Today, February 6th is the Feast Day of St Paul Miki and Companions. The first martyrs of Japan.
But three and a half centuries before, 26 martyrs of Japan were crucified on a hill, now known as the Holy Mountain, overlooking Nagasaki
In the 1540s, St. Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to people in Japan. A generation later, Paul Miki was born and raised in the faith, one of the first fruits of the seeds planted by the great Jesuit missionary.
By the 1580s, there were more than 200,000 converts to Christianity in Japan, and the Japanese emperor felt threatened by the new religion. He banished Catholics in 1587, but the Jesuits who continued to serve the faithful there went into hiding and worked in secret.
Paul was born the son of a Japanese military leader and educated by these Jesuits. He wanted to become a priest and began studies. Just before his ordination, the emperor began violently persecuting Christians. Despite this, Paul decided to continue his ministry and was known for his eloquent and intelligent preaching.
Under this persecution, Paul and 25 other men and boys—Jesuits, Franciscans, and lay people—were arrested and condemned to execution. They were forcibly marched 600 miles throughout Japan so as to be an example to other people. Villagers abused them as they passed by, but the Christians sang the Te Deum, an early Christian hymn of praise.
By the time the group entered Kyoto, their ears had been severed and blood streamed down their necks. The sight of these suffering Christians inspired sadness and compassion among the witnesses, many of whom were moved to become Christians themselves. The Christians were then taken to a hill near Nagasaki and tied to crosses. Executioners killed the martyrs by stabbing them in the stomachs with swords.
As he was awaiting death, Paul said, “The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason that I die. I believe that I am telling 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 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.”
St. Paul Miki and his companions were the first martyrs of Japan, and their example sustained the Christian community there with courage, even as it survived underground for 300 years.
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.
St. Paul Miki and Companions, martyrs whose example encouraged Christians in Japan—pray for us!