Japan's Catholic martyrs honored in mass ceremony

Mon Nov 24, 2008 5:59am EST
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By Isabel Reynolds

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Bells tolled at the largest beatification ceremony ever held in Asia as thousands gathered on Monday to honor 188 Catholics killed in the persecution that almost wiped out Christianity in Japan four centuries ago.

As rain poured down on a baseball stadium in southern Japan, women in kimonos placed candles at a temporary altar, while clergymen, many wearing plastic raincoats over their robes, filed along a red carpet.

Beatification is a step on the way to Catholic sainthood and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan said the ceremony was the largest to be held in Asia to date.

For Japan's small Catholic population, the first beatification to be held in the country since Christianity was introduced in the 16th century is long-sought recognition for their predecessors' suffering.

Participants in the ceremony at Nagasaki, a port city that was once the gateway to Japan for Christian missionaries from Europe, said the events of four centuries ago held lessons for the present day.

"We pray that those who bear the responsibility of government around the world do not seek only their own profit, but work toward world peace and respect individual dignity and human rights," one member of the congregation said at the ceremony.

Vatican envoy Cardinal Jose Saraiva read a message in Latin from Pope Benedict, who also mentioned his spiritual closeness to the martyrs in his address in Rome on Sunday.

Brought to Japan in 1549 by Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary active across Asia, Christianity was banned by feudal lords fearful that foreign influence would undermine their power.   Continued...

<p>A 2005 file photo shows Japanese Catholics praying during a mass to comfort the souls of atomic bomb victims at Urakami Cathedral, which was rebuilt in 1959 after being destroyed in the atomic bombing, in Nagasaki, western Japan. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao</p>