Hostility toward Christians is growing around the world, but it need not discourage us; rather, persecution can purify and strengthen us.
This was the message of Pope Francis in his general audience on Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square, who told the crowd to learn a lesson from Japanese Christians who survived more than two centuries of harsh persecution by clandestinely baptizing, praying and hiding from their persecutors.
“Difficulties and persecution, when they are lived with trust, confidence and hope, purify the faith and strengthen it,” he said according to this report in the Catholic Herald.
Particularly to pilgrims from the Middle East, he said, “Be true witnesses of Christ and his Gospel, authentic children of the Church, always ready to give reasons for your hope with love and respect.”
He referenced the plight of Christians in Japan in the early 17th century who watched every priest expelled from the country and thousands of their brothers and sisters in the faith murdered by hostile government leaders. Some of the most famous of these martyrs was St. Paul Miki and his 26 companions, whose feast is marked on February 6, and who were tortured and crucified on crosses outside Nagasaki in 1597 to discourage Christianity. This persecution was followed by several others resulting in forcing most of the Christians in Japan to practice their faith in secret, becoming known as “kakure kirishitan” or “hidden Christians.”
When missionaries were finally allowed to return to Japan after nearly 250 years, thousands of these hidden Christians were still practicing the faith and helped the Church come back to life.
Japanese Christians “survived with the grace of baptism,” which, because there were no priests, was conferred to every newborn by his baptized mother or father, he said.
“They maintained, even in secrecy, a strong spirit of community because baptism made them become one single body in Christ: they were isolated and hidden, but they were always members of the people of God, of the Church,” he continued. “We can learn a lot from this history.”
When greeting pilgrims from Jordan and the Holy Land later, he encouraged them to keep “the flame of faith always lit, transmitting it from one generation to the other.”
We all have the duty to transmit the faith to others, he said, adding that “with this grace, the Christian people journey over time like a river that irrigates the earth and spreads God’s blessing across the world.”
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