Father Petro Kassui Kibe and his 187 companions will be beatified on Novemeber 24th in Nagasaki, Japan. They will join the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan as the saints and blesseds representing a country whose Catholics account for less than half a percent of the total population. What will be one of the largest beatifications in Church history brings to mind Japan's "Catholic Century," the Sixteenth, when as much as ten percent of the population became Kirishitan, converts to the faith first brought to the islands by Saint Francis Xavier in 1549. It also brings to mind the city that has always been at the center of Japanese Catholicism.
Nagasaki had been a secluded harbor village until a providential encounter destined it to be Japan's window to the world. In 1542, a Portuguese ship accidentally landed near what is today Nagasaki, and seven years later Saint Francis Xavier arrived nearby and the Church in Japan was established. Among the converts were a number of daimyô, feudal lords, and with the help of one of them, Omura Sumitada, a Portuguse port was established in 1571. The sleepy village became a center of trade, in both ideas and goods. Nagasaki today is famous for kasutera ("castella"), a spongy cake, and vidro, colored glass, two products of Portuguese origin that date to this period.
During the Warring States period, Nagasaki briefly became a Jesuit colony in 1580, and the city gave refuge to Christians fleeing persecution in the rest of the country. The Diocese of Nagasaki was founded in 1588, and the majority of the city's population became Catholic.
The beginning of the end came in 1597, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi united the country and took control of Nagasaki. Concerned about the prevalence of a foreign religion, Hideyoshi expelled the missionaries, and ordered the crucifixion of Paul Miki and his 25 companions, canonized as the Martyrs of Nagasaki in 1862. Persecution continued, and, in 1614, Catholicism was officially outlawed in all of Japan. Christians were forced to renounce the Faith by treading upon fumie, icons of Our Lord and His Mother. Those who refused to do so were brutally tortured, suspended for days over pools of excrement, until they apostatized or were executed by crucifixion or dismemberment. The horror of this period is vividly portrayed in the Catholic author Shûsaku Endô's novel, Silence.
The Shimabara Rebellion, a revolt of Christian peasants in 1637, was the last breath of Catholicism in Japan as a public religion. Around this time, the soon-to-be beatified Pietro Kassui Kibe escaped to Rome and was ordained a Jesuit priest. He returned to his homeland in 1639 and was captured and martyred. Believers went underground with their faith, but without the comforts of the priesthood or the sacraments. They became Kakure Kirishitan, "hidden Christians." These held on to the memory of the Faith as best they could, but over the generations without contact to the teaching authority of the Church or the outside world's Catholic community, their beliefs mutated and blended with those of Japan's native Shintoism.
Nagasaki remained Japan's solitary window to the world during the Tokugawa Shogunate. Trade was allowed to continue with the West under the condition that religious activity be forbidden, a condition readily agreed to by the Dutch and the English, and by the Americans after the arrival in Nagasaki of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853. The city is the setting for Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly.
It was not until the collapse of the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration in 1868 that the Catholic religion was again tolerated, and missionaries from Europe allowed to reenter the country. Most of the Kakure Kirishitan recognized the Faith of their ancestors and reentered into full c