In Praise of Saints Who Truly Reflect the Global (Not Just European) Church

The Church of Jesus Christ has always been a global one, reaching out to men and women of “every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Rev 7:9) from even before the first Pentecost. Though Jesus’s Apostles were uniformly Middle-Eastern, Simon of Cyrene was from Africa, an African saint drawn to Christ even before his death. When the Spirit descended, the Gospel was preached to men and women from Rome, Crete, Arabia, Egypt, and Libya. And within twenty years, tradition tells us that St. Thomas the Apostle had planted the faith in India and St. Matthew in Ethiopia (both churches that persist to this day) while Peter and Paul were making their way to the heart of the Roman Empire to send the Good News out to all the world.

The saints venerated in the early Church reflect its diversity, from St. Ephigenia princess of Ethiopia to St. Shemon Bar Sabbae of modern Iraq, from St. Mary of Egypt to St. Alban of England. But as the Church of Rome became more distant from her sister Churches in India and Lebanon and Ethiopia—divided by politics sometimes as much as geography—the canon of saints became (understandably) whiter. And though the Gospel was eventually preached to the ends of the earth, it took some time for the canon to reflect the global Church in its diversity.

When St. Paul Miki and his companions were killed in 1597, there were as yet no Latin American saints; Rose of Lima, who would become the first Latin American saint nearly a century later, was only 11 years old. Though the Church had operated in India without interruption for over fifteen centuries, there were no South Asian saints. And East Asia, too, was without representation among the saints (though records indicate that Christianity reached China by the seventh century).

But most causes for canonization progress rather slowly, particularly when a potential saint has no advocates in the hierarchy. And the Church had only been well-established among Indigenous Americans since the apparition at Guadalupe some sixty-five years earlier, while relations with the Syro-Malabar Church of India had been restored not long after that. There was no concerted effort to suppress the causes of saints of color, but neither was there any particular endeavor to increase representation of the newly-converted peoples of Asia and the Americas.

Mercifully, God knew the hearts of his people. He knew our need to see ourselves in the models of holiness set before us, to see our state in life and our culture and our particular struggles and gifts. And on 5 February 1597, he laid the groundwork for the panoply of saints we see today, saints from dozens upon dozens of nations, of every race, with every imaginable background. On that day in Nagasaki, twenty-six men and boys were murdered, Christians from Japan, Mexico, India, and Spain. Thirty years later, those martyrs were beatified: the first East Asian blesseds, the first South Asian blessed, and the first Latin American blessed. When the group was finally canonized in 1862, their number included the first ever Saints from Japan, India, and Mexico.

St. Paul Miki (1562-1597) is the most famous of the Japanese martyrs, the headliner saint accompanied by “and companions” in the liturgical texts of the Church. He was also the first Japanese person to enter any religious order, becoming a Jesuit in 1586, 41 years after St. Francis Xavier brought the Gospel to Japan. Miki was the son of a Japanese soldier who converted to Catholicism (with his wife) when Miki was four. Miki later attended Jesuit school and entered the Society at 22.

Even as a student, Miki began to gain a reputation as a preacher and was soon known as the best preacher in the country. This was due in part to his study of Japanese literature and Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism; because of his familiarity with the culture and faiths of his interlocutors, he was able to provide compelling arguments that led to many conversions. Miki was preparing for ordination in the fall of 1596 when the pilot of the shipwrecked San Felipe (a Spanish trade ship) feared for the loss of his cargo and threatened the Japanese government with reprisals, even insisting that the missionaries who had received such a warm welcome in Japan were secretly preparing an attack on the country.

Christians were immediately under suspicion and 33-year-old Miki was arrested on the day after Christmas, with his Jesuit brothers John de Soto and James Kisai. Even in prison, Miki continued preaching, bolstering the spirits of the other prisoners as well as touching the hearts of the guards. One even converted to Catholicism after his encounter with the joyful and convincing young Jesuit.

St. Gonsalo Garcia (1556-1597) was born near Mumbai on the west coast of India; his father was a Portuguese soldier (part of the occupying force) and his mother an Indian woman. He was raised in the Portuguese fort and immersed in European culture; later he was educated by Jesuits. Gonsalo was so inspired by the Jesuit missionaries who taught him (especially Fr. Sebastião Gonsalves) that by the time he was 15 he had convinced Fr. Sebastião to take him to Japan. Gonsalo learned Japanese on the ship and was appointed a catechist, spending eight years drawing children to himself by his cheerful personality and converting them and their parents by his theological acumen and linguistic skill.

But Gonsalo was not content to be a catechist. He wanted to be a Jesuit priest. Unfortunately, racism barred him from entry. When it finally became clear that his superiors were hesitant to admit a man with Indian ancestry (however European he was culturally), Gonsalo left their company and became a successful merchant. His evangelical zeal persisted, though, and Gonsalo finally entered the Franciscan order in Manila. When his community sent missionaries to Japan, Br. Gonsalo was one of their leaders and served with great success for four years.

Br. Gonsalo was arrested after the San Felipe incident. As he went to his death beside St. Paul Miki and the others, he saw a Jesuit friend of his. Having forgiven the men who had refused him entry to their order, he called out, “My good friend, God be with you. I am going to heaven. A hearty hug to Fr. Sebastião on my behalf.”

St. Felipe las Casas Martínez (1572-1597) rounds out the group of protomartyrs as the first Saint of Mexico and the first Latin American to be beatified. Known also as St. Felipe de Jesús, he was born in Mexico to Spanish immigrants. Felipe was a remarkably flighty child but the influence of his holy family seems to have tempered his instincts, as he entered the Franciscan order in his early teens.

But his heart was not yet fully converted and Felipe left religious life after some months, determined to seek pleasure in the world. His disappointed father sent him to the Philippines on family business, where he attempted to fill his hunger for the Lord with other pursuits. After three years, he realized that he truly did have a call to religious life and begged the Franciscans in the Philippines to receive him once more.

After he made final vows, Br. Felipe’s superiors sent him back to Mexico to be ordained. A storm drove the Mexico-bound ship into a Japanese harbor, where it wrecked. As they were driven toward Japan, Br. Felipe saw a vision in the sky over Japan of a white cross that turned red, an omen of his coming martyrdom. He accepted his fate and went peacefully when he was arrested along with the crew and other passengers on his ship were imprisoned; later that year, a number of them were taken to Nagasaki to be killed, including Br. Felipe, the first martyr in Japan and later the first Mexican Saint to be canonized.

Killed alongside these three protomartyrs of their people were four Spanish Franciscans: Frs. Peter Bautista, Martin of the Ascension, and Francis Blanco were priests who had worked as missionaries in Mexico, the Philippines, and Japan. Br. Francis of St. Michael was a lay brother, a soft-spoken man who had felt useless in the friars’ ministry in Japan but remained faithful. The rest were, of course, Japanese; most were also Franciscan tertiaries. We know little of most of them, but snippets of their lives help to bring their stories close to home, making them brothers in Christ rather than faceless names on a page.

John of Goto was a 19-year-old man who had been born to a Japanese Christian family and had entered the Jesuits. His parents visited him in prison and encouraged him to remain faithful. “Because you die for the service of God, give your life with joy,” his father said. The young Jesuit was able to profess vows the day before his martyrdom.

James Kisai was a samurai warrior who had converted from Buddhism to Catholicism and married a convert. When his wife returned to Buddhism (despite his entreaties) and left him and their child, James sent his son to be raised by a Christian family. James then began work with the Jesuits. After many years of service, he entered the Jesuits at age 63 and professed vows in prison the day before his martyrdom.

Michael Kozaki was a bow-maker and a carpenter; he had helped to build several Franciscan churches and convents. His 15-year-old son Thomas Kozaki was arrested alongside him. In Thomas's last letter to his mother, he wrote with great confidence and theological acuity:

With the help of the Lord’s grace I am writing these lines. The priests and the others who are journeying to be crucified in Nagasaki number in all twenty-four, as testified in the sentence that is carried on a board ahead of us. You should not worry about me and my father Michael. I hope to see you both very soon, there in paradise. Although you need the priests, if you are deeply sorry for your sins and have much devotion at the hour of your death, and if you remember and acknowledge the many blessings of Jesus Christ, then you will be saved. And bear in mind that everyone in this world has to come to an end, and so strive that you will not lose the happiness of heaven. Whatever men may impose on you, try to have patience and show much charity for everyone. It is really necessary that my two brothers, Mancius and Philip, do not fall into the hands of heathens. I commend you to Our Lord, and I send you prayers for everybody we know. Remember to have great sorrow for your sins, for this alone is important. Although he sinned against God, Adam was saved by his sorrow and penance. The second day of the Twelfth Moon, in Mihara fortress, in the kingdom of Aki.

Paul Ibaraki was a sake brewer from a samurai family. His brother Leo Karasumaru had become a Buddhist monk as a boy and remained faithful to that calling until he met a Jesuit when he was thirty; convinced by the Gospel that was proclaimed to him, he left the monastery and became a Christian. With his wife, he served at a leper hospital, even bathing the patients himself and washing their soiled clothes in the river.

Paul and Leo’s 12-year-old nephew Louis Ibaraki was (Fr. Blanco wrote) “so full of courage and in such high spirits that he astonishes everybody.” He laughed as they cut off part of his ear and continued laughing and singing on the long walk to Nagasaki. When offered his freedom in exchange for apostasy, young Louis responded, “I do not want to live on that condition, for it is not reasonable to exchange a life that has no end for one that soon finishes.” As Louis and 13-year-old Anthony of Nagasaki were hanging on their crosses, they sang together, “Praise the Lord ye children!” From his cross, young Anthony could see his mother weeping; for all he hated to cause her pain, his delight at the prospect of heaven was stronger.

Bonaventure of Miyako was baptized as a baby but after his mother died his stepmother sent him to be raised in a Buddhist monastery; Bonaventure did not learn that he was Christian until adulthood, at which point he went looking for answers. Satisfied by what he learned, he renounced Buddhism and began living as a Christian.

Gabriel of Ise was a 19-year-old catechist who had been converted by Br. Gonsalo. Though his parents initially objected to his newfound faith, his father was so impressed by Gabriel’s hard work for the Franciscans that he was later baptized himself.

Cosmas Takeya was a swordsmith. Francis of Miyako was a doctor. John Kinuya was a silk weaver and trader. Joachim Sakakibara was a medical student before his conversion but was so grateful for his baptism that he left his studies and became a construction worker and a cook for the Franciscans.

Thomas Dangi was a pharmacist who was angry and violent by nature; in the years after his conversion, God molded his heart until he became a kind and gentle catechist. He continued to work as a pharmacist, moving his shop next to the friars’ convent so that he could direct his customers to medicine for their souls after he had supplied the needs of their bodies.

Paul Suzuki, too, had a fiery disposition. A former samurai, thirteen years of following the Lord had removed neither his many battle scars nor his inclination to shout, though his voice was often raised in a call to conversion as he interpreted for the friars or preached in his own right. He successfully ran a hospital for the friars but remained rather bellicose and as he hung from the cross he made himself heard, preaching an impassioned sermon in his final minutes.

Of Matthias of Kyoto, we know almost nothing. He was a newly-baptized Christian soldier, but not the Matthias the guards were looking for. Though he could easily have kept his peace, he volunteered to go in the other man’s stead, knowing that he was on his way to martyrdom.

What an image of the universality of the Church these men and boys must have been, their complexions varied but their expressions of joy uniform as they went gladly to their deaths. They had been captured at different times and places, but twenty-four of them were assembled at Kyoto and sentenced to death. Their left ears were mutilated as a sign of their condemnation, then they were forced to march six hundred miles to Nagasaki, the place designated for their execution. Each morning, the men and boys set out again, their broken bodies exhausted but their spirits high as they sang praise to the God who they knew would save them not from death but through death.

As they went, their number grew. Peter Sukejiro had been sent by a priest to care for the prisoners on their march and was soon arrested for his trouble. Francis Kichi, meanwhile, was a recently baptized carpenter who had been absent when the group had been arrested. He followed the prisoners on their forced march, singing and praying along with them, until he, too, was arrested, bringing the number of prisoners to twenty-six: three Jesuits, six Franciscans, and seventeen laypeople. Four Spaniards, an Indian, a Mexican, and twenty Japanese Christians, all with their eyes fixed on heaven.

On the morning of February 5, they were marched to the place of their execution, where twenty-six crosses had been fixed so that these Christians might die in agony. Following the example of Br. Gonsalo, each knelt in turn to kiss the cross that would deliver him to heaven. They were bound to their crosses with ropes and iron bands (except Fr. Peter Bautista, who had asked to be nailed to the cross as his Lord had been). Then these Saints of God began to sing as the crowds looked on. Miki even preached one final sermon. “The only reason why I am put to death,” he assured his listeners, “is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause, and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord.”

Br. Felipe de Jesús died first, the protomartyr of Japan though he had been in the country for such a short time. His cross had been measured wrong and the metal band around his neck began to strangle him; his gasping disturbed the soldiers who stabbed him to put an end to the horrible sound. Then the rest were stabbed, each with his eyes lifted to heaven. Young Louis Ibaraki used his last moment to call out, “Jesus! Mary!” before going to meet them.

If the Japanese government thought such a display would discourage the Christians of Japan, they were sorely mistaken. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, after all, and many converts were made in the wake of this martyrdom. But there was great suffering ahead for all Japanese Christians. For the next seventeen years, Christians were alternately persecuted and tolerated, but by 1614 all missionaries were expelled from the country and native Christians forced to apostatize or die.

This persecution was still ongoing thirty years after the death of the martyrs of Nagasaki, as the Japanese government continued its efforts to weed out what they viewed as a foreign religion. To strengthen the surviving Japanese Christians (though it was unlikely they would ever hear the news), Rome beatified the martyrs in 1627, adding to the canon of Saints its first East Asian, South Asian, and Latin American members. But there were few Japanese priests left to further the cause and those who were still alive were on the run, with no contact with Rome. The martyrs’ cause stalled in Rome and before long the Japanese congratulated themselves on having rooted out the invasive Christian faith. It was, it seemed, the end of the story of Japanese Christianity. But then Japan was opened back up to the West.

In hopes of sparking a renaissance of Japanese Christianity, Bl. Pope Pius IX canonized St. Paul Miki and Companions in June of 1862. Before long, the world discovered that these Japanese Saints had already been praying for their countrymen. Catholic missionaries had finally been allowed to return to the country, and in 1865 a group of Japanese Christians presented themselves to Fr. Bernard Petitjean, a French priest who was stunned to discover that the Japanese had been baptizing their babies in secret and raising them with the faith all through the 250 years since the missionaries had been forced to leave their flock.

Soon he discovered that there were thousands of these Hidden Christians, many of whom became regular worshippers at the new Catholic churches being erected in the country (despite continued persecution of Japanese Christians) The Catholic world was shocked by this news. Bl. Pope Pius IX called it “the miracle of the Orient”: a miracle of perseverance, wrought by the prayers and sacrifice of the twenty-six martyrs who had joyfully offered their lives 268 years earlier.

Along with the twenty Japanese martyrs (the first East Asian Saints), Pius IX canonized St. Gonsalo Garcia (the first South Asian Saint), and St. Felipe de Jesús (the first Mexican saint, though the honor of first Latin American saint went to St. Rose of Lima in 1671). With that decree, the Holy Father made clear what remains a well-kept secret in many circles: the Catholic Church is for every race, every people, every culture, every language, every state in life, everyone. The martyrs of Nagasaki joined the ancient saints of Africa and the Middle East, joined St. Benedict the Moor and St. Rose of Lima, and paved the way for the hundreds upon hundreds of Asian and Latino Saints and Blesseds currently commemorated in the Roman Martyrology.

They also stand as a challenge to us, inviting us to look beyond the Irish and Italian saints who fill our stained-glass windows, to adorn our homes and churches with saints who reflect our truly global Church. They call us to venerate diverse saints, to listen to diverse voices, to honor diverse cultures and evangelize all of our neighbors, not just the ones whose backgrounds match our expectations. On this feast of St. Paul Miki and Companions, let us join them in praising God for a Church whose message has been preached to the ends of the earth.

Featured Image: Martyrdom of Paul Miki and Companions in Nagasaki. 1635, author uknown; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Meg Hunter-Kilmer

Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a hobo for Christ and a Fellow of the Sullivan Family Saints Initiative in the McGrath Institute for Church Life. She lives out of her car and travels the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, and writing about the saints.

Read more by Meg Hunter-Kilmer