St. Paul Miki
St. Paul Miki
The Church has been gifted with men and women who courageously faced death because of faith. Their witnessing even unto death has gained them an eternal crown from the Lord. Their example of faith and courage gives us reasons to hold on to God’s promise of glory after suffering for His Name.
Ministering to a Hostile Land
The Catholic faith reached every land in the world. During the 16th century, it made its way to the shores of Japan through the efforts of St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary. Even after his death, the Jesuit missionaries continued their mission in Japan. Their toil has gained the Church around 200,000 Japanese Catholics by 1587.
However, religious tensions initiated a period of persecution in that same year. Many churches were razed to the ground. Missionaries were forced to work and exercise their ministry in secret. Despite the restrictions, 100,000 more Japanese became Catholic within a decade. There were very few episodes of martyrdom that took place during this time.
By order of Spain’s King Philip II, Franciscan missionaries came to Japan from the Philippines in 1593. These missionaries zealously worked through evangelization and acts of charity. However, their very presence disturbed a delicate situation between the Church and Japanese authorities. Still, the missionaries continued their mission despite the dangers lingering at the doorstep.
In 1587, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi took command in the name of the emperor, he feared that Christians would take over the government. He ordered that all Catholics be banished. Some missionary priests stayed and went into hiding, dressing like Japanese so they could continue to minister to the Christians. But the outright persecution did not begin until late 1596, when Hideyoshi gathered up twenty-six Jesuits, Franciscans, and laypeople and prepared to martyr them.
Japan Claimed Its First Crowns
Among these was Paul Miki, a Jesuit novice who had just completed eleven years of training. Paul came from a noble Japanese family and was converted when he was a child. At age five, he was baptized. Paul was educated by the Jesuits and at age twenty-two, he joined their congregation as a novice. He had studied intensively the teachings of the Buddhists so as to be able to debate their priests. He welcomed his chance at martyrdom, but may have wished just a little that it would be delayed long enough for him to be ordained a priest.
Hideyoshi had the left ears of the twenty-six martyrs cut off as a sign of disrespect. To give a stern warning among the Japanese, they were paraded through Kyoto. Paul was dressed in his simple black cassock, which made him stand out among them. Instead of instilling fear among the onlookers, the whole horrible display had the unexpected effect of evoking compassion from the crowd, some of whom later became converts.
The martyrs were then taken to Nagasaki. They were tied to their crosses with their necks held in place by iron rings. Beside each was an executioner with his spear ready to strike. An eyewitness gave this account:
“The crosses were set in place… Their steadfast behavior was wonderful to see…
Our brother, Paul Miki, saw himself standing now in the noblest pulpit he had ever filled. To his ‘congregation’ he began by proclaiming himself a Japanese and a Jesuit. He was dying for the Gospel he preached. He gave thanks to God for this wonderful blessing and he ended his ‘sermon’ with these words: ‘As I come to this supreme moment of my life, I am sure none of you would suppose I want to deceive you. And so I tell you plainly: there is no way to be saved except the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.’
Then he looked at his comrades and began to encourage them in their final struggle. Joy glowed in all their faces, and in Louis’ most of all. When a Christian in the crowd cried out to him that he would soon be in heaven, his hands, his whole body strained upward with such joy that every eye was fixed on him.” (Excerpts “From an account of the martyrdom of Saint Paul Miki and his companions, by a contemporary writer”, Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, Memorial of St. Paul Miki and companions)
As they awaited death, Paul and his companions sang the Canticle of Zechariah. The executioners stood by respectfully until they had chanted the last verse. Then, at a given signal, they unsheathed their spears and thrust them into the victims’ sides. On that day, February 5, 1597, the Church of Japan welcomed its first martyrs.
Five Interesting Facts About St. Paul Miki
- St. Paul Miki could have been the very first Japanese priest if he had escaped arrest because he had already finished his studies for the priesthood.
- Pope Pius IX canonized Paul Miki and his twenty-five companions, the Protomartyrs of Nagasaki, in 1862.
- St. Paul Miki and his companion-martyrs are the patrons of Japan and Japanese Catholics.
- The hill in Nagasaki where St. Paul Miki and his companions were crucified is now known as the “Martyrs’ Hill” or the “Holy Mountain”.
- Two hundred years after St. Paul Miki’s martyrdom, Japan permitted again Christianity in 1858. Missionaries found thousands of Christians still in Japan. For two hundred years, they had carried on the faith in secret.
Prayer to St. Paul Miki
O God,strength of all the Saints,who through the Cross were pleasedto call the Martyrs Saint Paul Miki and companions to life,grant, we pray, that by their intercession we may hold with courageeven until death to the faith that we profess.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, for ever and ever. Amen.