by Libbie Steiner
A 16th-century samurai is currently being considered for beatification following last year’s application to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints by the Conference of Japanese Bishops. Takayama Ukon, born in 1552, was baptized at age 12 by Jesuit priest Fr. Gaspare di Lella after his father’s conversion to Catholicism. He and his family were members of the daimyo class of feudal Japan, who controlled vast swaths of land and were entitled to hiring samurai and building up armies. The Japanese Conference of Bishops hopes to at least begin the process of beatification and canonization ahead of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Takayama’s death in 2015.
Christianity was first introduced to the islands of Japan in 1549 by the well-known Jesuit priest St. Francis Xavier, who, along with six other men (including St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, and St. Peter Faber, only recently canonized by Pope Francis this past December), was among the first to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience into the newly-founded Jesuit Order in 1534. Xavier was the first Jesuit in India, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Borneo. The missionaries began to convert the Japanese and, though eventually expelled by Emperor Toyotomi Hideyosi in 1587, Jesuits such as Xavier made a lasting impact in the region.
The first church in Kyoto was established by Takayama and his family shortly after their conversion. Given his high position as a member of the daimyo class in Japanese society, Takayama was able to support missionary activities in Japan and serve as a guardian of the Jesuit fathers and Japanese Christians. Takayama and his family may have had a role in the conversion of tens of thousands of Japanese people of all classes.
In 1587, Emperor Toyotomi Hideyosi began persecuting all Christians in Japan, particularly the Jesuit priests (St. Francis Xavier and Gaspare di Lella being among them) and other Christian missionaries in Japan. Many of the converted Japanese quickly stopped identifying as Christians or Catholics and thoroughly denounced their new faith in order to avoid being expelled from Japan or punished otherwise. Hideyosi had been convinced by some of his advisors that as part of his unification of Japan, the “western religion” needed to be quashed.
Takayama and his family, however, refused to renounce the Catholic Faith and continued to practice their religion despite the danger of being exiled from Japan were they to be found with objects of worship or attending Mass. Takayama lived for several years under the protection of his aristocratic friends while continuing to preach the Gospel and convert more of his friends to the Catholic faith. In 1614, when practicing Christianity was definitively banned in Japan, Takayama and 300 other Japanese Christians chose the path of exile rather than giving up their religion. Spanish Jesuits and the local Catholics welcomed the group in the Philippines when they arrived in December, 1614. On the February 4th, 1615, exactly forty days after arriving in the Philippines, Takayama died and was given a full Catholic funeral ceremony and burial.
This past October, Osaka Archbishop Leo Jun Ikenaga sent a letter to the Vatican petitioning for the process to be taken into special consideration and expedition. The Vatican answered that it would treat this case with special attention given that this would be the first individual Japanese person to be named Blessed by the Church. The Japanese Conference of Bishops as well as the half a million Japanese lay people who identify as Catholic wait anxiously and excitedly for any news from the Vatican.