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Mary, Mother of Japan

30 November, 1999

Gerry Bourke SJ recalls his experience of devotion to Mary in Japan; he notes that it has been hugely important to Japanese Catholics going all the way back to the time of St Francis Xavier.

When I was a boy at Synge Street Christian Brothers’ School in Dublin, the month of May was one in which we all worked together to put up an altar in our classroom in honour of Mary. During the month, the students would take turns in bringing flowers and candles to decorate the altar.

The altar cloth had the words Maria, Mater et Regina – Mary, Mother and Queen – written in large letters on the front. Each day at noon, there would be a few words from the brother in charge, and then we would sing a hymn and recite together some special prayers to Mary.

Catholics and non-Catholics
Ten years after I left Synge Street, I found myself in Japan as a Jesuit scholastic and, after learning the language, I was assigned to teach at a Jesuit School in a place south of Tokyo called Yokosuka. In the month of May, despite the fact that most of the students were non-Catholic, the Catholic students would work with their teachers to prepare in the school chapel a special altar in honour of Mary.

They would then invite their non-Catholic friends to join them in special Marian devotions in the chapel each morning before classes began. It was impressive to see the number of students and teachers that would fill the chapel.

Japanese devotion
Devotion to Mary has been – and will, I trust, always be – very special to the Japanese. St. Francis Xavier himself, 450 years ago, began all his instructions by teaching the children and adult catechumens to chant the Hail Mary and to sing other hymns in honour of Mary. The rosary and these hymns would be heard in the towns and villages where he preached long after he had moved on to preach in other places.

During the long period when Christianity was forbidden under pain of torture and death, many Christians, who continued to practise their faith in hiding, passed on the faith from generation to generation, including prayers to Mary in a mixture of Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese. They even concealed a statue of Mary inside the Buddhist statue of Kannon, goddess of mercy!

In 1865, after two hundred and fifty years of severe persecution, permission was granted for a small Catholic church to be opened in Nagasaki. It was to serve the foreigners trading in that town. French priests from the Missions Etrangères de Paris were allowed to staff it.

On 17 March – St. Patrick’s Day! – Fr. Petitjean was walking up and down outside the church reciting his breviary. He noticed a group of Japanese people looking at him and chatting excitedly among themselves. A woman approached him and asked, Maria sama no gozoo wa, doko desu ka – ‘Where is the statue of the honourable Mary?’ When the priest showed them the statue of Our Lady in the church, they exclaimed, ‘It really is Maria-sama. Look how she is holding her Son Jesus to her heart!’

They told him of a song they sang which said, ‘Look for the Holy Father’s ship that comes from afar. See the symbol of Mary on the sails!’ And another one, which prophesied, ‘In the seventh generation of our children, priests sent by the Holy Father will come, with Mary’s sign in the sails of their ship. And they will come to Nagasaki, and then the laws will be changed so that we can proclaim the teachings (of Christ)’. Like Mary, they had treasured these words in their hearts, and had patiently waited for these events to take place.

Hidden Christians
This group of people led Father Petitjean to islands close to Nagasaki where the faith, preached by the missionaries three hundred years before, had been passed on from generation to generation without the help of priests, the Mass or the sacraments. These kakure kiristan – hidden Christians – became the foundation on which the modern Catholic Church in Japan was built.

Even when I went to Japan in the mid-twentieth century, most of the Japanese bishops and priests were from Nagasaki. To this day, in the Japanese liturgical calendar for 17 March, the Feast of the Discovery of the Japanese Christians displaces the Feast of St. Patrick.

A story of war
During the Second World War, a group of U.S. marines patrolling the island of Guam came upon three Japanese soldiers fleeing on foot. The marines fired, and the three Japanese were killed.

One of the marines, Cyril O’Brien, routinely checked the dead soldiers for grenades and possible intelligence material. As O’Brien put his hand into the blood-soaked pocket of one of the soldiers, he felt a piece of thin cardboard. Pulling it out, he was surprised to find that it was a picture of the Blessed Virgin. The pocket in which the Japanese kept the picture was over his heart.

Spiritual mother
O’Brien, who himself related the story, kept that picture. Later he put it into his prayer book. The picture the Japanese soldier chose to take into battle with him was not a picture of the Father, or of the Holy Spirit, or of Jesus. It was of Mary. And the pocket in which he kept it was the one over his heart. It reminded the American Marine to pray for the Japanese. It helped him see that the Japanese was not really his enemy but his brother. They had the same spiritual mother.

When, as a member of the Japanese Mission, I was ordained a priest in Milltown Park, Dublin, on 31 July 1957, I had on my ordination card a Japanese image of Mary, which was entitled Mater Japoniae, or Mother of Japan. The prayer that I added, with a blessing, went as follows:

O Mary, Star of the Morning, who first announced the rising of the Sun of Justice, shed thy rays on the land of Japan, so that her people may recognize the Splendour of Eternal Light, Thy Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.


This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2004), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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