As he gets set for his first visit to Japan as pontiff, one city sits on top of Pope Francis’ list of places to visit.

“Nagasaki is the place the pope wants to visit foremost,” said a Vatican source about the pope’s visit, which begins Saturday. That’s why the southwestern city is at the start of his tight itinerary, the source added.

A top priority for the 82-year-old pope in Nagasaki, home to many of the country’s Christians, will be to express his sorrow over those who lived and died for their faith during the Sengoku, Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods.

As Francis prepares to become the first pontiff to visit the country since St. John Paul II in 1981, it’s timely to take a look back at the religion’s tumultuous history in Japan.

Christianity in Japan dates back to the mid-16th century, when it was brought to the country by Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier. But 40 years later, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan at the end of the Sengoku Period (1467-1590), cracked down on the religion. Out of fear that baptized feudal lords in Kyushu may unite and rebel against him, Hideyoshi ordered the deportation of all Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, especially those living on the island.

Following the death of Hideyoshi, the Tokugawa shogunate took it a step further during the Edo Period (1603-1868) and banned Christianity altogether. Up until the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), many Christians were tortured or executed. Nagasaki, which hosted the largest number of Christians, became the center of the religion’s persecution in Japan.

Worshipers attend an early morning Mass at the Urakami Cathedral in the city of Nagasaki on Nov. 17.  | AP
Worshipers attend an early morning Mass at the Urakami Cathedral in the city of Nagasaki on Nov. 17.  | AP

Today, Christianity is widely accepted in Japan, and the religion’s history in the country is increasingly being recognized internationally.

In 2018, UNESCO added sites linked to the history of the country’s persecuted Christians in Nagasaki to the World Heritage list, as “Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region,” with the World Heritage Committee apparently recognizing their perseverance in protecting their faith.

The events were also featured in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” an adaptation of the novel by the late author Shusaku Endo. According to records from that time period, a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Ferreira, who was the inspiration for the main character in “Silence,” renounced his faith after being hanged upside down over a pit 2 meters deep as blood slowly dripped down his head.

Juliao Nakaura, part of a mission comprising four Christian boys chosen by Japanese noblemen and sent by a Japanese Christian lord to Europe, was also one of the victims of persecution. Nakaura and members of the mission had an audience with Pope Gregorius XIII in 1585 as a representative of baptized feudal lords in Kyushu.

Nakaura and other Christians were later faced with the ban on Christianity under the shogunate. They were forced into hiding for more than 20 years, during which they helped other Christians in Kyushu who were suffering from persecution by giving them a place to live and practice their faith.

Nakaura was 65 when he was captured and sent to Nagasaki. He was hanged upside-down alongside Ferreira and died after four days.

Nakaura was beatified on Nov. 24, 2008 — the second-highest level of reverence in the Roman Catholic Church and one rank below sainthood — at Nagasaki Baseball Stadium during a ceremony held more than 370 years after his death.

Pope Francis is scheduled to celebrate Mass at the stadium on the same date this year.

On that Sunday, Pope Francis will first visit the Nagasaki Peace Park to deliver a message denouncing nuclear weapons. The park, which commemorates the atomic bombing of the city during World War II, was also where large groups of Hidden Christians were martyred four times during the Edo Period.

“Protect all life” is the official theme of the papal visit to Japan this year.

The pope, who has expressed fears that the world is moving once again toward a possible nuclear conflict, has already shown compassion for the victims of the Nagasaki bombing. Moved by a photograph of a young boy carrying his dead brother after the bombing, the pope distributed copies to journalists. Francis is expected to speak about human lives and peace in his highly anticipated address.

The pope will visit the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum on Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki, where 20 Japanese Christians and six foreign priests captured in Kyoto were crucified.  | KYODO
The pope will visit the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum on Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki, where 20 Japanese Christians and six foreign priests captured in Kyoto were crucified.  | KYODO

The pope will also visit the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum built on Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki, where 20 Japanese Christian disciples and six foreign missionaries captured in Kyoto were crucified.

Japan does not have a sizable Catholic community by any measure: The number of followers accounts for less than 0.5 percent of its total population. However, the community has a much larger presence in Nagasaki, accounting for some 60,000 people, or 4 percent of the prefecture’s population.

And the Holy See’s ties with Nagasaki run deeper than raw numbers.

Two prominent leaders of the Catholic Church in Japan — Nagasaki Archbishop Mitsuaki Takami and Cardinal Manyo Maeda — were both born in Nagasaki.

Renzo De Luca, head of the Japan Province of the Society of Jesus and former director of the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, is, like the pope, also from Argentina and was Francis’ pupil. The pope also refers to Antonio Garcia, a Jesuit monk and former director of the museum as his “90-year-old friend in Nagasaki.”

Some 470 years have passed since Xavier, in a bid to spread Christianity, built Japan’s first permanent church on Hirado Island in what is now Nagasaki Prefecture. There, he kept gifts such as music boxes, glass products and wine to be given to feudal lords.

Given that Francis wanted to come to Japan as a missionary during his youth, the visit promises to be extra special for the pontiff.

Takao Kawasaki is a former chairman of the Nishinippon Shimbun, the biggest local newspaper in the Kyushu region.

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