Noah is heavy on my chest as I walk up the sloped Nagasaki street. The baby carrier straps offset his weight, but only a little. Ahead of us, white and angular and peaked with a green spire, rises Oura Cathedral. We are among a light crowd in the plaza before the church. Elderly Japanese tour groups, young Korean couples, and clusters of Chinese sightseers pose for snapshots in front of the European façade. I look at my wife Ayumi, wondering if we should take a photo as well.
Some people are entering the church, presumably for a Thursday morning Mass. They are not many, and we do not join them. We are headed for a hilltop garden. I check on Noah. He has fallen asleep. It’s hard to blame him. He’s only five months old, he is not yet baptized, not yet technically Catholic. Although technicalities may exclude me as well. Does the Sacrament come with an expiration date? My first year in Japan, I entered a church only two or three times, breaking a custom stretching back to my childhood. As a parent, my religious affairs are no longer private. How can I pass on the faith to my son when my own identity, previously firm and reliable, turns out to be inchoate?
Our fellow tourists seem too busy digitalizing their presence at a monument to be anxious about handing down faith and tradition. Granted, few of them are likely Catholic. Do they know the history of this place, of this particular house of worship?
Japan is not known as a Christian country, but Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries flocked to this cosmopolitan trading port in the sixteenth century. The church expanded outward from Nagasaki until the Tokugawa Shogunate, growing wary of European influence, banned Christianity. The rulers forestalled dissent; persecutions came swiftly.
The Japanese Catholics did not forsake their religion meekly. Twenty-six priests and laymen were marched to a nearby hill in 1597 and crucified. Like many martyrs, they were given a chance at pardon. Deny, and all would be forgiven. They did not deny. The authorities made them suffer in order to send a warning. The church standing before us now, Oura’s cathedral, was built to honor those 26.
Awareness of their suffering is discomfiting, humbling. It offers perspective. During my time away from Mass, my life in Japan was comfortable, with little stress and plenty of opportunities for travel. I never decided to ignore my faith, but I also didn’t make time for the Liturgy. I don’t know why. Perhaps I didn’t feel the need for it. My life overseas was a far cry from my earlier job teaching English in a Bronx middle school. The many strata of New York’s boroughs had offered daily reminders of the world’s suffering, and Catholicism gave me a vehicle to address those injustices. Here in Japan, I saw fewer inequalities. Comfort bred passivity. I was an outsider, an observer, diagnosing social conditions but under no pressure to improve them. I could have held on to religious observance as a linchpin of my identity, a framework for interpreting my new environment. Instead, I drifted between my old home and my new one. My semi-apostasy required no threats of crucifixion, only an easy lifestyle. The saints would blush.
We separate ourselves from the group and continue up the slope. The cathedral disappears around a corner. Twists and turns in the cobblestone street confuse my orientation. We are headed away from the harbor, I think. The steep incline makes the second-floor window of one house level with the front door of the next. As we ascend toward the garden, more of the city reveals itself, sloping upwards and away from the narrow bay. Other hills take shape. One of those hills – somewhere behind me, I imagine – was a site of martyrdom.
More persecutions followed the 26 crucifixions. Churches were burned, religious goods seized, peasants forced to trample images of the Virgin. Yet Christianity in Japan did not die. The church went underground.
The Christians concealed themselves for two centuries, praying in the lonely nighttime hours, hiding statues of Mary in covert alcoves, nurturing their faith through a collective act of will. They clung to a ritual they’d never seen openly practiced. Catholicism without the Masses, without the Eucharist, without the Pope. The shoot was cut from the tree, but it survived by itself.
When the Meiji Restoration ended Japan’s seclusion policy in 1853, bringing religious freedom, this perfectly-preserved relic of 16th-century missionary work emerged unscathed. It must have been like finding an iceman in a glacier. Tens of thousands proclaimed their true beliefs. Rome dubbed it the “miracle of the Orient.” In distant lands, with no guidance or support, the faith had survived. That unwavering belief is latent in the stones of the streets we are climbing, the water of the bay, the trees of the surrounding mountains. There is something familiar in these contoured alleys and terraced neighborhoods, something more than Mediterranean architecture.
I admire the resilience in this city, in this land I’ve now wed into. The quiet, incomprehensible strength of the martyrs and their brethren prompts me to measure my own religious commitment. After marriage and a son — who now rubs his sleepy forehead against my chest, dreaming — something drew me back. I started attending Mass again. Perhaps I wanted some consistency in a life that had changed radically in a year; perhaps I just hoped to be strengthened as a father, to do right by Noah. God willing, he will have a better life than mine, and he will be a better Catholic than me. But how can he have faith without the struggle? Centuries of fear honed the faith of the Nagasaki Christians; can we expect modern blessings of safety and comfort to do the same for us?
Religion concerns itself with the truth of our existence, giving low priority to practical benefits. Yet the Catholic tradition calls believers to serve others. In my absence from Mass I missed a galvanizing dissatisfaction with the world. Not something most people complain about, I suppose. But the seductive trappings of an easy life are not for me. I cannot by leisure kindle that “burning fire shut up in my bones” Jeremiah speaks of. I need what the hidden Christians of Nagasaki had: a consciousness of suffering and a community knit together by adherence to something unseen.
The Mass, through a process I can neither understand nor explain, through both its spiritual and communal dimensions, gives me that. Participation in the Eucharist unites me to a suffering at once dismaying and triumphant. It awakens some ameliorative impulse. I feel centered again, rooted in a time and place and possessing a self-awareness that had been lacking. With a family and a creed, that debilitating cultural dissonance is lessened. Once more I am compelled to actively participate in society. Faith is my modus operandi, my center and stimulus.
A child of two countries, Noah will need a keener sense of cultural equilibrium than I have. Maybe religious convictions can be the mortar he needs to hold his identity together. He will live in a world even more comfortable than my own. While I fervently hope for his safety and well-being, I don’t wish him to be a stranger to suffering. To know affliction yet enjoy blessings: an impossibly contradictory wish. Maybe the mass can give him the motivation I find it giving me again, now that I have returned.
We are at the garden’s entrance. The straps are not that bad; the soreness in my shoulders will fade. Ayumi and I catch our breath. We’ve climbed far. She reaches over to adjust a strap I hadn’t realized was loose. We both gaze at Noah for a moment, listening to his small breaths. He shows no signs of waking soon. Glancing around, I see the slope has led us to a vista of the city. The twin arms enclosing the bay stretch south, mountainous on either side. For a moment I am disoriented – shouldn’t the bay be behind us? But then I catch sight of a green spire below and perspective dawns. The cathedral. I have my bearings.
James Dechant is still living in Japan with his wife and young son. He teaches English at a high school there.