Saturday, February 5, 2011

Today, St. Agatha - Tomorrow, Sts Paul Miki & Companions, martyrs of Japan

Today is the feast of the young third-century virgin martyr saint Agatha, the glory of Sicily, Palermo where she was born and Catania, where she suffered atrocious sufferings in giving her life for Christ her bridegroom.

Cariani (Giovanni Busi), Portrait of a Young Woman as St. Agatha
The palm frond and breasts in a dish identify the young woman as the virgin martyr St Agatha. According to legend, Agatha, a beautiful noblewoman who lived in Catania, Sicily, in the third-century, had taken a vow of chastity.
Among her suitors was the Roman governor, who tried torturing her into submission by ordering her breasts to be cut off. She was saved miraculously and, as a paragon of courage and virtue, became a popular name-saint.
Since this painting conforms in composition and character to contemporary Venetian portraiture it is possibly an idealized likeness of a young woman called Agatha. (


Though it will not be observed this year, due to the occurrence of Sunday, February 6 is the feast day of Sts Paul Miki and Companions, martyrs of Japan.

When the first missionaries, like St. Francis Xavier, came to Japan in 1549 they were welcomed. Many Japanese became Christians.

When the leader Hideyoshi took command, he feared that Christians would take over the government. In 1587 he banished them and destroyed many of their churches. Some missionary priests stayed and went into hiding, dressing like Japanese in order to minister to the Christians.

More than 3,000 Christians were martyred in Japan. On December 8, 1596, Hideyoshi arrested and condemned to death the friars of Miako. Among them were three Japanese Jesuits, six Franciscans (four of them Spanish), and seventeen Japanese laymen.

Charged with attempting to harm the government, they were sentenced to crucifixion. Some of these men were very young: Louis was 10; Anthony, 13; Thomas, 16; and Gabriel, 19. The best known is Paul Miki, who was a Japanese of a noble family, a Jesuit brother, and a brilliant preacher.

The twenty-six men were tortured and then forced to walk more than 300 miles from Miako to Nagasaki through snow and ice and freezing streams. Along the way they preached to the people who had come out to see them. They sang psalms of praise and joy. They prayed the rosary and told the people that such a martyrdom was an occasion of rejoicing, not of sadness.

Finally, on February 5, they reached Nagasaki, where twenty-six crosses awaited them on a hill now called the Holy Mountain. It is said that the Christians ran to their crosses, singing. Soldiers bound them to the crosses with iron bands at their wrists, ankles, and throats.

Then they thrust them through with lances. Many people came to watch the cruel deaths. Hideyoshi and his solders had hoped the example would frighten other Christians. Instead, it gave them the courage to profess their faith as the martyrs had.

In 1858, Japan again permitted Christianity in Japan. Missionaries found thousands of Christians still in Japan. For two hundred years they had carried on the faith in secret.

Paul Miki was born in Japan and educated by the Jesuits. He would have been the very first Japanese priest if he had escaped arrest, for he had already completed his studies for the priesthood.

From his cross he forgave his persecutors and told the people to ask Christ to show them how to be truly happy (

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