Lessons from the “hidden” Japanese Catholics


“We need the priesthood. We need the Eucharist. But what happens if those things are taken away?”


The history of the Catholic Church in Japan is complex. For various reasons, the first missionaries had difficulty preaching the Gospel to the Japanese people. Their time in Japan was short – only a little more than forty years after Francis Xavier arrived in Japan, the government began banning missionaries. Christians were persecuted and killed. Eventually, Christianity was officially outlawed.

Three hundred years after St. Francis Xavier preached in Japan, and a little over two hundred and fifty years after St. Paul Miki was martyred for the Faith there, one would think the Catholic Faith would have disappeared completely. Without priests and the sacraments, how could the Church be sustained? But in 1865, a group approached Father Bernard Petitjean, a French priest living in Japan. Borders had recently been reopened to foreigners, but proselytizing was still illegal.

The group of Japanese men and women asked Father if he was loyal to “the great chief of the Kingdom of Rome.” They wanted to see Father’s statue of the Blessed Mother and inquired whether he was married. When Father answered their questions satisfactorily, they revealed to him that they were Catholic. The light of Christ was still burning in Japan.

Despite a bloody persecution of the Church and hundreds of years of no Catholic clergy, the Catholic Faith had remained in Japan. For over two hundred years, the faithful had no access to Holy Communion, Confession, or Last Rites. The only sacraments possible without clergy had been baptism and marriage. Yet there were tens of thousands of kakure kirishitan, or “hidden Christians.” How had the Faith been sustained?

Of course, as you might expect, there were misunderstandings of doctrine. Many of the Catholics had hidden their practice of the Faith amongst Buddhist and Shinto rituals, which led to syncretism. It wasn’t perfect, but the question remains… how had the light of Faith remained lit?

The sacraments are the way divine life is dispensed to us. They “strengthen faith and express it.” The sacraments sanctify us, build up the Body of Christ, and instruct us. (See CCC 1113-1134) But what about when access to all of the sacraments is not possible?

Jesus gave the sacraments to us for a reason. He knew we needed His grace for our salvation. But He never promised us frequent access to all of them. And since He Himself is not bound by the sacraments, we must realize that He can work in our lives in other ways. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Faith. So it is right to desire frequent reception of the Eucharist. We should build prayer lives centered on the Mass and Eucharistic Adoration. We are right to yearn for a liturgical life that is active, flourishing, and reverent.

But what does our life look like when it’s not? What does our Faith look like under adverse circumstances?

Are we still forming our families? Are we still evangelizing? Performing works of charity? Are we still men and women of prayer?

If we did not have the blessing of having a priest in our parish, what would happen? Would the Catholic Faith in our community cease?

We need the priesthood. We need the Eucharist. But what happens if those things are taken away? Will the light of Faith remain lit? Do we have the courage of those Japanese Catholics? Perhaps they sat around and complained that they didn’t access to the sacraments. Maybe they blamed the Church leaders or the government. Or maybe they continued to live the Christian life – praying, teaching, and serving their neighbor in charity.

May the grace of our baptism continue to produce fruit in our lives. May the gifts of the Holy Spirit produce the fruits of the Spirit in our souls. Living our baptismal call, may we have the courage to be His witnesses without excuses.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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