Today is the Feast of the Franciscan Martyrs of Japan.
Wait, what? You’ve never heard of this Feast Day?
That probably has to do with the fact that the Church’s Universal Calendar remembers this day as “St. Paul Miki and Companions.” Paul Miki, a native Japanese convert to Catholicism and a member of the Society of Jesus, was among twenty-six religious and lay missionaries who were sentenced to death by the Emperor of Japan in 1597. There were two other Jesuits (John Goto, James Kisai) with Miki who were martyred on February 5th of that year, but there were twenty-three others who were also killed. All of those people were Franciscans — both members of the First Order (Franciscan friars) and of the Third Order (Secular Franciscans). Among the Friars killed included the saints: Peter Baptist, Martin of the Ascension, Francis Blanco, Philip of Jesus, Gonsalvo Garzia, and Francis of St. Michael.
We Franciscans celebrate our brothers and sisters who were martyred along with our three Jesuit brothers, but it is something to consider the relative ignorance of the wider church community about the fact that this was not simply the martyrdom of three Jesuits, or even three Jesuits and six Franciscan friars, but also seventeen laypeople.
Sometimes its worth pausing to consider just who these companions are on feast days that include large groups of people who have given their lives for their faith. This is not to begrudge the Jesuits nor the friars who were killed, but it does say something about who gets what sort of recognition in the collective memory of our faith community.
Today, at least quantifiably, is an overwhelmingly Franciscan feast day (pace, Paul Miki et al.), but even more importantly it is a feast day for the lay women and men whose work on behalf of others — including, the chronicles tell us, establishing convents, schools, and hospitals, activities all originally welcomed by the Japanese — was selfless and, despite the obvious colonial overtones of missionary work in the 16th century, done for those in need.
Paul Miki is perhaps the ‘front man’ for this feast day because he was Japanese whereas many of the other twenty-five martyrs were foreigners. Nevertheless, let us not forget the good intentions and work of all those whose lives were taken that February day in 1597.