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The Nagasaki of martyrs

· Where the sacrifice of Christians is woven into the tragedy of the country ·

The history of Christianity – as recent events in Nigeria and Kenya remind us – is marked by massacres and persecutions, occurring not only in places geographically familiar to us. Like Japan, which is almost impossible to think of without being reminded of the nuclear tragedy of last century. However, cities like Nagasaki have a much different meaning: as an absolutely central hub in the history of Asia, and of Japan especially, which has nothing to do with the concluding drama of World War II.

Nagasaki, in fact, was for more than two centuries the only outpost through which the West – especially thanks to the great voyages of discovery from Holland – caught a glimpse of the Japanese world which from 1614, that is from the edict expelling Christians, had decided to close its borders to foreigners. Such a drastic measure had been imposed with the explicit intention to defend the Nation from an influence judged to be more harmful than any other cultural or technological suggestion – which Japan enjoyed anyway – that the Western mind, in those years of global trade, was exporting: namely, Christianity.

The forefather of this work of evangelize was St Francis Xavier, whose historical portraits, which show his iconic “ tonsure”, are widely popular among Japanese students that they use the term Xavier Age (literally, a balding Xavier) to indicate someone in the state of loosing his hair.

Francis Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit and missionary, went to Japan in 1549, together with two other missionaries. He is thought to have converted a 100,000 people to the new faith. But already in 1587 Christianity began to be suppressed throughout the Country, so much so that Christians were forced to go underground. Still visible today, in the museum of the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki, are the statues which these Christians adored in secret to nourish their faith. They were statues which came out of Buddhist China, representing the divinity Cannon, whose immaculate sobriety, in various votive representations – with even a hat looking like a veil – resembles in an amazing way the Virgin Mary. This is how the name which it still bears came into being: Mary of Cannon.

It was the martyrdom of 26 Christians in Nagasaki which was to go down in history, at least until the middle of last century: six Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and 17 others, including three children, were crucified on the hill where a museum and monument commemorating it stands today.

Here, in line with the unforeseeable parable that traces the fate and marks the history of a Country, the most unexpected short circuit happened. On this Asian Golgotha the Cathedral of Uraemic was erected in 1865, which on 9 August 1945 was almost entirely wiped away by the drop of the first hydrogen bomb. Only a few months after the nuclear shock, a Trappist father, by the name of Daemon Notching, digging through the ruins found something that stunned him: the head of the statue of the Virgin Mary, the very one which stood, until 9 August, on the altar of the Church with her eyes, made of glass, still practically intact (today only two black holes are left). The discovery seemed to be a miracle because the Cathedral was only 500 metres away from the explosion. The eyes of the Virgin, as Fr Notching recalls, were astoundingly similar to those of survivors, of whom the museum of Peace, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still display Photographs. Those thousands who were in close contact with the explosion were blinded. Their eyes took on an unnatural colour of opaque reflections (atomic bomb cataract) just like glass. An unnatural and mysterious hue, just like the fury of primeval light, of a dark and blinding energy.

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