NAGASAKI, Japan — Pope Francis Sunday honored the many martyrs who died in Japan during two centuries of persecution, encouraging Catholics in the country to use their heroic witness as inspiration to spread the Gospel.

“May we never forget their heroic sacrifice!” he said Nov. 24, speaking of the hundreds of martyrs who “consecrated the ground by their suffering and death.”

“May it not remain as a glorious relic of the past, to be kept and honored in a museum, but rather as a living memory, an inspiration for the works of the apostolate and a spur to renewed evangelization in this land.”

The Pope spoke at the memorial of Nishizaka Hill in Nagasaki, where hundreds of Christians from the end of the 16th through the 18th century lost their lives for the faith, including St. Paul Miki and his 25 companions, who were crucified on the hill in 1597.

Francis placed a wreath of flowers in front of the memorial, which includes a reliquary holding the relics of three martyred Jesuit missionaries, as well as an original letter of St. Francis Xavier. He then said a silent prayer before incensing the relics.

Nagasaki, and specifically the Urakami neighborhood, have been the center of Catholicism in Japan for four centuries. The area was home to the so-called “hidden Christians,” who preserved the faith throughout waves of fierce persecution.

“This shrine does more than speak of death; it also speaks of the triumph of life over death,” Pope Francis said.

“This shrine is above all a monument to Easter, for it proclaims that the last word — despite all evidence to the contrary — belongs not to death but to life.”

The message of the martyrs, he said, is that man’s destiny is not death, but the fullness of life. “The blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the new life that Jesus wishes to bestow on us.”

“May the Church in Japan of our own day, amid all its difficulties and signs of hope, feel called to hear anew each day the message proclaimed by St. Paul Miki from the cross and share with all men and women the joy and beauty of the Gospel,” he urged.

Catholics make up less than 0.5% of the population in Japan, but in Nagasaki, they comprise more than 4% of the population of nearly 430,000.

Catholics were disproportionately affected during the nuclear attack of 1945, when the bomb fell on the Christian zone of the city and immediately killed 8,500 of the 12,000 Catholics.

Christianity was first brought to Japan in the 16th century by Catholic missionaries, most notably St. Francis Xavier.

Pope Francis said he came to the monument of the martyrs to pay homage to the holy men and women who died there, but also as someone who personally “found powerful inspiration in the story of the early missionaries and the Japanese martyrs.”

As a young Jesuit, Francis had hoped to be sent to Japan as a missionary, but was prevented from going for health reasons.

“I have come here as a pilgrim to pray, to confirm you in the faith, and to be confirmed by the faith of these brothers and sisters who by their witness and devotion light up our path,” he said.

Pope Francis is in Japan for the final leg of a six-day trip to Asia, which began in Thailand. He will spend his final day and a half in Tokyo.

At the conclusion of his address at the monument, the Pope stopped briefly inside the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, considered the most prominent museum on Christianity in Japan.

May the witness of the martyrs, he encouraged, “awaken and sustain in all of us the joy of the mission.”