Pope Francis has paid tribute to the generations of Japanese Christians who for more than two centuries retained their traditions despite efforts by authorities to eradicate the faith, in some cases by torture and execution.
Meeting with 16 Japanese Catholic bishops at the Vatican on Friday, the pope said Japan’s “hidden Christians” were a model of resilience in the face of oppression.
“Though small in number and daily facing persecution, these believers were able to preserve the faith,” he said, attributing this in part to the Christians’ “sincere commitment to the welfare of the community.” The comments were made in a written statement delivered to the bishops.
Foreign missionaries first introduced Christianity to Japan in 1549. Converts came to be persecuted under warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) and then under the Tokugawa shogunate, which banned the faith in 1614.
For more than two centuries, it survived as communities worshipped in secret without priests and conducted baptisms. The hidden communities came to light in March 1865, when several believers made contact with a French priest. The ban was lifted in 1873, after the Meiji Restoration.
“These two pillars of Catholic history in Japan, missionary activity and the ‘hidden Christians,’ continue to support the life of the Church today,” the statement said.
The history of the hidden Christians is poorly known in Japan, said the Rev. Callistus Sweeney, a Franciscan missionary working in Tokyo.
“I get all choked up when I think of the courage and the faithfulness of these people,” he said. “I wish the Japanese people knew more about that. These are heroes. And they’re never talked about here.”
In his address, the pope also commended the work of Japanese Christians in the social sphere.
“Though the Catholic community is small, your local Churches are esteemed by Japanese society for your many contributions, born of your Christian identity, which serve people regardless of religion,” the Pope told the bishops in his statement.
“I commend your many efforts in the fields of education, healthcare, service to the elderly, infirm, and handicapped, and your charitable works which have been especially important in response to the tragic devastation wrought by the earthquake and tsunami four years ago.”
Although there are no firm figures, Christians are thought to account for around 1 percent of the population, of whom roughly 450,000 are Catholics.
The pope also noted ongoing work to “keep before the world the immense suffering experienced by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” 70 years ago.
Separately on Friday, Pope Francis met with a delegation from the International Commission against the Death Penalty and restated the Catholic Church’s commitment to that cause.
“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person,” he said. “It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”