Most European Christians know very little about the widespread development of Syrian Christianity during the first Millennium. In order to rectify this, Philip Jenkins, Professor of History and Religion at Pennsylvania State University, wrote The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died. It is a very accessible summary of the Syrian and so-called “Nestorian” mission of the Church that reached through Persia, India and China where it thrived until the bloody persecutions of the 10th century. Here is a short article giving a bird’s-eye view of Jenkins’ research. A growing number of historians take seriously the idea that the people from Syria, Iran and Iraq who moved to Japan “at the end of the Silk Road” more than 1,400 years ago, making a considerable impact of the development of Japanese culture, were Syrian Christians. Some of them seem to have settled in Japan by the 5th century, that is, well before the Church’s formal evangelisation of China and Japan. I only mention all that because today is when we pray for the Churches in Japan on account of it being the commemoration of St Paul Miki and his companions.
Paul Miki was born at Tounucumada in Japan. He was educated in a Jesuit seminary and joined the Society of Jesus in 1580, becoming a great preacher and evangelist. When Christian missionaries had begun again to evangelize in Japan in the late 16th century, they were, in fact, initially accepted because their presence opened the door to trade and economic expansion. But this changed in 1596, when Taikosama (the effective ruler of Japan under the emperor) began a cruel campaign of violent persecution seeking not only to curb the spread of the Christian faith but to eradicate any sign of its existence. Paul Miki and his 25 companions suffered martyrdom on February 5, 1597 on a hill overlooking Nagasaki, Japan, on what is now called the Holy Mountain. They had been repeatedly offered freedom if only they they would renounce the Christian faith. But all refused. The execution notice was read aloud. Just then, the condemned men began to pray and sing while Paul Miki preached in a loud voice saying that while he was proud of his Japanese heritage, he was also devoted to the truth of the Gospel that the missionaries had shared and that offered salvation to all.
In the group were 6 Franciscans from Spain, Mexico, and India and 3 native Japanese Jesuits. Among the 17 Japanese lay-people there were catechists, doctors, artisans and servants, old men and innocent children. These twenty seven men we commemorate today were made to march 600 miles over 30 days to Nagasaki, where they were murdered.
The martyrs were all stabbed to death while hanging on their crosses. But the crowd who heard the testimony of Paul Miki and his companions would immortalise his words and use them to spread the Gospel throughout Japan. Here is an excerpt from the “sermon from the cross” preached that day:
“The only reason for my being killed is that I have taught the doctrine of Christ. I certainly did teach the doctrine of Christ. I thank God it is for this reason I die. I believe that I am telling only the truth before I die. I know you believe me and I want to say to you all once again: Ask Christ to help you to become happy. I obey Christ. After Christ’s example I forgive my persecutors. I do not hate them. I ask God to have pity on all, and I hope my blood will fall on my fellow men as a fruitful rain.”
Sadly, Japan closed its doors to missionaries for nearly 300 years. When missionaries were again allowed into the country they at first found no trace of any Christian community. But once they had established themselves they discovered that thousands of Christians lived around Nagasaki, who for generations had secretly maintained the Faith.