St. Francis Xavier brings the Faith to Japan
After the Apostle Paul, St. Francis Xavier (1506 - 1552) is considered one of the greatest missionaries of the Church. However, he did not start out to be a missionary. Instead, he was more of an academic.
At the age of nineteen, Francis left his home in Portugal in order to attend the University of Paris. After obtaining his degree, Francis had begun to teach philosophy when he decided to join his roommate St. Ignaitus of Loyola in becoming a priest and helping to found what would become the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits.
Even after his ordination and the establishment of the order, it was assumed that the very talented Fr. Francis would take a teaching role. However, the Lord had other plans.
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Becoming a Missionary
The king of Portugal, John III, was interested in sending missionary priests to India where there were some outposts of the Portuguese. They needed priests, and certainly the fields seemed ripe in terms of the native population. The king had heard of the newly formed Jesuits, and after he made a request, eventually, the decision was made by Fr. Ignatius who was the head of the Society of Jesus to assist the king by sending one of the Jesuits.
Then one of the selected Jesuits, Fr. Nicholas Bobadilla, took ill. And, Fr. Ignatius, reluctantly, chose Fr. Francis to be his replacement. So at the age of thirty-four, Fr. Francis began life as a missionary which would consume him until the end of his life.
Over the course of a mere twelve years, Fr. Francis would help in the baptism of thousands and help plant and strengthen the Catholic faith in India, Malacca, the Maluku Islands, and Japan. He would die before getting access to mainland China. However, Fr. Francis' planting of the Catholic faith in Japan would have an important impact on future generations.
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The Fruit of the Missionary Work of St. Francis
Only five years after his birth, St. Paul Miki (c. 1564 - 1597) entered the Church when his family converted and he was baptized. His family was part of the wave of tens of thousands of conversions that swept his native country of Japan in the decades that followed St. Francis Xavier's introduction of the Catholic Faith to the nation of islands.
Paul was from a noble Japanese family. Under normal circumstances, when he grew up, he would have had the opportunity to become a samurai and to hold a place of great honor in Japanese society. Instead, Paul chose to follow up his Jesuit education by entering the novitiate for the Society of Jesus when he was twenty-two years of age.
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The Persecution Begins
In the year 1587, the Emperor Hideyoshi formally banished all Catholics from Japan. The Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries responded by operating in secret. However, it was not until 1596 that definitive persecution began. At that time, the emperor had twenty-six of the faithful, including Jesuits, Franciscans, and lay people rounded up in order to make an example of them. Paul was one of that number.
At the time, Paul was still in formation for the priesthood. He had been in preparation for almost eleven years. In his coursework, he had studied the faith, and he had studied Buddhism in order to be able to better answer charges against the Catholic Faith from adherents to the dominant religion in Japan. Throughout his formation, he had shared the faith with many others, and that is why he caught the attention of the government.
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The emperor had the left ears cut off from each of the twenty-six as a sign of disrespect to them, and then he placed them before the people of Kyoto to show them how Catholics would be treated. The twenty-six captives were then forced to march hundreds of miles away to Nagasaki where they were placed on crosses with iron rings around their necks to hold their heads in place.
From an eyewitness account, we learn that Paul preached to those who were watching the martyrdom of the twenty-six. He proclaimed that there is only salvation in Christ, he forgave those who were killing him, he prayed for his persecutors to convert, and he encouraged his companions. After the executioners allowed them to finish chanting the canticle of Zachariah, they were thrust through with spears and left to die.
This group of twenty-six became the first martyrs of Japan. By 1630, the Church in Japan was forced to go completely underground. And, over the next 250 years, these martyrs helped inspire the faithful through those very difficult times. The twenty-six martyrs were canonized in 1862 by Bl. Pius IX.
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Feast Day (Memorial) : February 6