The Rise and Fall of Catholic Communities

Every age is at once a story of corruption and decay, renewal and growth.

“Grief, remorse, and a deep sense of crisis.” That’s how the archbishop of Nagasaki, Japan recently described the reaction of Japanese Catholics to a grim archdiocesan synod report. The Catholic population of the region has fallen by 15 percent over the last 30 years, and the dearth of marriages and baptisms portends further decline. Such news is not shocking; Catholics are in crisis, in various ways, in nearly every corner of the world. But the withering of any local church is a grave matter, and every case is unique. Nagasaki’s Catholic church has an especially poignant story, and it provokes meditation on the working out of Providence in the rise and fall of Catholic communities throughout history.

Nagasaki was the site of the death of the Japanese martyrs—St. Paul Miki and his companions—in 1597. Led by St. Francis Xavier, the Catholic Church was planted in Japan with great difficulty by a few hardy missionaries. Though Christianity thrived for a short time, the emperor soon turned against it and the faith was prohibited until the 19th century. Cut off from contact with Rome—or any other Christian community, for that matter—and without the benefits of priestly ministry or the sacraments, Nagasaki Catholics preserved the faith for those 300 years by handing it down within their families. Each generation was instructed that, when Japan finally did reopen communication with the outside world and Christian missionaries reappeared, they would be able to recognize their Catholic brethren by three marks: their priests would not be married, their leader would be in Rome, and they would venerate the Blessed Mother. When Catholic priests arrived in Nagasaki in 1865, they found a small but intact Catholic community, one that no western Catholics even knew existed (for more on the Catholics of Nagasaki, see Father Paul Glynn’s outstanding biography of the remarkable convert Takashi Nagai, A Song for Nagasaki [Ignatius Press]).

The church in Nagasaki survived three centuries of persecution. In 1945 it survived the dropping of the atomic bomb, which detonated near the city’s cathedral. But it is now possible that Catholicism in the region will disappear with a whimper rather than a bang, victim to the indifference that is the fruit of secularism.

Stories of declension pervade Catholic history. The record of Christian interaction with Islam is replete with instances of disappearing Catholic communities. When St. Francis Xavier (again—the guy got around!) visited the Arabian island country of Socotra on his way to the Indian subcontinent, he found a thriving Christian community—similar to the Christians of Nagasaki, this group was largely disconnected from the rest of Christianity for centuries. It is thought that the church had its origins in the preaching of the Apostle Thomas, who had also stopped at Socotra on his way to India. If so, Socotran Christians’ perseverance in the faith dwarfs even Nagasaki’s in terms of longevity—some 1,400 years (although it appears that Socotran Christianity retained some minimal contact with Eastern Christianity; its liturgical practices most closely approximated those of the Assyrian Church of the East). But the sad denouement of the story is that by 1800 Christianity had vanished from the island; Islam took its place.

Islam’s conquest of formerly Christian lands in western Asia and North Africa during the seventh and eighth centuries is well known. Many ancient Christian churches disappeared. Some survived, notably the Chaldeans in Iraq and the Copts in Egypt—though both of these communities are vulnerable today and many fear that their future is bleak. In a 2009 article in First Things, Robert Louis Wilken offered a sobering assessment: “Set against the history of Islam, the career of Christianity is marked by as much decline and extinction as it is by growth and triumph.” Islam, Wilken observes, seems to have more tenacity than Christianity. Only in a few exceptional cases have territories once dominated by Islam become Christian, and in those always by force rather than persuasion or evangelization. (The “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula is the preeminent example.) The list of once-Christian lands now populated by Muslims is, in contrast, a long one.

Of course the narrative of Church history is also one of expansion. When the Roman Empire was swept away by Germanic tribes and the spread of Christianity thus halted and in places reversed, evangelists from Irish and British monasteries founded during Roman times fanned out across Europe. They would not only more thoroughly Christianize the areas already exposed to the faith, but would introduce Catholicism to areas previously untouched by the Gospel. St. Boniface’s success in Germany is only the most celebrated case.

At the very time that the Reformation was breaking apart the Church of Europe, which had been built over many centuries by missionaries such as Boniface, Catholicism was gaining millions of new adherents in Latin America. The Church in the New World was once again the work of heroic missionaries—with the kindly assistance of the Blessed Mother, whose appearance to St. Juan Diego at Guadalupe was the catalyst for this rapid religious transformation.

Following the Second Vatican Council and continuing to the present, the Church in Europe and North America entered a period of crisis as religious vocations and Mass attendance plummeted. In the meantime, churches cultivated by European and North American missionaries in Africa and Asia grew by leaps and bounds, providing not merely numbers but new vibrancy to the worldwide Church. Those churches are now fully indigenous, led by native clergies and episcopates and exhibiting distinctive characteristics.

Every age is at once a story of corruption and decay, renewal and growth. This process will surely continue to the end of time. Christ’s promise that the Church would endure was not a guarantee that any particular local church would never die. Knowing these facts, though, does not make the individual stories any less bracing. The shuttering of churches, the exodus of Catholic populations under threat, and the extinction of ancient Christian communities are discouraging and deplorable events. The building of new churches, the conversion of peoples previously ignorant of the Gospel, and the birth of dynamic Catholic communities are joyful and heartening events. We do well to resist the former and promote the latter.

But we know that ultimately neither is within our control and both somehow are part of the mysterious story of salvation. One essential feature of Christian faith is that its truth does not depend on worldly victories for confirmation. Instead, our faith gives rise to hope. Hope, Pope Benedict wrote, affirms that the “present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” That goal, redemption by Jesus Christ, is universal, whatever the state of the local church in which God has, in His wisdom, presently placed us.

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About Kevin Schmiesing 11 Articles
Kevin Schmiesing is director of research at the Freedom & Virtue Institute, co-host of the Catholic History Trek podcast, and the author of many books and articles in the field of Church history, including his most recent: A Catholic Pilgrimage through American History: People and Places that Shaped the Church in the United States.