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Catholic Heroes . . . Blessed Thomas Tsuji

September 6, 2018 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Kyoto, Tokyo, Fukushima, Hiroshima, and Mount Fuji are among the most well-known places in the island nation of Japan. From a Catholic perspective, the best known would be Nagasaki, capital of the Nagasaki Prefecture located on the southwestern-most area of Japan. It was the first part of Japan to be colonized by the Portuguese and Dutch after the landing of the famous Jesuit, St. Francis Xavier.
Their faith was so strong that it is probably the only place on Earth that held to the Catholic faith for over 200 years without a priest. In a country that has historically been far from friendly to Catholicism, The Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tragically, it is also the second and last city in the world upon which an atomic bomb was dropped.
At the time that happened, some Jesuits were praying the rosary and their home was the only building left standing in the devastation.
It is also the city known for the martyrdom of 205 persons for being Catholic, including Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits, both foreign and domestic. Thomas Tsuji, numbered among those martyrs, was born in 1571 of noble parents.
The Jesuit presence began with the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in 1547 with few of the people embracing the faith at that time. However, by 1587 Shintoism and Buddhism gave way in part to Christianity. The benign attitude of Hideyoshi, the ruler at the time, allowed this increase.
In 1587, the Portuguese traders, trying to obliterate the Jesuits who were trading to support their missions, spread rumors of forced conversions. These rumors reached the ears of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In addition, the European merchants who slaughtered animals for food and garrisoned Nagasaki greatly offended the gentle nature of the Japanese.
For this reason, Hideyoshi banned the “barbaric Westerners” from his native land along with all Christians, and the greatest persecution since Roman times began in earnest.
Before this era, during the quiet expansion of Catholicism in Japan, the Jesuits opened several schools in Thomas Tsuji’s hometown of Omura, on the island of Kyushu. He entered the school in Arima and by the age of 19, Thomas entered the Jesuit seminary in January 1589. Sometime before 1613 he was ordained in Nagasaki.
After his Ordination, full of zeal, he traveled throughout southern Japan, preaching and dispensing the sacraments. At one point, filled with righteous indignation, he openly condemned the immoral behavior of some Christians. In order to prevent any conflict — which the civil authorities were careful to monitor — the Jesuits transferred Fr. Tsuji to Hakata, about 100 miles north of Nagasaki.
In 1614, with the decision of the Tokugawa shogunate to banish priests and outlaw Christianity, all priests were forced to leave Japan. So Fr. Tsuji and 80 other priests went in exile to Macao.
However, after four years Fr. Tsuji dressed himself as a merchant in August 1618, and sailed back to Japan. Like the priests during the English Reformation, he worked in disguise day and night. He became very adept in donning various disguises, concealing the true nature of his missions. Once he dressed as an artisan, another time as a nobleman, another time perhaps as a peasant farmer. His favorite “costume” was the outfit of a humble wood seller — looking like such a tradesman would enable him to knock on the doors of any household, rich or poor.
A few years later, the persecutions became worse, and thus his services were in more demand. He witnessed the Jesuits who were so courageous as they were led to their martyrdom, and seriously questioned whether he could do the same. He became so convinced that he could not live up to the expectations of the Society of Jesus that he begged to be released from his vows. His request was granted and he was released from his vows in 1619.
It was not long before the holy man realized his error and petitioned to be reinstated to the order. Disappointed that he could not be readmitted, he accepted a period of probationary service,
This probation lasted for six years as he proved his zeal and fearlessness in serving the people of God in their trials. In 1626 Fr. Tsuji was readmitted to the order and was stationed at Nagasaki. Again he served with great fortitude until he was arrested.
One morning he was visiting the Maki family, celebrating Mass for them as he frequently did. As he began putting away the sacred vessels, soldiers burst into the home, arresting the priest and Louis Maki and his son John.
When he stood before the judge, he was asked what he was doing when he was arrested. Fr. Tsuji replied, “For many years the people have seen Thomas Tsuji, a religious of the Society of Jesus, and have heard him preach the Christian message. I am he, and I am prepared to uphold with my life and to testify with my blood to the truths that I have faithfully taught.”
He was found guilty and imprisoned in Omura along with Louis and John Maki, who also were found guilty for collaborating with a priest and providing him hospitality.
Putting him in jail did not satisfy the authorities, so they repeatedly allowed his family — since they were nobles — to visit him in jail if they would persuade him to denounce Christianity. Fr. Tsuji’s previous fears of lacking the courage and perseverance were proven groundless as he resisted the pleas of his family and faced the wrath of the jailers. He continued to hold true to his calling, saying, “What you ask me to do is wrong, and even if you offered me a thousand Japans, or the whole world, I could not do it.”
Another 13 months passed with all attempts to break Fr. Tsuji’s faith failing. Finally, in September 1627, the three prisoners were taken to Nagasaki, the site of so many Catholic executions. On September 27, 1627, the soldiers took Thomas Tsuji, Louis Maki, and John Maki to Martyrs’ Hill and tied them to stakes. Along the way Fr. Tsuji comforted his companions, asking them to reflect on Christ’s Passion.
As the fires were lit to burn them, the faithful priest blessed John and Louis Maki and then raised his eyes to Heaven in prayer. In the end, he chanted Psalm 117, Praise the Lord, All You Nations.
As their shepherd was dying, witnesses saw his heart swell and burst open with flames that burned upward out of sight. Fr. Tsuji and John and Louis Maki were martyred on September 7, 1627. The three were beatified by Pope Pius IX on May 7, 1867.
Catholicism had gone underground and did not resurface until Fr. Bernard Petitjean came to Nagasaki. In 1865, some women discovered that the priest honored Mary, was celibate, and came from the Holy Father in Rome. Soon after, members of their Catholic community revealed themselves to Fr. Petitjean. That community had survived until then with no priests.
Dear Fr. Thomas Tsuji, how faithful a shepherd you were in your trials. Look down upon Holy Mother Church and obtain for her holiness, faithfulness, and the fortitude to proclaim the Truth. Just as you were not afraid to admit your shortcomings, may our shepherds also admit to theirs! Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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