In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the West and soon thereafter, Catholic priests entered the country. Among those who came was the French priest, Fr. Bernard Petitjean (later Bishop of Nagasaki) of the Sociéte des Missions Étrangères. For ten years he labored with a fellow priest yet seemed to make no headway with the native people.
But in 1865, when Fr. Bernard Petitjean was praying in a chapel he had built in Nagasaki, Japan, some women approached him and asked him three questions:
Do you honor Mary, the Mother of Jesus?
Do you obey the Great Father in Rome?
Do you have a wife?
Father answered “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the second and the women went away. Sometime later, some men approached him and told him they were Catholics. Three hundred years ago, their ancestors had known Christians who were not Catholic and they wanted to know: are you Catholic, part of the universal Church? For 300 years they had secretly kept the faith and as Father was to discover later, so did an estimated 15,000 others.
When Catholicism was first brought to Japan by St. Francis Xavier on Assumption Day in 1549, conversions were plentiful. By 1614, there were an estimated 400,000 Catholics in Japan. However, persecutions were severe, many were martyred and in the 1630’s all Christians went into hiding. By 1640 not a priest or religious was left alive. An edict was issued that read: Let no Christian dare venture into Japan…They shall pay for it with their heads.
These remarkable Japanese Catholics passed the down the Faith from generation to generation for 200+ years. No Mass, no Confession, no Anointing of the Sick in all those years. Pope Pius IX called this “The miracle of the Orient.”
The Oura Church in Nagasaki commemorates Fr. Petitjean’s first encounter with the women. Also known as the Church of the Twenty-Six Martyrs, it faces Nishizaka Hill where 26 martyrs were crucified in 1597. As you can see by the picture, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary greets visitors at the entrance of the church, a reminder of the first question posed by the Japanese women: Do you honor the Mother of Jesus?
(Most of the information in this article came from the October-December 2013 of Contact magazine, published by the Confraternity of Christ the Priest in Australia, whose missionary priests seek to evangelize the 96% of the population who do not go to Mass.)