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Head of a Marian statue from the Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki, Japan, damaged in the Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bomb blast.

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History of Christianity in Japan marked by resilience, devotion
March 23rd, 2011
By Rick DelVecchio

The Japanese Catholic Church has a history of rebounding from adversity ranging from centuries of persecution to natural disasters to such man-made calamities as the firebombings of Tokyo in 1945 and the atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki, the historic center of the church in Japan, in August of that year.

If the martyrs of Japan’s four-and-half centuries of Christianity could be counted, they would number 20,000, Bishop Francis Xavier Osamu Mizobe of Takamatsu said in 2008 at the beatification Mass for 188 Japanese martyrs tortured and killed in different cities between 1606 and 1639 after the Japanese government outlawed Christianity.

On Feb. 5, 1597, 26 Christians were crucified outside Nagasaki. Twenty were native Japanese, including a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old. A Jesuit witness wrote that the persecutors were struck by the Christians’ courage in meeting death.

Nagasaki became a center of Japanese Christianity from the arrival of the Portuguese Jesuit St. Francis Xavier in 1549. “Christianity spread quickly from Nagasaki, so that by 1580, just over 30 years, there were 200,000 converts in Japan,” Brother Anthony Josemaria, a member of the Third Order of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, wrote in a 2010 article in Homiletics and Pastoral Review.

The plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, detonated less than a quarter-mile from the cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It killed 8,500 of the 12,000 Catholics in the surrounding Urakami district, the physical and spiritual center of Japanese Christianity for 400 years, Brother Anthony Josemaria wrote.

Thirty people were in the cathedral at the time, including two priests hearing confession. All were killed.

Father Josemaria recalled two stories told by Nagasaki survivor Takashki Nagai. One concerns women heard singing hymns in Latin on the midnight after the blast. “The next day they found the 27 nuns from the nearby Josei Convent. The convent was demolished and all were dead, horribly burned to death; and yet they died singing!”

“The other incident concerned girls from Junshin, a school where (Nagai’s) wife Midori had taught, run by nuns that he knew well. During the dark days of 1945, when the people worried of being firebombed, the girls had been taught by the principal nun to sing, “Mary, my Mother, I offer myself to you.” Remarkably, after the bombing, though many of the Junshin girls were instantly killed, Nagai heard several reports of different groups of Junshin girls who had been working in factories, fields and other places, singing, “Mary, my Mother, I offer myself to you.” Many would be dead within days, but they were heard singing.”

Marian spirituality has been an important part of Catholic Japan since the time of St. Francis Xavier, who arrived in Nagasaki on the Feast of the Assumption.

“St. Francis Xavier himself began all his instructions by teaching the children and adult catechumens to chant the Hail Mary and to sing other hymns in honor of Mary. The rosary and these hymns would be heard in the towns and villages where he preached long after he had moved on to preach in other places,” Jesuit Father Jerry Bourke wrote in 2004 in an article in the Irish Jesuits’ publication The Sacred Heart Messenger.

“During the long period when Christianity was forbidden under pain of torture and death, many Christians, who continued to practice their faith in hiding, passed on the faith from generation to generation, including prayers to Mary in a mixture of Latin, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese,” he wrote. “They even concealed a statue of Mary inside the Buddhist statue of Kannon, goddess of mercy!”

The epicenter of the March 11 earthquake is located near the site of an apparition in which Mary warned about a worldwide disaster that could afflict humanity, Catholic News Agency reported. The northeastern city of Sendai is less than 90 miles away from the apparition site of Our Lady of Akita in the town of Yuzawa.

In 1973, the Virgin Mary was said to have predicted a number of future events – including natural disasters even more serious than Friday’s earthquake and tsunami – during three appearances to a Japanese religious sister, Sister Agnes Sasagawa.

The purported appearances of the Virgin Mary in Japan were reviewed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1988. During his time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith prior to his election as Pope Benedict XVI, he let stand the local bishop’s judgment that the apparitions and the messages were acceptable for the faithful.

The messages warned of chaos within the church and disasters that could afflict the world.

Two years after the last message, the statue of the Virgin Mary in the chapel where the apparitions had occurred began to emit tears and drops of blood. The occurrence continued for more than six years.

From March 25, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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