Pope Francis has honored the “holy men and women” in Japan who “suffered martyrdom for the faith” in his visit at the 26 Martyrs Museum and Monument.
“I have come to this monument of the martyrs to pay homage… But I also come in humility, as one who himself, as a young Jesuit from ‘the ends of the earth,’ found powerful inspiration in the story of the early missionaries and the Japanese martyrs,” Pope Francis said, Nov. 24.
The museum and the monument were built in 1962 on Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki, Japan to commemorate the 100 years of the canonization of the Christian martyrs who were executed on the site in 1597.
“I have come here as a pilgrim to pray, to confirm you in the faith, and to be confirmed by the faith of these brothers and sisters who by their witness and devotion light up our path,” the pope said.
The pontiff paused for prayers on the site where St. Paul Miki and his companions were crucified during an era where Christians were targeted during the fiercest campaign of persecution.
St. Paul Miki, who was a Jesuit brother and a native of Japan, is the best-known martyr in the country.
While hanging upon the cross, he preached to the people gathered for the execution.
For at least 200 years after the death of the first Japanese martyrs, Japan has no Catholic priest or religious missionaries.
Catholic missionaries returned in the country in the 1860s, but they did not find any trace of Christianity until they discovered thousands of Christians in Nagasaki who secretly preserved the faith.
The martyrs of Japan were beatified in 1627 and were finally canonized in 1862.
Pope Francis said the “shrine does more than speak of death; it also speaks of the triumph of life over death.”
“For here the light of the Gospel shone forth in the love that triumphed over persecution and the sword,” he said.
The pope expressed the shrine “is above all a monument to Easter, for it proclaims that the last word — despite all evidence to the contrary — belongs not to death but to life.”
“We are not destined for death but for the fullness of life. This was the message the martyrs proclaimed,” said Pope Francis.
He said while people “see the darkness of death and martyrdom” on the hill where the martyrs were killed, people can see “also the light of the resurrection, as the blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the new life that Jesus wishes to bestow on us.”
The pope said the witness of the martyrs “confirms us in faith and helps us to renew our dedication and commitment to that missionary discipleship.”
He urged the Japanese people to “never forget their heroic sacrifice.”
The narratives of the martyrs, he said, must “not remain as a glorious relic of the past,” but must be seen “as a living memory” and “an inspiration.”
The pontiff urged the faithful to “speak out and insist that religious freedom be guaranteed for everyone in every part of our world.”
“Let us also condemn the manipulation of religions through “policies of extremism and division, by systems of unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women,” he added.
In May 2018, Nagasaki Mayor Tomohisa Taue invited the pontiff to visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan’s two cities that were destroyed by nuclear attacks during World War II.
On Dec. 17, 2018, Pope Francis expressed his desire to visit Japan during his meeting with Cardinal Manyo Maeda. After one month, the Vatican announced the plan to visit the country in November 2019.