Singing, the assembled faithful as a procession of more than 300 priests made its way, preceded by eight women in kimono carrying the urns that contained the ashes of the martyrs.
Jesuit Fr Renzo De Luca, director of the Martyrs’ Museum, carried a reliquary with the remains of his martyred brother, Fr Peter Kibe.
Card Josè Saraiva Martins, representing Benedict XVI, responding to the formal request of Mgr Peter Okada, archbishop of Tokyo, and read the document of beatification of the 188 martyrs. “If so far they were secretly written in the ‘Book of Life,’ (Phil 4:3), he said in his closing address, “now they are in the List of the Blessed.”
In the same place 27 years ago, John Paul II had said: “I want to be another pilgrim among the many who come to Nagasaki, a place where so many Christians sealed their faithfulness in Christ by sacrificing their life. . . . In Nishizaka (the hill where the first martyrs were hung from crosses), 26 martyrs bore witness to the power of the Cross. . . . Today I come here to thank the God for the life and death of the Martyrs of Nagasaki, the 26 and the others who followed them.”
“With today’s beatification, these prophetic worlds have been largely fulfilled,’” said Cardinal Martins.
A straight symbolic line joins the two moments. The movement to beatify Peter Kibe and his fellow martyrs began in fact on that day, as a result of John Paul II’s initiative.
Card Peter Shirayanagi, former archbishop of Tokyo, celebrated the Eucharistic service that followed.
The assembled crowd appeared as the icon of the Church of God, not only in Japan but also in Asia. Red was the dominant colour, symbol of shed blood.
Two other cardinals were by Shirayanagi’s side: José Saraiva Martins and Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples.
All the bishops of Japan were present; five from Korea, one from Vietnam and one from Taiwan.
Mgr Joseph Takami, bishop of Nagasaki, mobilised everyone in his diocese.
The liturgical programme, which had been disseminated to all of the diocese’s parishes and carefully prepared to welcome brothers and sisters from around Japan, was perfect. It marked the meeting of the warmth of Christian fellowship with Japan’s proverbial flair of organisation.
The night before, in Urakami Cathedral, 500 metres from the epicentre of the atomic bomb, a prayer vigil was held.
During the Mass three particularly symbolic moments stood out: Bible readings, the faithful’s prayers and the offertory procession.
An old blind man gave the first reading because one of the beatified martyrs was blind. The second reading was given by an elderly woman because among the 62 women beatified many were mothers or grandmothers.
Ciboria for communion were brought to the altar by 200 boys and girls as if to highlight that the celebration was open to the future.
Finally, some faithful from the regions where the beatified martyrs bore witness to their faith in Christ recited the intentions of the so-called “universal prayers”.
Above all during Cardinal Shirayanagi’s homily the event’s significance was skilfully illustrated.
Although he retired in 2002 as head of the Tokyo Church from the start he remained the main promoter and inspiration for this event.
No civil authorities attended the event in accordance with article 20 of Japan’s constitution which formally sanctions the separation of state and religion.
This is a good thing.
Not so long ago Japan’s main religion, Shinto, was used to sacralise the power of a dictatorial state with well-known tragic consequences.
In a clear language Shirayanagi not only addressed Japanese Catholics but all Japan. Whilst not explicitly referring to historians who try to downplay the darkest moments in the country’s history, he said: “An important aspect of the history of persecution in Japan is that it lasted long, was total and its cruelty was unparalleled. . . . Its goal was the annihilation of Christianity.”
A second issue upon which he insisted was that of the family. He reminded Christians that during the 17th century, despite the persecution and the lack of priests, 300,000 Japanese were baptised and led a Christian life thanks to the family.
“The martyrs invite us to create similar families,” he said. “Our families need a space where everyone can meet to reflect upon the Word of God and pray.”
Further, he reminded non-Christians that the family is backbone of society. “If each family is solidly built, society too will be solid.”
The cardinal Shirayanagi lambasted however Japanese society’s reluctance to face suicide; officially, 30,000 each year.
“The martyrs exhort us to seriously reflect upon on the fundamental questions of life like what is life, what is death, what is the purpose of life, what is the meaning of suffering,” he said.
His appeal in favour of religious freedom and human rights was also no less clear.
“The martyrs urge us to fight everything that goes against the fundamental truth about the dignity of human life. The right to life from conception to natural death must be respected. Making and selling weapons and wars must be avoided at all cost. The gap between rich and poor and dehumanising want must be eliminated,” he said.
The fact that message was addressed to a Catholic audience does not diminish its appeal but increases it in fact, because it invites the former to be direct agents of evangelisation in society.
A bishop from the Anglican Church and one from the Lutheran Church as well as a Buddhist delegation attended the ceremony.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” the cardinal said by way of conclusion, “let us walk without fear. . . . The martyrs tell us not to fear. God tells us not to fear.”