A song in praise of the “Bombed Maria”

Professor Masashi Nagashima, Sophia University, Tokyo

At the beginning of the 21st century, on September 23, 2001 a new song dedicated to the “Bombed Maria” was performed for the first time in the Urakami Cathedral of Nagasaki, a place of historical importance for the catholic faith.
The “Camerata Kobe”, an ensemble specializing in bringing into the 21st century the cultural heritage of Gregorian Chant as well as Medieval and Renaissance music, performed the premiere of the piece.
While the choir was reverently singing, facing the audience, the sacred figure of the “Bombed Maria” had been placed slightly illuminated, on the side of the stage. As the sounds echoed through the cathedral, the deep silence of prayer overwhelmed the audience, who seemed to be stirred to the bottom of their hearts.
It needs be said that until that time, few people were aware of that scarred image of the “Virgin Mary” in the Urakami Cathedral. However, the figure of the “Bombed Maria” embodies the message of Nagasaki and the Christian faith praying for world peace while remembering the atomic bomb.

Urakami, a Christian place

In the middle of the 16th century, Francisco Xavier arrived in Japan and initiated the spread of Christianity through Western Japan and particularly through the island of Kyushu and the city of Nagasaki. (The Japanese according to the Portuguese pronunciation called the faithful “Cristans”) However, after a brief period of good luck, the Togukawa Shogunate, fearing their influence, persecuted the Christians, and many of them became martyrs. Because of those persecutions, it was commonly thought that Christians had been eradicated from Japan.
Despite the severity of those persecutions and contrary to any expectation, the faith survived undercover for more than seven generations, which is about 250 years, until 1865. That was especially true in Nagasaki where it was centered in Urakami and the Goto districts.
In 1853, after the first visit of the so-called “Perry’s black ships”, Japan ended a long period of isolation and within 5 years, a commercial treaty was signed with Western countries. Places were assigned to foreign settlements and freedom of religion, as well as the right to build churches was granted.
In the year 1863, a French Missionary arrived from Paris and initiated the construction of several churches. The construction of the Oura church was started a hill so that everyone could see it. It was completed during the following year. People admired the sheer beauty of that church, which has since become part of the national heritage, and they called it the “French Temple”. The fame of that church as well as that of the father who constructed it, spread among the Christians of Urakami.
A group of about 10 men and women came to the Oura church several months later, in March 1865. While the church’s priest was praying, a woman from the group approached the priest and said: “Father we belong to the same faith”. She asked: “Where is the image of Saint Mary?” It was through those simple words that it became known to the whole world that the Urakami Christians had kept their faith alive for 250 years, in total secrecy, a feat of which no parallel can be found in history.
However, at the very moment when, in Urakami, they and their priest were looking with hope at the future, yet another persecution was to befall them.
A massive persecution called the “Fourth destruction of Urakami” happened under the Meiji government. Charged with the “crime of disturbing the main current of life and customs” the totality of the 3394 believers of Urakami where deported to a place West of Nagoya and separated into 20 clans. They were subsequently confined to cruel imprisonment and tortured. That persecution was severely criticized by the West and the Meiji government, fearing economic consequences, submitted to a change of policy.
The prohibition of the Christian faith was abolished in 1873 (the sixth year of the Meiji era) and that ended 259 years of persecution. Although all the prisoners were released after six years of captivity, 660 among them never returned from that distant place and were designated as martyrs. Those who did return to Urakami, despite being utterly exhausted, initiated at once the reconstruction of their devastated village and its church. The sufferings they had endured were now compensated by the joy of being allowed to freely practice their religion and to reconstruct their church. However much time was still needed until the reconstruction of a real church could be completed. Although reconstruction work had been initiated in 1895 under the guidance of a French priest, financial difficulties brought it to a halt. The priest who had initiated the reconstruction collapsed from overwork. A Belgian priest replaced him and the cathedral was finally completed after 30 years. It became the first Cathedral of the East and was the pride of the faithful.
The glorious sound of a large bell imported from France and placed in the tower, now rose in the sky every morning, noon and evening.

Saint Mary and the Urakami Cathedral.

The earnest wish of several generations of Christians was to construct the cathedral on top of the hill. The “Trampling of the Sacred Images” ceremony had been held there every year, around New Year, in order to expose the faithful Christians who refused to trample the symbols of their faith. Believers were ordered to trample upon the sacred images under the vigilant eyes of onlooking officials, something they did while praying for forgiveness, in order to avoid detection. On the day they were forced to comply, they carefully washed their feet and avoided, as much as possible, to trample upon the face of the sacred images. Trampling upon the sacred images amounted to mental torture for those “latent Christians” who could not reveal their faith and had to suffer the constant pain of such a situation. Upon returning home, they implored the Holy Mother for her forgiveness and for the Grace of her blessing. They invocated Maria with the hope that she would intercede before God to obtain forgiveness for their crime. Those prayers were repeated several times on every anniversary of those events.
The faithful wanted to build a church in the very place where their faith had suffered so much and they wanted to elevated their prayer to God and raise their voices high into the sky to compensate for those former actions. The construction of the Urakami Cathedral was finished in 1925. Although both towers were only half, finished the cathedral was dedicated to the “Virgin Immaculate” in 1914. Devotion to the Immaculate Mother was widespread at the time.
Furthermore, to dedicate the church to Her had a very special meaning for the believers of the Urakami Cathedral. That special meaning came from the fact that during the time of hiding, believers prayed to the Holy Mother to obtain the grace of her blessing. The remaining expression “Maria the Merciful” is quite revealing of their feelings. Because they did not have any image of the Holy Mother, they prayed to the Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy”.
Did the extraordinary respect for the love of the Holy Mother originate from the image of Sancta Maria that could be seen at the Oura church? On the other hand, could it be that the connection between the Buddhist faith and the Roman Catholic Church existed at that time? That puzzling question remains unanswered to this day.
It might be that the Holy Mother, the embodiment of the Immaculate Conception, was believed to have redeemed , in her mercifulness, the crimes which were forced upon the faithful during the years in hiding and the she absorbed all the pain and sorrow of those powerless believers, the “Latent Christians”

The origin of the “Bombed Maria”

The figure of the Virgin Mary, which had been place on the highest part of the altar of the Urakami Cathedral, was a wooden sculpture made in Italy and inspired in a painting by the 17th century Spanish artist Murillo. My people had become accustomed to the beauty and gentle expression of the 2-meter high, wooden carving.
The destiny of that statue, of which only 26 cm high, burned face, remains is quite interesting. It has now been placed in the corner of the rightwing chapel of the Urakami Cathedral. However, it was almost lost forever after the atomic explosion at the end of World War II.
The explosion charred the right cheek of the statue and the heat of the explosion burned out the eyes. The original gently but bright color of those eyes gave way to two pitch-dark holes strongly evocative of the floating anxiety remaining in the air. That burned figure of Maria, victimized by the explosion of the atomic bomb, upsets the feeling of peace in the heart and mind of those who wonder at the sight of the burns the statue suffered and improbable conditions of its rescue.
On August 9, 1945 the believers of Urakami were preparing in heart and mind for the celebration of Saint Mary’s Day which was to be six days later. They were praying for God’s forgiveness and for the absolution of their daily sins. Among them were two priests.
At 11:02 the atomic bomb, which had been dropped from a high of 9000meters exploded at an altitude of 500 meters above the ground creating a ball of fire, which in a radius of 200 meters elevated the ground temperature a 9000 degrees. The heat wave, the blast and subsequent radioactivity cruelly and indiscriminately cut short the lives of countless innocent people. Among the 240.000 inhabitants of Nagasaki at the time 150,000 were victimized. The fires succeeding the explosion killed and additional number. Many survivors died later of irreparable radiation exposure for which no cure was available.
The Urakami Cathedral, which was only 500 meters away from ground zero, collapsed killing 28 believers and the 2 priests who were inside. The church was turned into a mountain of rubble and debris that burned throughout the night.
Among the 12000 believers registered at the Urakami Cathedral, 8500 lost their lives in the explosion and the place where the cathedral once stood had become an area of charred wasteland.
Although the figure of the Holy Virgin had been severely damaged by fire, it escaped total annihilation and was miraculously found by a monk who was casually sifting through the debris. The monk was Father Kauemon Noguchi, a monk from the Trappist Monastery of Hokkaido. He later related the event in the following words: “ The Virgin, in her infinite kindness allowed me to find Her”. He remained very impressed by that fortuitous encounter and related both in letters and through conversation the impression the victimized figure of Saint Mary had made upon him.
Father Noguchi had been born in Urakami and, as a boy; he had frequently seen the beautiful image of Saint Mary overlooking the altar. He had a vivid recollection of her beauty. He left home at age 14, breaking with the secular world, to offer his life to prayer in the monastery. Before leaving for the monastery, the teenager Noguchi visited a last time the Urakami Cathedral to offer a prayer to his beloved statue of Maria. He learned about the tragic events that had taken place at his birthplace while he was still serving in the army. Not even monks were exempted from military service during the war.
Upon being discharged from the army and before returning to the monastery he went home and was devastated by the terrible destruction that had befallen the place where he had spent his boyhood. He started looking around for something that might serve as a reminder of the place and of what he had just seen. As he was sitting on a stone, pausing in despair of finding something suitable, he suddenly saw what was unmistakably the face of the Virgin appearing under the debris. Father Noguchi later told that is was as if she affectionately was staring at him in his solitude. Delighted, he said: “But this is Mary!” and overwhelmed by his finding he affectionately held her against his breast. Father Noguchi took her with him to the monastery and for the next 30 years, not a day passed that he failed to offer Her a prayer.
On the 30th anniversary of the atomic bombing, what was left of the statue was returned to Nagasaki and place under the care of the “Junshin” University of Nagasaki. In 1990, after completion of new believer’s assembly hall, the figure was exhibited at the entrance of the building and finally returned to the cathedral in autumn of 2000. It was placed in the chapel on the right side of the Cathedral.

The message of the “Bombed Maria”
As Christ was dying on the Cross expiating the sins of humanity, Maria, despite all her sorrow had the strength to stand at his side and her courage became immortalized in the words of the “Stabat Mater”.
Again, during the long years of persecution and hiding the Holy Mother, Sancta Maria, exerted a healing power on the sufferings of the martyrs.
Independently from religion, the figure of the “Bombed Maria” embodies the sufferings of the people of Nagasaki who were deprived of their innocence through the shattering consequences of the atomic explosion, something never before experienced by humanity.
The message of the victimized Maria is: “However great our distress, the Holy Mother never abandons us. We are never alone in our sufferings and She always stands beside those who suffer damage or injury”. In order to convey that message the figure of the “Bombed Maria” has twice been taken overseas. The first time was in 1985 when it was displayed at the Vatican during the exhibit for World Peace. The second time was at the exhibit held for the benefit of those who had suffered from radioactive exposure after the Chernobyl disaster and the purpose was to pray for a peaceful world devoid of nuclear weapons. The invitation to participate in the latter exhibit came from the city of Minsk in the Republic of Belarus, where people had heard about the almost miraculous events surrounding the figure of the “Bombed Maria”. To honor the invitation Father Mimura, the Head priest of Urakami took the statue of the “Bombed Maria” to Minsk and offered prayers for peace accompanied by the people of Belarus.
At the very time the delegation was about to leave for Minsk, Erika Colon, a member of the Camerata Kobe, visited the Urakami Cathedral on her way to a personal pilgrimage through Nagasaki and she was deeply impressed by the figure of the “Victimized Maria” and by the story of the Belarus visit. From that moment on, the figure of the Bombed Maria never left her imagination.
On an April night, she dreamed of asking her father who is a composer, to write a piece in praise of the “Bombed Maria. When she awoke the next morning, she was surprised to hear from her father that he had just completed an “Ave Maria” and that he was sending it to her. When she read the score she realized that is was exactly what she had imagined as a tribute to the “Bombed Maria”.
In September 2001, almost exactly one year after her first visit she sang the premiere of that composition in the Urakami Cathedral accompanied by the Camerata Kobe. The composition is a prayer to redeem with love and purity the crimes of humanity, who, unaware of its own foolishness engenders pain and suffering while forgetting the pure love of the Holy Mother.
From the time of that performance in the Urakami cathedral, the music of that song shares with the charred statue of the “Victimized Maria” the mission of transmitting Her message. That song of praise transmits from Nagasaki to the world that no one is ever alone in anxiety, despair, suffering or injury and that the loving figure of Maria is always there to accompany those who call for Her blessing.