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Simcha Fisher: the Samurai martyr and the sex abuse scandal

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A black and white still from the 2014 samurai film, Zakurozaka No Adauchi (Snow on the Blades).

On 7 February, the 16th-century Japanese samurai and martyr Takayama Ukon was beatified. He’s called a martyr even though he wasn’t directly executed, because his death came as a result of his exile and sacrifice for his faith.

Takayama, who converted to Catholicism at age twelve along with his father, was not only a member of the noble and powerful warrior caste, but his family controlled “vast lands and armies.” His family’s conversion influenced tens of thousands.

And those masses of new converts all came under threat when a new and cruel chancellor rose to power. Toyotomi Hideyoshi made himself the enemy of Christianity, and ordered the torture and death of dozens of Japanese Catholics, including Paul Miki and companions, who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1596, and whose feast day is 6 February.

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The samurai Takayama was not crucified, but he was persecuted for his faith, and soon left his home and led a group of a few hundred followers into the Philippines to escape forced apostasy. He renounced not only his home and exalted position, but massive wealth and power. He died shortly after because of persecution suffered before his exile began.

Takayama also makes an excellent patron for my Australian friends who are now suffering through a kind of white martyrdom in the wake of the Royal Commission’s report. I do not mean that the Royal Commission is the aggressor. They are merely exposing a terrible wound that needs healing. In this century, the persecutors are our co-religionists. It is some of our own priests — and all those who have helped to cover up the scandal and abandon the victims — who have wounded the body of Christ.

Where do we go when we as a church are caught persecuting ourselves? How do we respond when the aggressor lives within our walls, and when the criticisms of our church are accurate and true? When the enemy of the faith is a hostile outsider, our course seems clear: we fight back, to defend ourselves and our church. But this is a different matter.

A statue of Japanese samurai and martyr Takayama Ukon in Shiroato Park, Takatsuki, Japan.

When we are faced with the horrible truth about our own past — and even, in some cases, about our own present — we may be tempted to angrily take up arms and defend ourselves. In the United States, a good many Catholics were angry to see the sex abuse scandal exposed. They saw it as an unfair attack from the secular world, and retaliated by telling the victims to hush, to have respect for their superiors, and to avoid further damage to our reputation. They saw factual reports as an offence against Christ, and hotly shouted that many others — protestant ministers, pediatricians, swim coaches — were just as likely, if not more likely, to abuse children. They were faced with the truth of what happened, and they fought against that truth.

This response wounded the victims of abuse all over again. This response wounded the Body of Christ all over again. It may be true that priests abuse no more often than other groups, but it is ghastly to promote that fact as if it vindicates the Church. All of my priest friends try to hold themselves to a higher standard, because of the vows they took.

To be a Catholic means to be in love with the truth, even when the truth hurts us. To be a Catholic means to be courageous, and sometimes courage takes great humility. Elizabeth Scalia tells a story of another samurai — not a humble and just man like Takayama, but a warrior who must learn a terrible lesson about true strength and courage:

The cruelest, most violent samurai in Japan decides he wants to become enlightened. He bursts into the home of an esteemed Zen master and demands the master teach him how to become enlightened. The Zen master looks deeply into his eyes and says, “No. You are a dirty, vicious samurai. I will not teach you.” Enraged, the Samurai yanks out his sword and places it right at the Zen master’s neck. He hollers, “Do you have any idea who I am? I am the cruellest samurai in the world. I can cut your throat and not blink an eye.” Without skipping a beat, the master calmly responds, “Do you have any idea who I am? I can let you slit my throat and not blink an eye.”
The samurai falls to his knees, sobbing, overcome by the presence of a man mightier than his sword.

Catholics, as the reports of abuse come in — and believe me, they will continue to come in, maybe for many years — we must hear them on our knees. Not with a drawn sword, ready to fight back and angrily defend our own at any cost, but on our knees, ready to suffer and bleed quietly along with our abused brothers and sisters. I know it hurts to hear and know such dreadful things, but we must not abandon those victims a second time.

Like Takayama Ukon, we may end up giving up “vast lands and armies” as we face up to the interior persecution that some of our own have been perpetrating. We may have to suffer through a terrible loss of esteem and respect from friends and family and the media as we choose to remain faithful to our church even while acknowledging what has happened. Good priests, especially, must be prepared to suffer a quiet martyrdom, an exile from the familiar. We must be prepared to give up old assumptions and comforts, and we must cling only to Christ.

It will take courage, strength, and humility. It will be bearable only when we remember how much greater was the suffering of those who suffered such outrages at the hands of priests. We must not let shame and outrage bring us to add to their suffering. Bleed with them.

Blessed Takayama Ukon, martyr, pray for us.

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