Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Pope Pius IX and Japan. The History of an Oriental Miracle

by Shinzo Kawamura, S.J.


On October 12, 2017, in the Aula Magna of the Pontifical Gregorian University, there was a commemorative symposium featuring His Excellency Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States; Prof. Shinzo Kawamura of Sophia University in Tokyo; Prof. Delio Menonca, S.J. of the Pontifical Gregorian University; and P. Adelino Ascenzo of the Missionary Society Boa Nova. Prof. Kawamura spoke about the Miracle of the Orient. He presented and answered the following questions: First, these Hidden Christians had endured about 250 years of persecution, due to the prohibitions imposed upon them by the Tokugawa government. Even so, they faithfully continued to preserve their faith, and when they eventually felt that the time was appropriate to do so, they rejoined the Catholic Church. This was indeed a miracle, but my question is, what was it that made this miracle possible?; What was it that made possible the “hidden” life that these Christian communities had followed, for so many years?; Why was it that they never rejected their Catholic Faith?

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Pontifical Gregorian University, October 12, 2017


On January 8, 1867, His Holiness Pope Pius IX dispatched a special message to Fr. Bernard Petitjean of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, who at the time was involved in missionary work in the city of Nagasaki. The purpose of His Holiness was to personally bless an event, which he exuberantly described as a “Miracle of the Orient.”

What he referred to as a “Miracle of the Orient,” was the fact that three years before this message was dispatched, that is, on March 17, 1865, an incident had occurred within one of Japan’s oldest churches, namely the “Oura Tenshudo of Nagasaki,” which is also known as the Basilica of the Twenty-Six Holy Martyrs of Japan. This was the discovery of the so-called Hidden Christians, and to Catholics all over the world, this incident was indeed a miracle.

That is to say, a community of Christians whose ancestors could be traced back to the seventeenth century, and who had experienced excessive persecution due to the ban on Christianity imposed in Japan, had yet managed to survive for a period transcending 250 years, even though they had no priests who could minister to them.

These Hidden Christians did not consist solely of those who had been discovered. We have verified the fact that the Christians whom people like Fr. Petitjean had encountered, were of the same faith as the Christians who had populated the nation of Japan four hundred years earlier. Accordingly, they are people who after being discovered, returned to the Roman Catholic Church.

In other words, this incident was a twofold miracle, namely a miracle of discovery, and a miracle of resurrection.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan began to follow the path taken by the advanced nations of the West, and it attempted to rebuild itself as a modern state. The Tokugawa government in the city of Edo, which at that time constituted the central authority, had for an extended period of nearly 250 years, reduced all contact with foreign powers to a bare minimum.

However, in 1854, on the basis of the Kanagawa Convention that had been framed between the USA and the Tokugawa government, Japan eventually realized that there was a need to terminate this sort of an exclusive policy, and so the country was once again declared open to foreigners.

Even so however, regardless of this new orientation on their part, the Tokugawa government decided to continue enforcing upon the common man the prohibitions they had hitherto imposed upon Christianity.

On the other hand though, as western settlements began to make their appearance in steady succession within the major port cities of Japan, such as Yokohama and Nagasaki, the people also started to make demands for freedom of worship, and consequently, Catholic churches also in course of time began to be built, within the nation’s townships and settlements.

Despite such limitations however a revival seemed to occur within the Catholic Church of Japan, and this in turn evoked feelings of hope within the heart of His Holiness Pope Pius IX. Hence, he decided to canonize the twenty-six martyrs of Nagasaki. These twenty-six individuals had suffered martyrdom approximately 400 years ago, and they were later beatified in the early seventeenth century.

Japan thereupon was transformed immediately into the spotlight of the world, and people worldwide started to evince an interest in the nation’s new Catholic Church, a Church whose history had, so to say, just begun.

It was in such an ambience of serenity and composure that the renaissance of the Catholic Church commenced in Japan, but in 1865 this renaissance received an added boost, due to the sudden discovery of the Hidden Christians. This discovery of the Hidden Christians was an event that captivated Christians worldwide, and it is this that I referred to earlier as a “Miracle of the Orient.”

These Hidden Christians constituted a group of approximately 15 people, and they happened to be descendants of the Hidden Christians of Nagasaki Urakami. They visited the Oura Tenshudo that had just been built, and engaged in a dialogue with Fr. Petitjean.

They spoke to Fr. Petitjean saying: “We are of the same faith as you. Where can we find the image of Saint Mary?”

Fr. Petitjean was profoundly moved, and his heart filled with joy on hearing their words.

No sooner had these Hidden Christians ascertained the fact that Catholic priests had entered Japan, more and more of them began to come out of hiding in places such as Nagasaki and its surrounding vicinity, and also in areas such as Goto, and their numbers in course of time exceeded ten thousand.

After having duly confirmed the fact that the faith of these priests was the same as that which had been adhered to by their ancestors 400 years ago, these Hidden Christians returned to the Catholic Church.

Certain Fundamental Issues and three Keywords

On the occasion of this symposium I wish to speak about this Miracle of the Orient. I intend to present certain fundamental issues concerning this topic, and I shall attempt also to answer them.

First, these Hidden Christians had endured about 250 years of persecution, due to the prohibitions imposed upon them by the Tokugawa government. Even so, they faithfully continued to preserve their faith, and when they eventually felt that the time was appropriate to do so, they rejoined the Catholic Church. This was indeed a miracle, but my question is, what was it that made this miracle possible?

What was it that made possible the “hidden” life that these Christian communities had followed, for so many years?

Why was it that they never rejected their Catholic Faith?

Concretely speaking, what was it that enabled them to protect and preserve their faith?

I now wish to present three keywords that I consider most vital, with regard to the possibility of this Oriental Miracle.

The first keyword is ‘confraternity’ or ‘confraria.’ It was this that enabled them to discover a systematic means of preserving their faith during this lengthy period.

The second keyword comprises the expression, ‘Catechist Bastian’s Prophecies.’

Bastian was the name of a catechist who suffered martyrdom during the period of persecution around 200 years ago, and we have a work of his entitled “Future Resurrection Prophecies of the Church of Christ.” This work served as a source of hope for the Hidden Christians, and hence it was accepted and transmitted by them to the later generations.

For the Hidden Christians, it was a message for the future.

The third keyword refers to a booklet entitled, ‘Book of Contrition and Prayer.’

This booklet consisted of the memories or recollections of their ancestors. These memories were lovingly cherished by those Hidden Christians, and it served as a motive force for them.

The booklet also served to authenticate their knowledge, regarding the sacraments that were used during the Christian period.

I shall hereafter provide in turn a simple explanation for each of these keywords, and by this means I hope to gain a glimpse of the genesis of this drama, a drama concerning miracles of discovery and resurgence.

The Structure of their Steady Faith: The Way of Thought revealed in the 'Confraria' that enabled the Members to lead Christian lives, despite an absence of Priests

The first issue we need to deal with concerns the Confraria or Lay Communities.

Despite the fact that they had neither priests nor missionaries, yet the communities of Hidden Christians managed to survive for a period surpassing 250 years. During this period, their communities were managed by the laity alone.

This is a point of crucial value.

This was due to the fact that since the time of St. Francis Xavier, communities that were governed and supervised by the laity alone existed as territorial organizations, in diverse regions of the country.

These communities of Hidden Christians were not groups that were formed in a hurry. They were not formed because of any abrupt negative reaction, such as feelings of panic that might have suddenly arisen among the Christians, because of the prohibitions and persecution initiated by the Tokugawa government.

Rather, we need to bear in mind the fact that these communities had pre-existed earlier, and that they had originated half a century prior to the onset of the persecution.

They were formed in imitation of the Confraria system in Europe, where, in every region, there existed communities constituted of lay people alone. These were autonomous organizations, and hence when the persecution began in real earnest and the missionaries began to disappear, they were able to continue on their own, because of the links that existed between the lay leaders and community members.

In 1550, that is, just after the missionary activity of St. Francis Xavier, there were many regions that were served by just four missionaries.

These were mission stations, and they could not be ranked either as parishes or church organizations.

It was half a century later that Episcopates or Bishoprics appeared in Japan, and during that period, it was only the Jesuits who had missions that included churches or parishes.

Here, the Jesuits even began to operate hospitals, and they did this on the basis of western concepts of medical science.

The Christian communities that helped in the administration of these hospitals, are ranked among Japan’s earliest church communities.

Japan’s earliest church community was constituted of lay Christians, who adopted as their model the Confraria da Misericordia of Portugal.

This confraria began in the 13th century in Italy, and in the 16th century, a period when vast numbers of lay Catholic groups pervaded diverse sections of Europe, the Confraria da Misericordia, which tended to concentrate almost exclusively on charitable works, developed largely in Portugal. When Europe began to spread out during the period of the great navigations, this confraria too expanded to diverse sections of the globe, and in course of time it even entered Japan, where among other activities it focused chiefly on the running of hospitals.

It was a widely known fact that the confraria was administered solely by the laity.

On principle, priests and individuals associated with the clergy were not directly concerned with the management.

Even at a later period when regional communities were formed in different areas, they were modeled upon the same organizational system.

In every area, aside from periodic visits made by missionaries, the maintenance and government of the community was carried out by the lay leaders and the group members.

The leaders were elected, and they had fixed terms of office, and we have reason to believe also that the communities had rules and regulations to abide by.

According to statistics of the 1590s, the total number of Christian believers was 220,000, and the priests constituted merely forty Jesuit missionaries.

Even on occasions when the two hundred and odd Christian communities scattered nationwide had no priests, they had administrative organizations comprised solely of lay people, who were able to carry out the tasks of government and supervision.

The reason for this was the fact, that these communities were in essence based on the concept of the confraria.

In 1587, Hideyoshi promulgated the ‘Bateren tsuihō-rei,’ which was an ordinance expelling the missionaries. This initiated the first persecution.

It was a measure intended to banish all the Jesuits missionaries from the country.

Obviously, the Japanese Christians too were greatly disturbed by this situation.

Yet, as far as the structure of their society was concerned, in every region it was taken for granted that even if priests were absent, the lay leaders could function on their own and carry out the tasks of supervision and governance. Hence, the impact of this expulsion ordinance upon their community was not all that severe.

The reason for this weakening of the impact of the ordinance, was the fact that in each region these community leaders aptly fulfilled their responsibilities towards their people, by duly carrying out the tasks assigned to them.

An outcome of this expulsion ordinance was the fact that these lay communities, which hitherto had been bound together through to their involvement in charitable activities in diverse regions, now began active preparations to face this persecution, and their structure consequently underwent a change. They were now transformed into communities of mutual support and aid.

This in due course gave rise to confrarias that were unique to the nation of Japan.

In other words, they were reborn as communities of Hidden Christians, who were prepared to face the ongoing persecution.

Starting from Nagasaki, in manifold areas of the nation, such germinal confraria communities began to be formed, and they continued to survive.

Also, these lay leaders continued with their hidden lives, all the while carrying out the tasks assigned to them. They conducted baptismal ceremonies and conveyed the teachings of Christ to the members of their communities, using water, booklets, and so on.

That is to say, these communities of Hidden Christians, which were totally devoid of priests, constituted a secret that remained unrevealed to the authorities, a secret that persisted for a period of 250 years. The primary reason for this is the fact that throughout the Christian period, these communities, whose structure was modeled upon the confraria, were groups that were deeply rooted within the soil of Japan.

A Transmission of Hope: The Prophecy of Catechist Bastian

A second factor related to the endurance of these Christian communities, was the fact that the lay Catholics who were linked to them, were able to obtain the spirit of perseverance and hope that they needed for their continued survival.

There existed an oral tradition entitled the ‘Prophecy of Catechist Bastian,’ and this tradition provided these Christian communities with hope, regarding a future resurrection.

In certain areas, these Hidden Christians received and transmitted this tradition for 250 years.

The individual referred to as Bastian, was a catechist. He suffered martyrdom at Omura in the vicinity of Nagasaki around the middle of the seventeenth century, during the closing days of the persecution.

He is said to have served as the disciple of a certain Joāo. In 1657, he was captured by agents of the Nagasaki Magistrate’s Office, and was beheaded after three years and three months of incarceration.

On that occasion, he was believed to have left behind a prophecy, which served as a source of encouragement for the members of the Christian communities.

The most crucial component of that prophecy was the following: “After seven generations have passed a black ship will arrive, in which there will be some confessors. People then would be able to make their confessions, even on a weekly basis.”

In other words, if the people were able to wait in patience for seven generations, the current religious prohibitions would without fail be lifted, and the persecutions also would cease. This would usher in an era of peace. By means of this prophecy Bastian sought to console the members of the Christian communities, who found themselves plunged into a state of utter despair.

This prophecy eventually attained fulfillment, after the passage of 250 years.

On examining the Bible carefully, we notice that it was customary to consider a single generation as comprising 30 years.

Hence, seven generations would work out to 210 years. In other words, what the prophecy intended to reveal was the fact, that 210 years after the death of Bastian who was martyred in 1657, the persecutions would cease.

When we compute the whole thing mathematically, we find that this works out to the year 1865, which incidentally, happens to be the very year in which the Hidden Christians were first discovered.

In Nagasaki and its neighboring villages alongside the open sea, as well as in Goto, that prophecy of Bastian was found to have existed as an oral transmission. This is a truth that was verified by Historians of the Meiji period, when they carried out field research in those areas.

The fact that Bastian prophesied that the confessors would return, is also an issue of critical value.

On examining the wording of the oral transmission, we find that it did not merely state that missionaries would return, or that priests would return. Rather, it stated that ‘confessors’ would return.

I personally am of the view that this constitutes the most vital point in this Miracle of the Orient.

Those Hidden Christians were not just Christian clerics or church workers. Rather, they were people who were obsessed with the idea of having the authority to forgive sins.

We notice here that the wisdom of Bastian is both revealed and concealed.

In other words, for those Hidden Christians, it was absolutely crucial that those people who returned to Japan at a future time, should be Catholic clerics or church workers.

In order to ascertain whether those confessors who returned were really priests, Bastian told the members of the Christian community to ask them three questions, and to see if they could provide answers for them. The questions are as follows:

The first question was: “Are you single?”

The second question was: What is the name of your leader in Rome?”

The third question was: Do you venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary?”

These were the very questions that Bastian recommended that they ask.

On the occasion when the Hidden Christians were first discovered, the question they posed to Fr. Petitjean was, “Where is the statue of Saint Mary?” This question, which was addressed to Fr. Petitjean within the Oura Tenshudo, has now become virtually a legend, and thanks to the oral transmission, this is the first time in the history of Japanese Christianity, that we have been able to grasp its meaning.

Initially the Hidden Christians of Urakami entered a Protestant church in Nagasaki.

On doing so however, when the wife of the Pastor received them and offered them some English tea, they promptly withdrew from the place.

They had been taught to ascertain clearly whether or not the faith was the same as their own, for this was an issue that was included within the prophecy of Bastian.

Why did those Hidden Christians wait for the arrival of the confessors?

What sort of a mystery lies behind all this?

It has been speculated that the key to resolving this enigma, was published in 1608. Yet, what remains of that publication now are merely certain manuscripts, namely a pamphlet entitled ‘Konchirisanoriyaku,’ and a summary of this very same work entitled ‘Orasho.’ The key to this mystery perhaps may be found in them.

Memories of Love Signs: The Role of the ‘Konchirisanoriyaku,’ which transmitted the Memories of the Sacraments

On speaking with groups of Hidden Christians, I found that the principal question that dominated my mind was the following: In the course of these 250 years of their history, how did they deal with issues such as the celebration of Holy Mass and the conferring of the Sacraments, when they had no priests?

This same question may perhaps be posed as follows: Holy Mass and Penance are two Sacraments that needed to be conferred by an ordained priest. Aside from this issue, how did these Hidden Christians manage to continue the conveyance of their Catholic faith over a period extending to 250 years?

Assuming that the memories of the Sacraments had indeed vanished entirely from the minds of those Hidden Christians, then, 250 years later, even if they were to once again meet missionaries who had by now returned to Japan, those Christians would never have been able to verify whether those missionaries and themselves had both been once rooted in the same Catholic faith. This is certainly a possibility.

Yet, the fact is that Historical research reveals the exact opposite. That is to say, those Hidden Christians were clearly able to verify the fact that sometime in the past, they and the missionaries were undeniably rooted in the same Catholic faith.

This points to a historical truth that has close links to the ‘Konchirisanoriyaku.’

In 1590, the year when the persecution of the Catholic faith began in Japan, Catholic priests were either expelled from Japan or refused entry into the country, and the community of believers, who by then numbered around 300,000, found themselves suddenly faced with a crisis of massive proportions.

What proved particularly problematic was the fact that the number of priests who could administer the Sacraments to the believers, had dwindled greatly.

The Council of Trent, which concluded in 1563, declared that at least once a year all believers should receive the Sacrament of Penance, (that is, Confession), for to die in the state of mortal sin would mean that the individual would go to hell.

In particular, people who were bed-ridden and on the verge of death, were in great fear of dying without having received forgiveness for their sins.

In response to this crisis faced by the Christian believers, the Jesuit missionaries of that time began to contemplate measures aimed at alleviating their woes.

In cases where priests were not available, they permitted the following exceptional procedures for the Christian community: If the sinner experienced true contrition, that is to say, if he or she had genuinely repented of their sin, then the actual confession of the sin could be deferred until the time when a priest was available.

This was something that groups such as the ‘contritionists’ had stressed since the middle ages, and besides, it was also a broad interpretation of the following words that are found in a decree promulgated during the Council of Trent, namely, “reconciliation between the individual and God can be attained by true contrition.”

In other words, it meant that if a person on his deathbed experienced true contrition of the heart, that contrition could serve as a substitute for the Sacrament of Penance or Confession. However, this was only an exceptional measure, which was resorted to because of the persecution that had broken out.

The Jesuit missionaries were perhaps aware of the fact that this ‘true contrition of the heart’ and ‘postponement of confession,’ were means that would not be widely welcomed by the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, they were resorted to merely as exceptional measures.

Accordingly, they even experienced a little anxiety over their implementation.

Eventually, in 1593, on the occasion of a meeting of Jesuit Representatives in Rome, the Jesuit missionary who was dispatched to Rome as the representative of Japan was provided with a list of exceptions to the general rule, in view of the unnatural circumstances that pervaded the country.

When this Jesuit missionary who served as representative of Japan reached Europe, he addressed certain questions to Gabriel Vasquez, who at that time happened to be a highly respected and qualified expert in Ethical Theology. His questions dealt with these same issues, that is, the postponement of confession, and the vital need to adopt special measures in the case of Japan. Vazquez on hearing him responded by affirming that if the contrition on the part of the penitent was sufficient, then his confession could indeed be temporarily postponed.

On receiving this information, the Konchirisanoriyaku was published and printed out as a booklet in Japan. The word ‘Konchirisan’ is the same as the Portuguese word contrição, when pronounced in the Japanese language.

The Konchirisanoriyaku describes the critical significance of ‘true contrition.’ It also states that when embarking upon lengthy voyages, or when we find ourselves in situations of war, conflict and so on, if there happens to be no priest available, then we should reconcile ourselves to the fact that we shall have to make our confession at a later date.

For use on such occasions the members of the Christian communities composed a prayer known as the Orasho, and arrangements were also made for the Christian believers to recite this prayer on a daily basis.

This prayer known as Orasho served to greatly console the members of the Christian communities, who due to the persecution were unable to get into contact with the Catholic priests.

For instance, on occasions when officials of the Tokugawa government compelled the Christians to step on the Fumie, there were certain believers who stepped on it with no qualms whatsoever. Yet, these same believers, on returning to their place of residence, recited the Orasho over and over again, and by this means they tried to atone for what they had done. They did this with the awareness that sometime in the future a priest would appear, to whom they could confess their sin.

It is said that this Orasho was perhaps recited by the Christians hundreds or even thousands of times.

This rule, which enabled the Hidden Christians to make their confessions at some later period in the future when priests were available, also served to instill within their hearts the firm conviction, that the Church at some future time would revive again. It was a hope that arose within their hearts, owing to the memories they had carefully sustained regarding the Sacraments.

The statement of Bastian that I mentioned earlier, namely his prophecy regarding the return of the confessors after seven generations, is something we would not have been able to understand without this Konchirisanoriyaku transmission.

For a period of 210 years, those Christians had been repeatedly and clandestinely chanting the Orasho of Konchirisan, but their hopes eventually attained fulfillment, when they were finally able to meet a priest.

I am of the opinion that the reason why the faith of those Christians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was so meticulously transmitted over these many years, was because the memory of the Sacraments had been carefully preserved within their hearts. It was for this very same reason that this faith of theirs was also promptly resurrected after the lapse of 250 years, and once it was resurrected, they lost no time at all in rejoining the Catholic Church.

The Sacraments are visible signs of the salvific work of Jesus Christ. They are signs that have been, so to say, seared within the core of our hearts, and hence those Hidden Christians yearned for the day when the Catholic Church, the agency that conferred those Sacraments upon the believers, would rise again.

In other words, we may perhaps assert that it was largely due to the memories they had preserved of the Sacraments, that those Hidden Christians were able to survive so long as a community of Faith.

Alternately, we may also perhaps say, that the ‘miracle’ of the Hidden Christians attained fruition, due to those memories they had vigilantly preserved regarding the Sacraments of the Catholic Church.

One must admit that this entire episode is exceedingly ‘Catholic,’ for if Protestant Churches had existed in Japan during the Christian period 400 years ago, one wonders whether such a miracle could have really occurred.


The Prophecy of Bastian and the Orasho of Konchirisanoriyaku, were transmitted within the vicinity of Nagasaki, in areas facing the open sea, and in the Goto region.

They functioned as a means to awaken within us a clear awareness, of the links that we possess with the Catholic faith of those Hidden Christians.

Hence, it is said that after the Meiji Restoration, the fact that the Catholic Church in that section of the country revived again with no resistance whatever, was due to these two transmissions that were widespread in those areas, namely the Prophecy of Bastian and the Orasho of Konchirisanoriyaku.

Another point to note is that in Hirado and the Ikitsuki region, both of which were known for the existence of Hidden Christians, these transmissions did not survive. Hence, even though the people in those areas came across priests of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, they found no reason to return to the Catholic Church.

This is due to the fact that although their faith had been rooted in the Catholicism of 400 years ago, yet, during the Edo Period it became progressively indigenized, and it was eventually transformed into a folk religion.

It was thus that the ‘Miracle of the Orient’ came to be realized, and this realization was brought about through the orderly transmission of the faith, hope, and love of those Hidden Christians.

More than anything else, what brought about the realization of this miracle are certain objects that are of supreme importance to the Catholic Church, namely the memories of those Hidden Christians. They are memories relating to the Church’s Sacraments that those Hidden Christians had meticulously preserved, and with this endorsement, I wish to conclude my address today.

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