Japan bishops seek sainthood for martyr samurai, who renounced riches

(Photo: REUTERS / Kyodo)People attend a Roman Catholic Church beatification ceremony for 188 Japanese martyrs who refused to give up their religion despite persecution centuries ago in Nagasaki, Japan, November 24, 2008. At the ceremony, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins delivered blessings on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI on those killed between 1603 and 1639. Beatification is a stage that comes before sainthood in Catholicism.

Japanese bishops have revived a campaign to get a samurai, who was persecuted by ruling shoguns and driven into exile, canonized for spreading Christianity despite the odds he and his family faced.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan has spoken of the circumstances of the life of Justo Takayama Ukon, a feudal lord who shunned riches and property for faith.

They say what he did could pave the way for his sainthood, as he was banished from the country for rejecting demands to abandon Christianity.

"Ukon held clear principles for choosing the path that would lead to God and would lead to correct decisions," the bishops said in a statement on December 4.

"In the present age, when we are urged to make choices from among various values that promise happiness, people who adhere to Jesus can learn from the life of Ukon to follow the Lord directly, without deviation or error," they said.

Ukon is the first Japanese national whom the CBCJ is pushing to be canonized by himself, and not as part of a group.

All 42 saints and 393 blessed from Japan are celebrated as groups as they were martyred during the tumultuous Edo Period from 1603-1868 a period of economic growth, but also isolation.

At that time, rulers of Japan prohibited the practice of Christianity, enforcing a ban on "Western religions."

Born to a landed family, Ukon converted to Christianity when he was 12 after coming into contact with Jesuits, following the footsteps of his father. The family managed to convert people who lived in their area to the faith as well.

The Gospel was introduced to Japan by one of the founding members of the Jesuit order, Francis Xavier, in 1549 and Catholicism is the biggest strand of Christianity in the country,

When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power, his advisers urged him to ban the practice of Christianity. Feudal lords followed suit, but not Ukon and his father, who shunned their property so they could continue practicing their faith.

Ukon was protected by friends until in 1614, when he opted for exile rather than renounce his faith. He and 300 Japanese Christians headed to Manila, where local Catholics as well as Spanish Jesuits welcomed them.

Some 40 days after he arrived on Philippine shores, Ukon died on February 4, 1615. Local clergy accorded him a Catholic burial with full military honors.

Japanese Christians had attempted to have him beatified as early as the 17th century, but the country's isolationist policy prevented canonical investigators gathering evidence of Ukon's life and martyrdom.

In 1965, local clergy tried again, only to fall short because of formal lapses.

In 2012, the CBCJ wrote to then Pope Benedict XVI to restart the canonization process for a third time. The body managed to complete the documentary evidence a year after.

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