On Feb. 6, the Catholic Church honors the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki, a group of native Japanese Catholics and foreign missionaries who suffered death for their faith in the year 1597.
Hundreds of Christians embraced martyrdom for faith in Japan in the 16th to 19th centuries. The martyrdom of Paul Miki and his 25 companions in crucifixion in the late 16th century is among the most tragic events in the history of Catholic Church in Japan.
Paul Miki and his companions were crucified on Feb. 5, 1597, on the hill of Nagasaki, on the order of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a feudal lord who pledged allegiance to the Japanese emperor. They were pierced with spears one by one as they suffered on the crosses.
“The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ,” Paul Miki announced. “I thank God it is for this reason that I die. I believe that I am telling the truth before I die.”
“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.”
Their martyrdom took place on Feb. 5, and the Catholic Church celebrates their feast on Feb. 6. Among the martyrs were six foreigners including Gonsalo Garcia, a Portuguese-born Indian from Vasai, Bombay, whose feast is celebrated in India on Feb. 7.
Paul Miki was born in 1562 and his father was a wealthy military leader. He entered the church along with the rest of his family.
He studied at a Jesuit-run college in Anziquiama and joined the Jesuits as a seminarian in 1580. He became well-known for his eloquent preaching of the Gospel.
Christianity came to Japan thanks to arrival of Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier in 1549. The Jesuits continued their missionary outreach even after the death of St. Xavier and by 1587, Catholics in Japan surpassed 200,000.
Soon, Christianity came under persecution from Japanese rulers who destroyed churches, massacred Christians, and expelled missionaries. the atrocities forced many Christians to go underground and continue their faith secretly. These Christians came to be known as “hidden Christians.”
Pope Urban VIII beatified the 26 martyrs on Sept. 14, 1627, and Pope Pius IX canonized them on June 8, 1862, in the Vatican.
In 1853, the minor basilica of the Twenty-Six Holy Martyrs of Japan in Nagasaki was built to honor their great sacrifice for faith. Two popes visited the shrine dedicated to them on the Nishizaka hilltop – Pope John Paul II in 1981 and Pope Francis in 2019. Pope Francis said that he saw the Nishizaka hill “not simply as the mount of the martyrs, but a true Mount of the Beatitudes."
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