July 07, 2007

One of the most refreshing “€œexotic”€ drinks I’ve come across is sake”€”the Japanese rice wine which most of us have drunk steaming hot with a plate of sushi. Of course, that’s usually the cheap stuff; there are dozens of different varieties of sake, some of them finely crafted and quite expensive. The best brands are complex and flavorful, and properly served cold. Still that won”€™t stop me from scarfing down a carafe of the $9 variety on a cold December day”€”though probably not on December 7.

The Chinese and Japanese are still arguing over who invented sake, some time back in the third century B.C. (Indeed, so much of Japanese culture and religion comes from Chinese sources, that one can”€™t help wondering at the chutzpah it took for the Japanese to conquer and enslave large parts of China in the 1930s. Then again, in 1940, the Germans conquered the Greeks. . . .) What we do know is that the first sake was made by peasants chewing up rice to break down the starch, and spitting it into a tub to ferment”€”a process that makes this Westerner crave some wine pressed by smelly European peasants”€™ feet. Early sake factories must have resembled fields of cattle, clad in kimonos, chewing the cud. It took hundreds of years for a peasant whose jaws got tired to discover a handy mold which rendered saliva superfluous”€”and freed these farmers up to actually start eating their rice. It was only after they traded spit for mold that the sake industry really took off.

What’s interesting to us about sake”€”beyond its potent kick and pleasant afterburn, as the perfect accompaniment to a plate full of raw sea-urchins and fiery green wasabi”€”is the role it played in the tangled, sometimes secret history of Christianity in Japan.

In the great age of European exploration, when advances in navigational and military technology gave nations such as Portugal and Spain the chance to assert themselves against ancient civilizations from India to Japan, Catholic missionaries tagged along for the ride. The assorted adventurers who manned the ships were hardly the cream of Europe: In fact, they were largely scofflaws, bankrupt nobles, and others who saw no future at home in Iberia. With little to lose and much to gain”€”for instance, great big barrels of Asian seasonings such as pepper, in Europe worth their weight in gold”€”they embarked on the sixteenth-century equivalent of a trip to the planet Mars. And not all the Martians were impressed. Chinese accounts of the Portuguese and Spanish they encountered show mainly scorn for men they considered barbarians, who demanded knives to cut their food”€”a shocking faux pas to the hypercivilized mandarins, who mocked the Westerners for “€œeating with their swords.”€ The “€œlong-noses,”€ as the Europeans were called, carried shocking new weapons like rifles and cannon, and appeared to the men of the Orient as crude, rude, and on the make”€”like a crowd of Alabama Amway salesmen descending on Paris, armed with light sabers.

But not all the explorers who came from the West had money in mind. On the same ships, serving as chaplains for the journey, rode missionary priests from religious orders such as the newly founded Society of Jesus. The most famous was Francis Xavier, a Spaniard who in 1529 had been wowed by St. Ignatius Loyola at the University of Paris into joining the fledgling order. In 1541, Francis sailed as a missionary to India, founding churches and studying Eastern languages, in the hope of planting Christianity across all Asia. In 1549, Francis landed in the Japanese city of Kagoshima. He spent a year studying Japanese, then set about traveling the country to evangelize. He left behind several flourishing Christian communities, and Jesuits to lead them. Ever pragmatic and eager to adapt themselves to local conditions, the Jesuits inquired of the Vatican if they could use sake and rice cakes instead of (scarce) grape wine and wheat-based bread for the Eucharist. “€œNo,”€ the Vatican explained.

There were serious reasons for the Holy See’s refusal. Unlike some gnostic, New Age religions, the Church believes that the material world is sacred, that particulars are important, and that the historical specifics of Christ’s life are decisive. He used bread and wine, and commanded us to “€œdo likewise”€”€”not to do something “€œvaguely analogous,”€ or “€œcuriously evocative,”€ but the same thing, over and over again, in unbloody repetition of the sacrifice of Calvary. For this reason, the Church has warned that funky liturgies employing carrot-cake and Pepsi (for some reason, usually celebrated by Jesuits) are not simply inappropriate but invalid. If you ever find that your pastor has introduced some alien substance instead of bread and wine, show your gratitude by stuffing the collection basket with Monopoly money. And don”€™t be stingy!

As the Jesuits discovered, the Japanese warrior culture had long ago reconciled this pagan people to the necessity of suffering. Indeed, the samurai had created a kind of cult of pain, which carried over among the new Christians. The Jesuits found their freshly baptized followers all too willing to flog their own backs and impose all manner of excruciating penances on themselves. Recalling the example of St. Ignatius, their founder”€”whose excessive penances had ruined his health”€” the priests restrained the new Christians from torturing themselves needlessly.

All too soon, the need would arise on its own. Thanks to political blunders on the part of the Europeans, Japan’s warlord rulers turned against the suddenly, scarily popular priests. To the Japanese ruling class, these missionaries now seemed like a fifth column working on behalf of foreigners such as the Spanish, who by then ruled the nearby Philippines as a colony. In 1587, the samurai launched a persecution of the missionaries and their flocks, who by now numbered some 200,000. Despite this persecution, the numbers of Japanese Christians kept on growing. By 1597, the authorities began to torture and slaughter Christians wherever they found them. Dozens of martyrs whose names have come down to us”€”and some 200,000″€“300,000 others”€”suffered hideously for the Faith, as the pagan warlords skinned them, hung them to die slowly from trees, burned them alive or crucified them. Soon, the only Christians remaining in Japan practiced their faith in secret. And so they would stay, as Kakure Kirishitan (“€œhidden Christians”€) for some 250 years.

These secret Christians made a show of practicing Shintoism or Buddhism. They conducted Christian rituals in hiding, reciting liturgies from memory and snatches of prayers in Latin and Portuguese which they”€™d long ceased to understand. They held Communion rituals using fish and sake instead of bread and wine. In the nineteenth century, when the emperor lifted the ban on Christianity and French missionaries arrived, most of these Christians came forward”€”and quickly reverted to the pure form of the Faith for which their ancestors had died. But not all were willing. So much time had passed, and so fuzzy had memories grown, that thousands of Kakure Kirishitan refused to join the churches planted by these priests, and stayed home practicing the half-remembered faith their parents had whispered to them. As if in a game of catechetical “€œtelephone,”€ the details of the creed had gotten confused, and the rites of the Church transformed into something quite curious, thoroughly Japanese, and new. In 2000, Anthropologist Christal Whelan released a film Otaiya: Japan’s Hidden Christians, documenting these ultra-traditionalists, who celebrate Christmas and Good Friday but have forgotten the feast of Easter. Their numbers have dwindled to the hundreds, and soon the group is likely to disappear entirely.

Their fate is poignant to us, because we know quite a few Catholics in the West in a similar plight. In the 1970s, as Pope Paul VI faced wholesale rebellion by progressives in the Church, he wielded his papal authority instead to persecute the small numbers of Catholics who resisted the most expansive readings of Vatican II. As a flag of resistance, these traditionalists also rejected the new, truncated liturgy which Paul VI had imposed, suppressing almost entirely the rites which the Church had used for well over 1,000 years. In 1970, with initial Vatican approval, French Archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre founded the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) to meet the needs of Catholics bewildered by postconciliar changes”€”most of which went far beyond what was authorized by the documents of the council. Indeed, so did the liturgy imposed by Paul VI, which bore little resemblance to the reforms called for in Sacrosanctum Concilium“€”a point recognized in several books by the present Pope Benedict XVI.

It was not long before hundreds of seminarians deserted the newly radicalized seminaries of France for Lefèbvre’s
institute in Ecône, Switzerland, and progressive French bishops appealed to Paul VI to suppress the group. He did so in 1975″€”after refusing to consider Lefèbvre’s canonical appeal. He soon suspended Lefèbvre and all his priests”€”who had meanwhile set up chapels around the world, to minister to Catholics who”€™d been alienated by the sudden changes in liturgy, practice, and (apparently) doctrine. Thousands of laymen who”€™d stopped going to Mass altogether, and gathered weekly instead to say the Rosary in their homes (they called themselves “Home-Aloners”) flocked to the chapels of the SSPX”€”even as their local pastors labeled them schismatics. This made traditionalists virtually the only group which Paul VI had dealt with firmly, even as bishops”€™ conferences defied him on major issues of faith and morals, religious orders embraced Marxist theology, and pastors around the world conducted liturgical experiments that ranged from “€œconsecrating”€ pizza and beer to dressing as clowns to celebrate Mass.

Recognizing the injustice with which traditionalists had been treated, Pope John Paul II attempted to win back Archbishop Lefèbvre and his followers in 1988″€”offering them substantial autonomy in relation to the local bishops they considered (with some reason) abusive. Distrustful, dying, and surrounded by youthful hotheads, Lefèbvre refused to make a deal, and consecrated four more bishops to carry on his group when he was gone. This won him and his bishops a decree of excommunication”€”but won for those willing to leave the SSPX and take the Vatican’s offer the right to revive the ancient Roman liturgy, granted by the 1988 motu proprio entitled Ecclesia Dei. Those who left the SSPX, the Fraternity of St. Peter, now work throughout the world, with parishes planted wherever local bishops will tolerate the use of Gregorian chant and a reverent liturgy. Several other groups have since sprung up, with Vatican encouragement, to carry on the Church’s liturgical heritage.

On July 7, the Holy See went even further. In the long-awaited motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict extended universal permission for any priest, however squeamish his bishop, to celebrate the same rite said by St. Francis Xavier on a makeshift altar in Japan. Hopes are high that this gesture, among others, may help reconcile the Society of St. Pius X with the Holy See, and end what some have called the first Church schism of modern times.

Of course, we pray that this happens, and look forward to the day when our parish priest will turn his back on us to pray facing the tabernacle. But even if this happy event takes place, it’s certain that significant numbers of traditionalists will refuse the pope’s outstretched hand. Like those traumatized “€œsecret Christians”€ of Japan, they will cling to Calvary, and refuse to believe the message that He is risen.

John Zmirak is author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song.


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