VATICAN CITY - The Vatican Library and four Japanese historical institutes have agreed to inventory, catalog and digitize 10,000 documents from a “lost” archive in modern-day Oita Prefecture recounting the persecution of Christians in Japan from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The Rev. Cesare Pasini, head of the Vatican Apostolic Library, said the so-called Marega Papers represent the largest known civic archive of its kind.
An Italian missionary priest retrieved the 22 bundles of documents in Japan in the 1940s and took them to Rome. They sat in the library’s storage depository for decades until a Vatican researcher who could read the characters could read the characters realized their importance in 2010.
Contacts with Japanese experts ensued, and a team of researchers from Japan visited the Vatican in September to have a first look at the trove.
On Tuesday, a six-year agreement to inventory the documents and prepare them for study was signed between the Vatican Library and the National Institute of Japanese Literature, the National Museum of Japanese History, the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo and the archive of the prefecture of Oita.
“It is clear that these documents are unique,” Pasini said Tuesday in an interview. “The Japanese experts say that there is no other collection this big.”
Jesuit missionaries first began spreading the faith in Japan in 1549, and had made considerable headway by 1585. But a backlash against Christians was already brewing and persecution became rampant and systematic, with Christians executed en masse, including the famous 26 martyrs crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. A famous anti-Christian edict was passed in 1612 and a few years later Christianity was banned outright.
The documentation in the Vatican archives illustrates how Japanese civic authorities enforced the ban, relying on local Buddhist centers to record and document when a Christian had renounced the faith or died, Pasini said.
Freedom of religion was reintroduced in Japan in the late 1800s, and by the 1920s a Salesian missionary, the Rev. Mario Marega, was living and working in Japan and came into the possession of the civic archive. It’s unclear when exactly the papers arrived in Rome, but it’s believed to have been in the 1950s. But the bundles of rice paper went untouched until Delio Proverbio, a researcher at the Vatican, found them in 2010.
Pasini said it was particularly significant that scholars from Japan, which had such a tortured relationship with Christianity in the past, would now be working in the Vatican Library to help bring to light a shared history.
“Culture creates bridges,” Pasini said.