Vatican City, 20 March 2015 (VIS) – “Though the Catholic community is small, your local Churches are esteemed by Japanese society for your many contributions, born of your Christian identity, which serve people regardless of religion. I commend your many efforts in the fields of education, healthcare, service to the elderly, infirm, and handicapped, and your charitable works which have been especially important in response to the tragic devastation wrought by the earthquake and tsunami four years ago. So too I express deep appreciation for your initiatives in favour of peace, especially your efforts to keep before the world the immense suffering experienced by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War seventy years ago. In all of these works, you not only meet the needs of the community, but you also create opportunities for dialogue between the Church and society”.
The Holy Father thus addressed the prelates of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan at the end of their “ad Limina” visit, who this month celebrate the “discovery” fifty years ago of the “hidden Christians” of Japan, a central theme of the written discourse the Pope handed to them this morning.
He writes, “The Church in Japan has experienced abundant blessings but has equally known suffering. From those joys and sorrows, your ancestors in the faith have bequeathed to you a living heritage that adorns the Church today and encourages her journey toward the future. This heritage is rooted in the missionaries who first reached your shores and proclaimed the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We think especially of Saint Francis Xavier. ... For many of these missionaries, as well as for some of the first members of the Japanese Catholic community, their witness to Christ led to the shedding of their blood. … We recall especially Saint Paul Miki and companions whose steadfast faith in the midst of persecution became an encouragement for the small Christian community to persevere in every trial”.
Another aspect of this rich patrimony is the discovery of the “hidden Christians” - those who conserved the Christian faith after all the lay missionaries and priests had been expelled from the country. “The embers of faith which the Holy Spirit ignited through the preaching of these evangelisers and sustained by the witness of the martyrs were kept safe, through the care of the lay faithful who maintained the Catholic community’s life of prayer and catechesis in the midst of great danger and persecution”.
“These two pillars of Catholic history in Japan, missionary activity and the 'hidden Christians',continue to support the life of the Church today, and offer a guide to living the faith. In every age and land, the Church remains a missionary Church, seeking to evangelise and make disciples of all nations, while continually enriching the faith of the community of believers and instilling in them the responsibility to nurture this faith in the home and society”.
The work of evangelisation, however, “is not the sole responsibility of those who leave their homes and go to distant lands to preach the Gospel. In fact, by our baptism, we are all called to be evangelisers and to witness to the Good News of Jesus wherever we are. We are called to go forth, to be an evangelising community, even if that simply means opening the front door of our homes and stepping out into our own neighbourhoods. … If our missionary efforts are to bear fruit, the example of the 'hidden Christians' has much to teach us. Though small in number and daily facing persecution, these believers were able to preserve the faith by being attentive to their personal relationship with Jesus, a relationship built on a solid prayer life and a sincere commitment to the welfare of the community. … The 'hidden Christians' of Japan remind us that the work of fostering the life of the Church and of evangelising require the full and active participation of the lay faithful. Their mission is twofold: to engage in the life of the parish and local Church, and to permeate the social order with their Christian witness”.
Through the witness of faith of the Japanese faithful, “the Church expresses her genuine catholicity and shows the ‘beauty of her varied face’”, the Pope concludes, citing his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”. “So often, when we find this witness lacking, it is not because the faithful do not want to be missionary disciples, but rather because they think themselves incapable of the task. I encourage you as Pastors to instil in them a deep appreciation of their calling and to offer them concrete expressions of support and guidance so that they may answer this call with generosity and courage”.