Preparation for Tyranny: Persecution, Bravado and the Japanese “Hidden Christians”

“The clumsiness of the torture that kills was not for him.”

These notes are not only a continuation of our series Preparation for Tyranny, but also serve as editorial comment on the extract which we published from Fr Henry James Coleridge, on the results of persecution.

Preparation for Tyranny
Part I: Becoming Strong by Rejecting False Hope
Part II: What about our Families?
Part III: Persecution, Bravado and the Japanese “Hidden Christians”

He Must Reign: Re-crowning Christ the King

Image: Cogniet, Wiki Commons

One of the most appalling aspects of current Catholic discourse is the glib bravado with which some talk about persecution. And one of the most important preparations for tyranny and for persecution is surely to set aside such bravado, and base ourselves on the sure foundation of the truth. As Leo XIII said, “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is.”[1]

We see this bravado manifested in those who seem enthusiastic at the prospect of a coming persecution, and seem to look forward the Church “returning to the catacombs”, being purified, and becoming a “creative minority” in society.

No doubt purification can be a good thing – but at what cost?

For many persons, the cost of persecution is no less than their own souls. As Fr Coleridge points out in his treatment of the subject, for each example of someone resisting and standing firm under persecution, “there are many others which do not come to the surface, in which the will of the persecutor has had its way, either partially or entirely.”[2]

After previous periods of persecution, multitudes return – but they return from having lapsed from the Church. Is this a risk we should be excited to take?

There are also always many who do not return, but persevere in their apostasy. There also remain multitudes who are forced, for the duration of the persecution, to live and die without the sacraments, even if they wanted to return.

Who are we to think that we would be among those who persevere under persecution, rather than those who lapse?

And if we lapse, who are we to think that we would be among those who return, rather than those who persevere in their apostasy?

“[H]e that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.”
1 Cor. 10.12.

The English Reformation

We also see this glibness in the allusions to previous times of persecution – such as that of the Arian Crisis, the Protestant Reformation, or the period in which Christianity was illegal in Japan.

We see many adopt the label of “Recusant”, which refers to that small number of English Catholics who kept the faith after the Reformation, and who refused to go to Anglican services. It is good to associate ourselves with our ancestors in this way. But how exactly would we have acted, when faced with the crippling fines imposed by the English government for recusancy?

This is the sorts of point which is neglected in contemporary discussion. It is one thing to accept a more or less quick martyrdom, but it is another to accept being ground down in an inter-generational slow-burn, never with any end in sight. Under this regime, Catholicism was basically extinguished as a force in England. Some who remained Catholic were martyred, and some fled; some of those who could afford to pay the fines did so, and some who couldn’t, gathered under their protection in various ways.

But most Catholics ceased to be so, disappearing into heresy and schism, and thus out of the Church.

Why would we think that we would be in the strong minority, rather than the weak?

Even if our lives thus far could justify such a presumption – which is unlikely, for many of us – what guarantee do we have that the future will be like the past?

“[H]e that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.”
1 Cor. 10.12.

The Japanese Christians

We also see this bravado in allusions to the Japanese “Hidden Christians”, who – we are told – kept the faith, despite being persecuted, and without access to the sacraments and the hierarchy of the Church.

Once again, those who refer to this period neglect key points.

In some persecutions, the persecutors do not simply want to eradicate their victims by killing them. Consider the strategy of the Japanese Inquisitor Inoue Chikugo – who was himself an apostate from Christianity:

“Inoue Chikugo was the ideal inquisitor, demonic because intellectual. The former Christian knew the truth of the cliché: the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. The clumsiness of the torture that kills was not for him.

“This is the great realization of Inoue, and the goal before his eyes: he would destroy the impression that the Christian religion is insuperable. Therefore he wants not martyrs but apostates. Apostates, better than martyrs, attest the impotence of a religion, especially when these apostates have been apostles of the faith and priests.’ (Hubert Cieslik SJ and Gustav Voss SJ, 1940)

“This end Inoue pursued by ruthlessly sophisticated means.”[3]

One such means – rarely discussed by those using this period to advance particular agendas – was the “e-fumi” test. Those subjected to this test – sometimes annually – were required to step on an image of Christ or Our Lady, in order to prove that they were not Christians. Those who hesitated were taken to be Christians, and required to renounce Christ. Those who refused to renounce him were tortured in slow and diabolically ingenious ways, until they complied. Eventually, those who still refused were executed in similarly gruesome ways.

This is to say nothing of those who lost the faith internally as well as rejecting it externally – even coerced apostasy can have an effect on a person.

What should we make of the state of those who really did trample holy images in public, in order to pretend that they were not Christians?

Everyone understood stepping on the image to be a public act of apostasy. Therefore, it does not seem proper to say that those who did so “kept the faith.” During one of the Roman persecutions, not only those who actually offered incense to idols were considered apostates, but also those who obtained false documents (almost like “idolatry passports“) which merely claimed that they had done so.

In fact, it seems that many of the “Hidden Christians” merely maintained some degree of internal belief whilst being compelled to deny the faith publicly, and that they lived in a state of public apostasy, outside the Church.

It is difficult to say with certainty just how widespread the “e-fumi” tests and the apostasies were, and how many they really affected. I do not want to suggest that all the “Hidden Christians” were guilty of annual acts of apostasy. But there is enough evidence here to give us pause before citing them as an encouraging example of what we could do if Christianity became illegal.

Nor is this all that we could say about this period.

Other costs of persecution amongst the Japanese

As noted, some point to the Hidden Christians specifically as an example of what can be achieved without access to the sacraments. This seems inappropriate for several reasons.

Aside from the external apostasy itself, we should consider the degree of syncretism and confusion about the faith which appears to have taken hold amongst at least some of the Hidden Christians. Some of their descendants maintain themselves as a sect even today.[4]

We should also consider all those who persevered in their apostasy until their deaths, and thus were lost. Even those who kept the faith in its integrity would have died without being fortified by the rites and sacraments of the Church – and surely some were lost, who would otherwise have been saved.

Further, it is one thing to keep the faith oneself in such a challenging situation; but it is another to pass it on effectively to one’s children. Very many children and generations would have been lost as a result of this persecution alone.

It is difficult to see why we should have such confidence in our own children, or in our parenting, that we can believe that they will preserve both faith and charity, and be shielded from the effects of living without the sacraments, let alone the worst effects of persecution. Even if they were to be so preserved, we evidently can have less and less confidence about our grandchildren or future generations.

But never mind them: all things are possible with God’s grace, but we should not be so shallow as to presume that we ourselves would persevere through all this.

If we are honest, we must admit that we are not exactly compliant with God’s grace when things are easy. Why should we think our weak wills would be more compliant when things are hard?

Again, as Coleridge said: for every person who perseveres, many others do not.

None of this is to judge the Japanese Christians, nor to lack sympathy for the weak, or admiration for the strong.

There is no doubt that the missionaries in the nineteenth century were impressed at the sincerity and simplicity of their faith, and what they managed to preserve without priests or regular sacraments for several centuries is truly remarkable – whatever the costs were.

But we should not imagine ourselves to be stronger than they were, nor romanticise a time in which very, very many more souls were probably lost than saved, and in which many of those who did “keep the faith” were only able to do so by committing annual public acts of apostasy.[5]

Those who do so, may find themselves rudely awakened when reality knocks on their door in the early hours of the morning.

Once again:

“[H]e that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.”
1 Cor. 10.12.

Dr Joseph Shaw’s article

In a 2009 article on this topic – which is well worth reading – Dr Joseph Shaw makes the following observation with obvious application beyond Britain:

“[T]here are still people looking forward to what appears to be coming – a increasingly shrill persecution of Catholicism by the British state – as if to a lovely warm bath. But it won’t be lovely. It will be horrible.”[6]

No cost that providence demands of us can be too high. But glib talk of persecution takes no account of these costs, especially to individual souls. Shaw lists the following:

  • Lukewarm Catholics apostatising, and fervent Catholics cooling
  • Growing caution in speaking about the faith, and a corresponding decline in converts
  • Loss of institutions (schools, hospitals, adoption agencies, etc.)
  • Difficulties in passing the faith on effectively
  • Difficulties of making it visible in the world
  • Effects of anti-Catholic propaganda on most of the population, for several generations
  • Bitter divisions amongst Catholics over prudential questions (“divisions cruelly exploited by the persecutors” in the case of the English Catholics, notes Dr Shaw)
  • Increasing anger and resentment amongst the remaining Catholics towards authority.

Each of these results in the further cost of more souls lost forever.

Some of these effects are included in Fr Coleridge’s extract, and explained in greater detail. To these, we could add the number of Catholics who die without the sacraments – especially (as mentioned above) the unknown number who are lost, for want of such help in their last moments.

Another result which Dr Shaw does not mention is that of the more fervent Catholics – particularly priests – apostatising. We have already seen above that the persecutors of the Church have grown wise to the symbolic importance of this phenomenon.

In light of all this, the gung-ho rhetoric about creative minorities, the catacombs, crusaders is utterly unreal, and should have no place amongst us.

Anyone of us who are excited about being a creative minority need to remember the innumerable men and women who are lost as a result of the situation, and moderate our modes of expression accordingly. We might find ourselves amongst the number of the apostates when a time of persecution arrives – and even if we do not, the tragic cost to souls makes such rhetoric inappropriate. We could summarise it in the pithy text from Salinger, even if it is somewhat exaggerated:

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”[7]

Nonetheless, this is not the whole picture. It would not be right to decry our contemporary glibness without providing something substantial in its place. The alternative would be to leave nothing but despair – and this would be a false picture as well.

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“Putting on Christ”

The difficulty we face is the tension between the evidence of all those Christians who have failed under persecution, and Christ’s promise:

“[T]hey shall bring you into the synagogues and to magistrates and powers, be not solicitous how or what you shall answer, or what you shall say. For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what you must say.”
Luke 12.11-2

I propose that this tension can only be resolved if we strip away the bravado which we have been discussing, and instead think clearly and rely on God alone. In this light, we can see that there is only an apparent tension – not least because Christ himself warned us that such failures would happen.

To this end, we must reaffirm, against the efforts of Inoue Chikugo and all the other persecutors of history, the following texts of St Paul.

First, regarding his praying to be liberated from a certain difficulty:

“Thrice I besought the Lord that it might depart from me. And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” 2 Cor. 12.8-9

Second, again regarding the certain truth that God always supplies whatever grace is necessary, even in times of persecution:

“God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able: but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it.”
1 Cor 10.14

Third, he affirms:

“I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me.”
Philippians 4.13

We must fix these truths in our minds, especially in a time of growing secular tyranny, and increasing threats of persecution. It seems that the Devil especially wants us to doubt them, and so give into despair. As often seems to be the case, this is truth mixed with falsehood: it is true that we cannot not persevere under persecution – on our own. We stand no chance – on our own.

The necessity of putting away false hope was the subject of the first part of this series. What we must realise now is that the only hope we have of persevering is with God’s grace – of ourselves, we will fail.

In the texts above, St Paul is merely explaining the words of Christ our Lord – who himself warns us of the danger of falling away:

“Abide in me: and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine: you the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.

“If any one abide not in me, he shall be cast forth as a branch and shall wither: and they shall gather him up and cast him into the fire: and he burneth. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will: and it shall be done unto you.”
John 15.4-7

These words are spoken before his crucifixion, and in the very context of persecution. In the same chapter and the following, he tells his Apostles:

“If the world hate you, know ye that it hath hated me before you. […] The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. […]

“These things have I spoken to you that you may not be scandalized. They will put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth a service to God. […] But these things I have told you, that when the hour shall come, you may remember that I told you of them.”
John 15.18, 20; 16.1-2.

The words of Christ here – commanding us to abide in him – provide the true preparation for tyranny. We must see more and more to abide in Christ, so that we can say with St Paul “I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me.” (Gal. 2.20.) This – rather than bravado – is surely the only way that we can avoid becoming like those in the Parable of the Sower:

“[H]e that received the seed upon stony ground, is he that heareth the word, and immediately receiveth it with joy. Yet hath he not root in himself, but is only for a time: and when there ariseth tribulation and persecution because of the word, he is presently scandalized.”
Matt. 13.20-1

In the parable, Christ says of such:

“[W]hen the sun was up they were scorched: and because they had not root, they withered away.”
Matt. 13.6

Our goal, on the contrary, should be to enter more and more into Christ, to rest under the shadow of his wings, and allow him to transform our hearts into the good soil of the parable.


Some of these comments may seem depressing, although I do not think I have gone beyond the account given by Fr Coleridge on the topic.

We must try to be humble, and not imagine that any future persecution will be easy. As we have repeated throughout:

“[H]e that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.”
1 Cor. 10.12.

Ironically, the best way to survive and persevere may be the realisation of how bad things can be, and how easily we may fall. Only then can we truly lay all our trust and hope in God – he who is faithful, and whose grace certainly is sufficient for us.

This has been the ongoing topic of this series, and the previous parts are linked below, approaching the topic from different perspectives.

We must pray often and specifically for the grace of final perseverance. Theologians explain that final perseverance cannot be obtained through merit, but only by prayer.

In the classic work The Spiritual Combat, (N.B. commissions earned with this link), beloved of St Francis de Sales, Dom Lorenzo Scupoli gives the following counsels as absolutely necessary for the spiritual life – but they seem very relevant here. Three of them are closely related to the discussion in this piece:

  • “Distrust of oneself” – in the terms of this piece, rejecting all bravado and adopt a true understanding of our own weakness and unreliability
  • “Confidence in God” – what we have been discussing as “putting on Christ” and abiding in him as our sole source of strength
  • “Proper use of the faculties of body and mind” – which we have not discussed here in much detail
  • “The duty of prayer” – not only spending time with God in prayer, but also frequenting his sacraments and rites regularly, as much as possible.[8]

The fourth counsel – in terms of access to the sacraments – is especially threatened today. Which leads us to the final point.

Persecution may sometimes appear in surprising forms. It is necessary to make an observation, which has been made elsewhere, which may appear glib or exaggerated. In fact, it is deadly serious. Here it is:

The Vatican II revolution has many hallmarks of a persecution of the Church.

I will develop this idea in another article in due course.

But for now, let’s follow Scupoli’s four counsels, and be aware of Coleridge’s warnings, and thus prepare ourselves for whatever the future may hold. Let’s keep our eyes wide open, without any vain bravado, and trusting in the grace of Almighty God.

Further Reading

What are the effects of persecution? Fr H.J. Coleridge SJ, 1885

Profession of Faith, Heresy and Separating Oneself from the Church – Dom Charles Augustine OSB

Suffering under persecution – the example of Robert Southwell and the English Martyrs

How Advent and the Apocalypse can immunize us against the fear of tyranny

Dom Eugene Boylan – This Tremendous Lover

Dom Lorenzo Scupoli – The Spiritual Combat

1. Joseph Pearce – Solzhenitsyn, A Soul in Exile (and for UK readers). I recommend reading this over reading the three volumes by Solzehnitsyn. The full text from Solzhenitsyn is very long and contain a lot of detail, much of which will not interest our readers, and some of which is very disturbing and unsettling. Pearce’s biography contains nearly all of the information from the three volumes about the moral and spiritual lessons learned in the Gulag. It is a great read, and more than sufficient.

2. Fr Walter Ciszek SJ – He Leadeth Me (and for UK readers). The inspiring account of an American Jesuit in Russia, brought into the Gulag machine. Fr Ciszek teaches us what not to do in these situations – namely trying to rely on ourselves or our own strength.

3. Fr Jean Pierre de Caussade SJ – Abandonment to Divine Providence (and for UK readers). This is a classic text dealing with the principles of abandonment and trust, rather than the details of living under tyranny.

4. St Thomas More – A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (and for UK readers). This was written while St Thomas More was in prison in the Tower of London and is a completely comprehensive answer to all of your fears.

5. William Shakespeare – Hamlet (and for UK readers). Many readers may have bad school memories of Shakespeare in general, and perhaps Hamlet in particular. But the depth of insight into these matters in this play is astounding, especially for times like ours. This is not surprising when we recall the oppressive and tyrannical regimes of his time. If you struggled with it at school, you might be surprised if you return to it as an adult. Bear in mind, however, that Shakespeare is supposed to be performed, rather than read.

Preparation for Tyranny
Part I: Becoming Strong by Rejecting False Hope
Part II: What about our Families?
Part III: Persecution, Bravado and the Japanese “Hidden Christians”

He Must Reign: Re-crowning Christ the King


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[1] Leo XIII Encyclical Rerum Novarum 1891, n. 18. Available at:

[2] Fr Henry James Coleridge SJ, The Thirty Years – Our Lord’s Infancy & Hidden Life, Burns and Oates, London, 1915, p 247

[3] George Elison, Deus Destroyed – The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1973, p 187. Also quoting Hubert Cieslik SJ and Gustav Voss SJ, ““Einleitung” to Kirishito-ki und Sayo-yoroku: Japanische Dokumente zur Missionsgeschichte des 17. Jahrhunderts, MN Monographs 1 (Tokyo: Sophia University Press, 1940), p .15.

[4] Bearing in mind the caveats elsewhere in this piece, cf. Anthony Kuhn, ‘Driven Underground Years Ago, Japanese ‘Hidden Christians’ Maintain Faith’ in NPR, 11 October 2015, accessed 15 Feb 2023. Available at

[5] As suggested, it is difficult to tell what is true and false in the narratives about those who “kept the faith” in the time that Christianity was illegal. It is understandable that some might be sceptical about the conclusions of modern historians. It is of course possible that the Japanese Hidden Christians – or at least some of them – maintained the faith in its integrity, and even managed to avoid the various requirements for public apostasy. However, it is incumbent on those making such allusions to prove that such is the case and refute those who have produced evidence to the contrary. It does not do to dismiss these arguments just because they are coming from secular historians – more is required.

Further, even if these points can be established, we are left with the other desperate consequences of the Japanese persecution mentioned, as well as other examples (such as post-reformation England) in which Catholicism was effectively eradicated for a long period of time amongst most people.

It is evident that the small number of exceptions do not contradict the point at hand – which is that whatever good results that might arise from persecution, it comes with enormous costs, and can in some cases eradicate the faith in a state, or at least render any remaining Catholics impotent.

[6] Dr Joseph Shaw, ‘The results of persecution’, LMS Chairman, 29 July 2016, accessed 12 Feb 2023. Available at

[7] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Penguin Books, London 2010, p 169. The book attributes this quote to Wilhelm Stekel, but it appears that this Stekel never actually said this.

[8] Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, The Spiritual Combat, trans. revised by Lester and Mohan, TAN Classics, Charlotte, North Carolina, p 7

[9] St Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 145, Translated by J.E. Tweed. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <;. N. 7

8 thoughts on “Preparation for Tyranny: Persecution, Bravado and the Japanese “Hidden Christians”

  1. Michael Wilson

    All that was stated above is very true; how many Catholics have kept their faith after Vatican II? And Vatican II is a mostly “bloodless” persecution.

    The WM Review:

    Yes indeed – that will be the subject of the next part in due course.

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