Nagasaki has been in our thoughts a lot this August, it being the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on the Japanese city. Pope Francis has said that the bombing of the city should serve “as a lasting warning to humanity”. I was surprised, however, when I began researching the Japanese martyrs to discover that Nagasaki also has a rich Catholic history.
Today is the feast of Blessed Louis Someyon, a martyr who was decapitated in Nagasaki in 1627 when he refused to stop being a member of the Franciscan Third Order. Two hundred and forty years later, in 1867, he was beatified. Blessed Louis was a victim of the persecution of Christians that had begun in 1587 when 140 churches were destroyed, Christian missionaries were effectively on the run and many lay people were dispossessed of their belongings. After 10 years of such discrimination, it turned gruesome; Christians faced a harrowing choice; give up their faith or endure an excruciatingly painful martyrdom.
The cause of the persecution arose out of fear of the European missionaries who were converting ordinary Japanese people to the faith. There was a suspicion that European powers wanted to invade Japan and that the religious orders such as the Jesuits and Franciscans were a way of gaining a foothold in the country. I was shocked to read that in February 1597, 26 Christians (which included six Franciscan missionaries) were hung on crosses and died by crucifixion in Nagasaki. It is testament to the unwavering faith of the Japanese Christians that Franciscan spirituality was not abandoned, and some 30 years after this round of crucifixions, Blessed Louis Someyon’s crime was being a Franciscan tertiary.
Blessed Louis would have been well aware of the grisly death that awaited him if he didn’t stop being a follower of Christ. Five years before his demise, the year 1622 saw many bloody martyrdoms. On one occasion in September 1622, four Franciscans were burned at the stake.
On his feast day, the sacrifice of Blessed Louis Someyon must challenge us. In modern Britain we will not have our heads chopped off for being openly Christian or a follower of St Francis, but so many of us do not even entertain the thought of trying to convert someone, or becoming a member of a Third Order because we will be thought of as odd. In comparison to the ultimate sacrifice of one like Blessed Louis Someyon, losing the esteem of our more secular-minded peers is a tiny price to pay.