Saint Paul Miki and Companions
Saint Francis Xavier is often named as the Apostle of Japan. His time there in the years after his arrival in 1549 was followed by a period of rapid growth for Christianity. The leaders were supportive of Christianity, but a change in leadership was the cause of a shift. After 1587, foreign missionaries were banned by Japan.
The ban was never really enforced with full vigour. The missionaries were somewhat free to evangelize. Many went into hiding and dressed as Japanese as they ministered. However, they were never completely free from the threat of persecution.
That situation changed as a result of a disaster with a Spanish vessel on its way to Mexico from Manila. The 1596 disaster led to the arrest of a group of Spanish Franciscans who had come from Manila a few years earlier. In arresting the Franciscans, the police also took three Jesuits into custody.
Paul Miki and John de Goto were scholastics (Jesuits in training) and James Kisai was a Jesuit brother. Paul was born in 1564 of well-off parents. They became Christians when Paul was a child. At 22, he became a Jesuit novice. His arrest in late 1596 came just a short while before he was due to be ordained.
John de Goto was born of Christian parents. He had asked to join the Society of Jesus and was working with the missionaries as a catechist. Brother James Kisai was much older. He had been married, but his wife returned to her Buddhist faith. Kisai entrusted his son to a Christian family and worked for the Jesuits. He eventually became a Jesuit and helped with catechesis.
The three men were arrested on December 9, 1596 and experienced house arrest until January 1, 1597. On that date, they were imprisoned with the Franciscans and on January 3, the prisoners were sentenced to death by crucifixion. The charge was bringing harm to the government. They had to endure the long trek to Nagasaki.
Along the way they were ridiculed by people they passed. Christians who saw them were strengthened in their faith. By February 5, they were on the outskirts of Nagasaki, in a predominantly Christian village. Two Jesuit priests met them and in the chapel of a hospital Paul renewed his vows and the other two men professed their religious vows for the first time.
The prisoners were marched to the hill on which they would face execution. Paul Miki and others found the strength and courage to continue preaching and to proclaim that they faced their death with a deepened faith and that they forgave their executioners.
The leaders had hoped the example of these deaths would frighten other Christians. Instead, it emboldened them. They grew stronger in the profession of their faith. The hill on which they were executed became known as Martyrs’ Hill and a Jesuit residence was eventually built near it.
Christianity was permitted in Japan again in 1858. Missionaries found thousands of Christians. For two hundred years they had carried on the faith in secret. The work of Xavier, Miki and others lasted long after their deaths.