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Support lay Catholics, Pope tells bishops of Japan

Women pray during a Mass at the Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki (CNS)

To be truly Catholic and missionary, Catholic communities need the active participation and witness of laypeople, Pope Francis has told the bishops of Japan.

Meeting the bishops just three days after celebrations in Japan marked the 150th anniversary of a group of “hidden Christians” openly professing their Catholicism, Pope Francis said those lay Catholics kept the faith alive despite constant threats of death and should inspire all Japanese Catholics today.

For more than 200 years, even without the presence of missionaries or priests, “hidden Christians” passed on the faith in Japan by secretly teaching the catechism, sharing Bible passages, prayers and devotions with others.

On March 17, 1865, a group of “hidden Christians” in Nagasaki announced their faith to a French priest who had been sent to Japan to minister to Catholics in the city’s French quarter.

Meeting the Japanese bishops on March 20 during their “ad limina” visits, Pope Francis said that even without priests, “the faith of the Christian community did not grow cold.” The lay Catholics kept alive “the embers of faith” preached by the missionaries and lived by the Japanese martyrs.

The example of the “hidden Catholics” offers “a guide to living the faith,” the Pope said. The entire Church — not just priests or religious — must be missionary and the role of the laity must be valued and encouraged.

“By our baptism, we are all called to be evangelisers and to witness to the good news of Jesus wherever we are,” the Pope said. “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 neighborhoods.”

But people will be attracted only to a faith that is authentic, he said. “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.”

When the witness and involvement of the laity is lacking, he said, it usually “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 instill 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.”