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Keeping the Faith Without Priests in Japan

St. Charles Spinola

Father Price, who recently died while doing missionary work in China, in his article mentions the fact that some fifty years ago the Jesuit missionaries discovered in Japan the existence of 20,000 Catholics who for two hundred years had preserved the faith without priests or sacraments in spite of the bitterest and most destructive persecution known in the annals of the Church. The details of that discovery are found in the Life of Blessed Charles Spinola, who was burnt at the stake in Japan, 10 September, 1622. He succeeded St. Francis Xavier, who established the Church in Japan in 1550. Persecutions had begun in 1596, lasting until shortly after Blessed Charles Spinola’s death. In 1858 missionaries were once more permitted to set foot in Japan, but were banished anew by the persecution of 1868.

Five years later the penalties of death and torture for embracing the Christian religion were nominally abrogated. Meanwhile a few priests were permitted to enter the country as attached to the French Consulate, according to treaty stipulations between France and Japan, made in 1858. The Jesuit Father Petitjean tells how in this way he learned of the existence of scattered communities of Christians throughout Japan, who had preserved the faith despite the absence of priests and churches. He had been nearly seven years in the country ministering to the French, Portuguese, and other foreign Catholics, who were mostly resident government officials at the Japanese ports and sailors on merchant vessels under European flags. A chapel had been erected at Yokohama; and through the munificence of the French empress and some wealthy residents another was built at Nagasaki. The latter was a beautiful edifice and attracted the attention and curiosity of natives. But the priest was for the most part alone, unless vessels in port called for his services.

One day, so he relates, while reciting his breviary before the altar of Our Blessed Lady he noted some persons entering the church and watching him closely. After a time they came and knelt beside him. Then, looking up at the statue while placing their hands upon their breasts, they said in a low tone of voice : “In our hearts we are the same as you”. The astonished priest asked: “Where do you come from?” They told him from a neighboring village, adding : “At home nearly all think as we do”. They then asked the priest to speak to them of O Deous Sama, O Yaso Sama, Santa Maria Sama, evidently delighted with the sight of the image of Our Lady. They also asked to hear about O Yaso Samano you fou, the foster-father of Jesus. Later on, similar groups came to the church. Finally one of them, who seemed to be in authority among the people, and who turned out to be a catechist, asked the priest directly whether he had been sent by the great white King in Rome? And when the Father answered “Yes”, the leader asked whether he, the priest, had a wife and children ? “You and all your Christian and Pagan countrymen are the children whom the good God has given us” was the reply. Thereupon they all bent their heads and said audibly, “He is a virgin “.

Their joy was manifest. They had assured themselves of the three chief notes of the priesthood — allegiance to the Holy See, celibacy of the clergy, and devotion to the Mother of Christ. Fr. Petitjean, who later became Vicar Apostolic at Hong Kong, learned subsequently that Blessed Charles Spinola, before going to martyrdom two hundred years before, had told their forefathers to maintain the Christian faith by appointing the eldest member of each family to baptize and instruct the rest, and to transmit this office in solemn trust from parent to child until new missionaries should come to them. These they would recognize to be true priests of God by the three marks just indicated.