spilled there at the hands of the soldiers who pierced each prisoner's chest with a lance. The hill on which these men died became known as "Martyrs' Hill.”
Over the next 250 years, hundreds of thousands of Christians were martyred and many others were tortured mercilessly until they publicly renounced their faith. Despite this, pockets of Catholics remained and secretly practiced their faith.
When missionaries returned to Japan in the 1860s, at first they found no trace of Christianity. But after establishing themselves they found that thousands of Christians lived around Nagasaki and that they had secretly preserved the faith. Beatified in 1627, the martyrs of Japan were finally canonized in 1862.
This true story of heroic martyrdom can give all of us hope amidst our sufferings, our temptations to despair, our wonderings, at times, about whether our work and our meager lives and sacrifices are of any worth in the grand scheme of things. These men and many others remained steadfast in the face of persecution with merely the hope that their message would prevail. And, indeed, the faith was sustained and in God’s own timing, their sacrifice was brought to the light for all to see.
Even if our sacrifices never receive such public acclaim, we trust that almighty God sees our hearts and has a plan for our good and the good of all. Let us each do our own part with unfailing trust in the message of Jesus Christ in whom we find our deepest meaning and hope of eternal glory.
St. Paul Miki and Companions, pray for us!