Monday, May 28, 2018

If you're interested in the stories of the Japanese martyrs, you might want to read my historical novel on that subject, available here:

Friday, March 24, 2017

23 March 1643: a Polish Jesuit dies in the Pit in Faithful Silence

           Father Albert Meczynski, S.J. was born of Polish nobility, the Poraj of Kurozwęki; his father (who, as best I can determine, was the Count of Kurozwęki) died when Albert was a boy. Sent to study at the Jesuit college in Lublin at age fourteen, Albert soon embraced a desire to join the Society of Jesus. His mother, outraged, sent him to school in Krakow to deter this ambition she thought unfitting a nobleman; there he studied medicine, which would later come in handy.
       Despite parental opposition, Albert did eventually join the Society at Rome; he was ordained at Evora after years of study. Having repeatedly requested permission to go on mission to Japan, he finally set sail from Lisbon in 1631. An epidemic of typhus raged on board the ship, during which Father Albert rendered constant medical service; to make matters worse, contrary winds forced the ship to turn back to Lisbon. Thereafter Father Albert spent two years convalescing because of a circulatory ailment.    
       He sailed again on 5 March 1633; this voyage, too, was plagued by mortal illness, but finally arrived at Goa, India on 20 August. There Father Albert visited the tomb of Saint Francis Xavier, miracle worker and “Apostle of the Indies,” where he received an infusion of spiritual strength. Setting sail then for Malacca, Father Albert was captured by Dutch pirates, taken to their colony on Formosa and kept captive for seven months; here, too, his medical skills proved useful, as the Dutchmen, who had been starving him, began to treat him more humanely when he effected a cure for their commandant’s ailing son.  
       Eventually he made it to Portuguese Macao, near Hong Kong; there he studied Japanese—and presumably prepared himself for martyrdom, for he had early on donated his entire fortune to the Society of Jesus with the words: Now I have nothing but my blood to give to God.”[1]
         To make this ultimate donation, Father Albert joined Father Antonio Rubino’s bold atoning mission to Japan, which set sail from Manila in 1642. Its purpose was to repair the insult to the Christian Faith and to the Society of Jesus that Father Christovão Ferreira’s public apostasy after four hours’ torture in the Pit at Nagasaki had inflicted—and, if possible, to bring the apostate Ferreira back to Christ.
       As for the ultimate fate of Ferreira’s soul, only God knows, but the Name of Christ suffered no soiling at the hands of Father Rubino’s Jesuit missionaries: in the hands of the Shogun’s torturers they would withstand seven month’s torture being scalded and branded with hot iron at the volcanic “Unzen Hell” without a whisper of apostasy and then be condemned to the torture of the Pit, the very apex of contrived human cruelty. From his gallows atop Nishi-zaka in Nagasaki, Father Albert hung upside-down in a dark, stinking toilet of a hole with his waist crimped in a wooden vise and every nerve of his body in torment, enduring a man-made hell far worse than Unzen, giving his blood to God drop by drop, dripping from his ears and mouth and nose into the filth he had to breathe for seven days, seven eternities: atonement seventy times seven for Christovão Ferreira’s apostasy, a debt far more than mere mortal man should ever have to pay.
       Father Albert, holy immortal, entered Eternity on 23 March 1643.
Hallelujah. Glory be to God in all His angels and saints and martyrs.

Copyright 2017 by Luke O’Hara

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Glorious Silence of Thomas, an Unsung Korean Christian Martyr

            On March 21, 1643, a Christian hero whom we know only by the name of Thomas died in the pit on Nishi-zaka in Nagasaki. Born in Korea, he was a humble lay Catholic serving Catholic exiles at a Japanese church in Cambodia when he was chosen to accompany Father Antonio Rubino and his companions on a one-way self-sacrificial mission to Japan.

            Like the brave Jesuit priests of Martin Scorcese’s Silence, Father Rubino offered his life up to God on a wildly reckless mission to sneak into Japan, find the apostate priest Christovao Ferreira, and convince him to recant his apostasy and die for the Faith—both to save his own soul and to repair the bad example he had set for the onlooking Japanese faithful by his apostasy.   

            Unlike the Jesuit-priest characters in Silence, however, the real historical Jesuit Antonio Rubino, along with all the other members of his mission, endured seven months of the “Unzen Hell” boiling sulfur-water torture pictured in that film; they did not give in. The Shogun’s deputy in Nagasaki then condemned the dauntless members of Father Rubino’s mission to the ultimate torture of the Pit. This test too would prove fruitless for the Shogun’s purpose: Father Rubino and his companions all gave their lives for Christ atop the slope called Nishi-zaka, that holy ground sanctified first by the blood of the Twenty-six Martyrs of Nagasaki on 5 February 1597.

            Thomas, faithful lay Catholic, was the first to die, the first among the hardy souls of Father Rubino’s mission to give up his earthly life for the sake of his immortal soul—indeed, for all our immortal souls, whether watching from that slope overlooking Nagasaki Bay on the 21st of March in the Year of Our Lord 1643 or gaping through the lens of history, still transfixed by the sight of that fearless Peace that passeth all understanding.

Copyright 2017 by Luke O'Hara


Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Martyrdom of Father Marcello Mastrilli: An Atoning Sacrifice, a Shout to Earth and Heaven

Father Marcello Mastrilli, S.J.

The Martyrdom of Father Marcello Mastrilli:
An Atoning Sacrifice, a Shout to Earth and Heaven

            Father Marcello Mastrilli S.J. is a martyr credited in his lifetime with countless miracles, an intrepid warrior for Christ whose dream was to convert the Emperor of Japan to the Faith or die martyred as a testimony to its absolute truth. Twice he testified to that truth with his lifeblood, first on a parchment signed in his own blood and placed in the hand of Saint Francis Xavier’s corpse in its sepulchre at Goa, India. His second and final blood testament was his voluntary death by torture in Nagasaki, the fulfillment of his longing to atone for the apostasy of a fellow Jesuit who had preceded him to Japan.
            Marcello Mastrilli was born in Naples on 14 September 1603, the son of the Marquis of San Marzano. Although born into a life of aristocratic privilege, at age 14 Marcello recognized his calling to religious vocation and announced this to his parents. Meeting his father’s opposition, the determined Marcello nevertheless left home in 1618 and entered the Jesuit novitiate at Naples. Soon thereafter he had a vision of Heaven opening and instantaneously understood his life’s purpose: a mission to the Indies. In that same instant, he was infused with a love for Christ that he knew he must live out by suffering for Him.[1] During his years of novitiate, he was often visited by apparitions of Saint Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the Indies, in the form of a horseman dressed in white.
            On 11 December 1633 Marcello was gravely injured when a workman, taking down draperies hung in the Cardinal’s palace at Naples for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, dropped a hammer on his head from a great height. He fell into delirium and lingered on the edge of death for ten days. On the 21st he was visited by yet another apparition of that friend of his in Heaven, who led him through a series of prayers and vows, finally declaring, “You are healed: kiss in thanksgiving the sacred wounds of the Crucifix.” [2] And healed he was, restored to perfect health.[3]

            Although the news had not yet reached Catholic Europe, on October 18th of that same year, the Jesuit Provincial in Japan had apostatized under torture at Nagasaki. This man, Christovão Ferreira, had given in after five hours’ hanging in “the pit”—perhaps the most horrible torture ever devised by man. When the disconcerting news did finally arrive, many European Jesuits came forward to volunteer themselves for an atoning mission to Japan, hoping to die there as martyrs. Father Mastrilli was chosen as the mission’s superior, with good reason: he had earlier asked the Father General of the Society of Jesus for permission to go to the Indies to convert souls, whereupon the Father General responded that he need not ask him for the permission that Saint Francis Xavier—in apparition—had already given him.
            The mission left Lisbon on Holy Saturday, 7 April 1635. Forty religious were originally to have left for Japan, but, “due to the parsimony of the Royal Treasury” of Philip IV, only 33 embarked.[4] On 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, they reached Goa, the capital of Portuguese India. There they learned of the martyrdom in Japan of twenty-four Jesuits the preceding year. 
            In Goa, Father Marcello spent many hours praying at St Francis Xavier’s tomb; he had it opened and the Saint’s corpse dressed in a “magnificent chasuble” donated by the Spanish Crown. He also got leave from the Provincial to take relics from the body—a handkerchief soaked in Francis Xavier’s blood and a little box containing a relic of his flesh—and left in the Saint’s hand a letter signed in his own blood.[5]
            From Goa the mission sailed to Macau—the Portuguese base in East Asia—hoping to proceed onward to Japan, but found there that no Japan-bound Portuguese ship would take a priest aboard. For fear of cutting Macao’s economic lifeline—the Japan silk trade—and of putting all Portuguese in Nagasaki at risk of capital punishment by the Shōgun’s deputies, the clerical authorities in Macao had banned the smuggling of clergy into Japan on pain of excommunication.[6] The Jesuits sailed on to Manila to try their luck there, arriving on 3 July. The Governor of the Philippines, Don Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera, was enthusiastic about their intended mission to Japan, but the Spanish populace opposed the plan for fear of the mass slaughter of clergy that it would almost certainly entail; they dissuaded Father Mastrilli’s companions from accompanying him, and all but he returned to Macau.
            His companions gone, Father Mastrilli accompanied Governor Hurtado de Corcuera on an expedition against the Mindanao pirates. The Spanish forces flew two standards: an image of Saint Francis Xavier and an image of Christ crucified that had been rescued from the pirates’ hands. During the battle Father Marcello was struck on the flank by a cannonball; it bounced off him, leaving him unharmed. In the end the Spaniards achieved a resounding victory—which they attributed to the power of Saint Francis Xavier and Father Mastrilli’s intercession.[7]
            With that victory sealed, Father Mastrilli joined the Japanese exile community in the Philippines and devoted himself to learning their language. He also procured their services in building him a boat of Japanese design in which he planned to slip into Japan in Japanese guise; many of the Japanese exiles insisted on going with him. A Chinese ship carried Father Mastrilli, his companions, and their boat to Macau, where the Governor became their secret ally: he pardoned a certain ship’s pilot condemned to death for transporting a Dominican Friar to Japan on condition that he carry Father Mastrilli’s mission to Japan. Embarking on a Spanish ship that would carry them and their landing craft to Japanese waters, they met with numerous vicissitudes along the way, including a fierce storm off Formosa. Father Mastrilli is reported to have calmed the storm by making the Sign of the Cross over the sea with his reliquary containing Saint Francis Xavier’s relics.[8]
            Once lowered onto the waves, the little vessel[9] carrying Father Mastrilli and his companions struck out for shore, making land at Satsuma on 19 September. He entered Japan with one Japanese companion and was immediately discovered, but bribed his discoverer and set off inland; as their boat lay offshore, all his other Japanese companions were recognized as Christians and seized. Eventually they confessed that they had sailed with Father Mastrilli, which information sparked a frenzied search of the countryside for the intrepid priest. After several days he was discovered, his captors led to him by the smoke of his campfire. When they arrived he told them, “My sons, come and seize me.”
            Taken to Nagasaki, Father Mastrilli appeared before the Shōgun’s magistrates on 5 October 1637. When asked why he had come to Japan, he answered that he had come to speak to the Emperor, to restore him to health were he still alive, and to teach him the law of Jesus Christ.[10] (The “Emperor” of whom he spoke was in fact the Shōgun Iemitsu, who was thought to be afflicted with leprosy.[11]) He then told them that he had been sent as an ambassador by Saint Francis Xavier, whom the magistrates knew to have been long since dead, and he recounted to them the story of his miraculous healing by Xavier’s spirit.
            Impressed though they were by their prisoner’s apparent sincerity and strength of character, the Nagasaki magistrates had to carry out the Shōgun’s law. To urge Father Mastrilli’s apostasy, they subjected him to the water torture for two days on end. The first day they used the funnel technique, wherein the victim has a funnel shoved into his mouth and great amounts of water poured into him so that water and blood come gushing out through the victim’s mouth, ears and nose.[12] The second day’s torture was more refined. A contemporary eyewitness, quoted by historian C. R. Boxer, describes this method:

“They tie the martyr down on a board, leaving his left hand free so that he can place it on his breast if he wishes to give a sign that he will recant. His head is left hanging down a little, and the torturers do not stop pouring great quantities of water on his face … The victims make such frantic efforts to breath[e] that they usually burst a blood-vessel.”[13]

            Boxer tells us, “the record for enduring [this torture] is still that of the seventeenth-century Italian Jesuit, Mastrilli, who is said to have withstood it for two days, and received four hundred jars of water on the second day alone.”[14]
            Having been unshaken by the water torture, Father Mastrilli was returned to his prison cell, where he discovered that all his companions but one had apostatized; Andrew Koteda had died in the pit, holding out to the glorious end.[15] While interrogating the others, the magistrates gleaned information that Mastrilli had withheld from them; they interrogated him again, threatening direr torments. He told them to do their worst, adding, “My God will give me the strength to bear it.”[16]
            Handed over to the torturers, he was stripped naked and subjected to scorching of his private parts with red-hot tongs. His modesty offended, he shamed the torturers for stooping to such vile torments; they put away their branding-iron and subjected him to the water-torture for a third time.[17] Although tortured to the edge of death, he still clung to his faith.[18]
            Father Mastrilli was returned to his prison to recuperate for the final torture: he had been sentenced to die in the pit. Joyfully welcoming the bearer of his death-sentence, he prophesied that he would not die in the pit, but would instead be beheaded.[19] It would prove to be his last night before the final horrors began. “He passed the rest of the night in an ecstasy accompanied by miracles,” reports Léon Pagès.[20]
            At eleven o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 14 October 1637, Father Mastrilli was led from his prison to the execution-ground atop the slope called Nishi-zaka that overlooked Nagasaki Bay. The Jesuits’ report on his martyrdom reads:

His mouth was gagged by an iron tongue with sharp, projecting points that prevented him from proclaiming our Holy Faith. Trussed with ropes and chains he was borne astride a horse. The right side of his head was totally shaven, while the left side was painted red, a token of extreme ignominy to the Japanese. [21]

            Yet he was not jeered at by the crowd. Behind him was carried a banner proclaiming:

The Grand Shōgun, Emperor of Japan, orders this sentence to be inflicted on the person of this madman for coming to Japan to preach an alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō, so that all others may learn from his punishment. [22]

            And learn they did. When the “iron tongue” was removed from his mouth on that mountaintop killing-ground sanctified with countless martyrs’ blood, Father Mastrilli thanked the magistrates, who themselves had come to Nishi-zaka, and proclaimed to them, to the torturers, and in the hearing of all the crowd, the thousands of citizens of Nagasaki who had come to see this spectacle, “Now you shall know, Sirs, how great is the God whom we adore, and how precious the Paradise for which we hope.”[23]

            This was the life-defining moment: from his youth Marcello Mastrilli had studied and labored and yearned precisely for this great and precious hour. The very proving-ground where Christovão Ferreira, his unhappy predecessor, had abandoned Christ, His Church, and the religious order called by His Name—the Society of Jesus—would be the stage upon which the integrity, truth, and power of that Name would shine forth in all its dazzling glory. Indeed, Ferreira’s own given name, Christovão, derived from the Greek Christophoros: “Bearing Christ.” Certainly, Mastrilli the scholar would have known that etymology and wrestled in his soul with its implications: he must bear the burden, the Cross, the honor and the glory of that Name into the darkness and horror of the Pit—bear the Name unflinching, unyielding, undaunted by the Pit’s dank, claustrophobic closeness, its unvented stench, its inferno of unrelenting, unendurable agonies that must be endured, that were his chosen path to Paradise, with no turning back short of apostasy. For Father Marcello’s apostasy would declaim the falsity and the madness of his “alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō”; were he to break down after having proclaimed to all of Nagasaki—indeed, to all Creation—that his end would redound to the glory of his God and to his unshakable faith in that God’s promise of Heaven, then news of that breakdown, bruited far and wide, would gravely wound his already-brutalized religion and smear that spotless Name he bore into the Pit with the foul muck of cowardice, a fault unforgivable in martial-spirited Japan. Countless earthbound souls would indeed “learn from his punishment”—to the horror and dismay of all the onlooking souls up in Heaven.  

       Father Marcello, hands tied behind his back, was wrapped in coils of rope from his feet up to his chest and, hanging by his feet from a gallows, lowered head-down into the pit. Then the wooden lid—made in two halves, with cut-outs in the center to clamp and pinch the victim’s body—was closed on him. This method of “persuasion,” invented by Takenaka Uneme-no-Shō,[24] a former magistrate of Nagasaki, had proven more effective in procuring forced apostasies from Christians than had any other regime of torture. This was understandable, given its effects on the victim:

It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood. François Caron, the chief of the Dutch trading-post in Hirado, wrote, “This extremitie hath indeed … forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three days assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence.”[25]

            Contrary to the executioners’ expectations, however, this Bateren,[26] this priest, neither squirmed nor groaned, but kept perfectly still. Thinking him prematurely dead, the executioners opened the lid; Father Mastrilli told them, “I desire nothing; I am in Paradise.” When the magistrates renewed their effort to tempt him to apostasy, he told them that the sun would reverse its course before his faith would fail. When the guards, perhaps to tempt him or perhaps out of real concern, asked him if he wanted water, he answered, “I want neither water nor anything else; only glory, glory!”[27]
            Normally, when a Christian had been hung upside-down in the pit for an extended time, toxic blood would collect in his head, blood that must be vented by means of incisions on the temples lest he die too soon—for, after all, the magistrates wanted apostasy through torture, not death. Yet, after four days’ torture in the pit, Father Mastrilli showed none of the usual symptoms. Reports of this phenomenon alarmed the magistrates. One can guess their fears: perhaps the Paradise this dauntless Bateren had spoken of was real. Perhaps the people of Nagasaki, the guards and executioners included, were witnessing an ongoing miracle granted this Bateren by his foreign God, a sign that all others might indeed learn from—but a lesson prejudicial to “the Grand Shōgun, Emperor of Japan,” an incontrovertible sign of the truth of that “alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō.” If so, then they must act, and fast.[28]
            The magistrates ordered that the priest be beheaded at once. On hearing the news, Father Mastrilli was jubilant, as this was precisely the end he had predicted. After the executioners had pulled him from the pit, he knelt on the sacred earth atop Nishi-zaka and, invoking his patron in Heaven, “he cried out with great emotion, ‘Father Saint Francis Xavier, Father Saint Francis Xavier,’ words that were heard by the Portuguese who were present.” [29]
            And heard, no doubt, by that friend of his in Heaven and all the heavenly host.
            It took three slashes of the sword to sever his venerable head. Perhaps the swordsman, in the silence of his heart and in that Name the Bateren had borne into the pit, was shouting his own cry to Heaven as he raised his sword atop Nishi-zaka—whose earth, mixed with holy Martyrs’ blood, overlooked Christian Nagasaki and its sparkling bay, Japan’s door to the wider world.

Copyright © 2016 by Luke O’Hara

[1] Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu'à 1651. (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1869), 828, note.
[2] Pagès, 829.
[3] For interesting details on this apparition, see: Ines G. Županov, Passage to India: Jesuit Spiritual Economy between Martyrdom and Profit in the Seventeenth Century in Journal of Early Modern History, Vol. 16, Issue 2 (2012), pp 121-159.
[4] Pagès, 830.
[5] Pagès, 831.
[6] C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650. (Lisbon: Carcanet, 1951), 369-370.
[7] Pagès, 832.
[8] Pagès, 833.
[9] A replacement for the boat the Japanese exiles had built; it had been found unsuitable.
[10] Pagès, 834.
[11] He may in fact have had smallpox. See Liam Matthew Brockey, The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia.  ( Cambridge, Mass:  Belknap Press, 2014), 405.
[12] Saint Magdalena of Nagasaki received that torture, described here:
[13] Boxer, The Christian Century, 351.
[14] Ibid, 351.
[15] Pagès, 836.  
[16] Willis, Clive. "The Martyrdom of Father Marcello Mastrilli S.J." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 53 (2013): 220.
[17] Willis, 220-221.
[18] Pagès, 836.
[19] Pagès, 836-837.
[20] Pagès, 837.
[21] Willis, 222. A translation from the original Portuguese.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Pagès, 838.
[24] 竹中采女正, Nagasaki Bugyō from 1629 to 1633, when he was  removed from his post for illegal trading. He was forced to commit seppuku in 1634.
[25] Borrowed from . The excerpt from François Caron is quoted in Boxer, The Christian Century, 354.
[26] Japanese borrowing of the Portuguese ‘padre.’
[27] Pagès, 838.
[28] The Jesuits’ report notes an additional reason: “The reason for their hurry was a forthcoming celebration in the temple the next day, a day on which acts of judicial punishment were forbidden.” Willis, 223.  Also noted in Léon Pagès, Histoire, 838.
[29] Willis, 223.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Martyrs of October: Father Julian Nakaura

          The jumbled boulders of Nakaura lie brooding on the shore, defying the sea to do its worst.  Behind them squats a hill clothed in bamboo, its giant knees of rock protruding through the trees.  A continent of charcoal cloud looms over the coast, yet the sun blazes triumphantly in the distant west, riding high above the Gotoh Islands:  it burns one’s face, even in the tail-end of winter.
       Julian Nakaura was born here.  They honor him with a memorial that overlooks the village:  a pony-tailed boy in bronze pointing out at the sea, towards the Rome the real boy visited.  But I prefer the Julian who stands, weathered and flinty, at the entrance to the Shimabara Catholic Church, way down south: a gentle old man steeled by trial and perseverance, a Missal in hand and nothing but his own two sandaled feet to carry him.    
            Those old feet would carry him to a death unheard of even in a Europe where the burning of heretics and the disemboweling and mutilation of Roman Catholic priests was the order of the day.

Statue of Father Julian Nakaura in his old age, in the courtyard of the Shimabara Catholic Church, Shimabara City, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan
     In 1582 Catholicism was flourishing in some parts of Japan, and especially on the island of Kyushu.  The Jesuits had opened a school in Arima, southeast of Nagasaki, for training Catholic samurai youth to become future teachers, catechists and priests—a Seminario.  Father Alessandro Valignano, dispatched by Rome as Visitor to Japan, had set up the school in 1580, and two years later he came up with a brainstorm:  choose some fine young samurai from the student body and send them on an embassy to Rome as showpieces of the Japanese Church.  Their mission would be to impress upon the nobility of Catholic Europe the quality of this newest and farthest-flung Catholic seedbed; and to impress upon themselves the grandeur of Catholicism in Europe and report their impressions to their native brethren on their return.
   Omura Sumitada, the first Japanese  daimyo  (domainal lord) to be baptized, loved the plan as soon as it hit his ears; he promised his full support.  Two other daimyo also joined in; the mission was prepared immediately.
      For the four young ambassadors—Julian, Mancio, Martin and Miguel—the journey was no pleasure-cruise.  On the second leg—the voyage to India—some of the sailors died of fever; it nearly killed one of the four ambassadors, too.  They narrowly escaped shipwreck passing through the Singapore Strait; they spent a night cocooned in blankets tied to poles, being carried by porters through an Indian jungle, to be confronted in a clearing by a furious swordsman growling in a language none of their party understood, and all of them unarmed.
      But when the four adolescents from Kyushu hit Lisbon in August of 1584 they were the hottest personalities in Catholic Europe. Like the Beatles on tour they were awaited at the docks by an adoring mob; their guardians kept them on board ship until evening so they could be slipped ashore discreetly. From Lisbon to Rome and back again honor guards, trumpet fanfares and cannon and mortar salutes would greet them in town after town.
      They were received in private audience by Philip II, King of Spain, Portugal, Naples, Flanders and much of the Americas.  He gave each of them a hug:  these boys had sailed halfway round the world braving mortal dangers for the sake of God’s Church.  Pope Gregory XIII also greeted them with hugs, had them to dinners in his private quarters, and sent messengers to inquire about their welfare three times a day.
      Gregory fell ill during their stay and suddenly found himself nearing death.  Having received the Last Rites he asked about Julian, who had come down with a fever some days before, and hearing that the boy had recovered, was relieved; Gregory XIII died two hours later.  Sixtus V succeeded him; the four boys were seated around the new Pontiff at his coronation.
     But when the four—now young men—disembarked at Nagasaki in 1590 they were coming back to a Japan very different from the one they had left eight and a half years earlier.  That Japan had been made up of largely-independent feudal states, their own lords all ardent Catholics; in the new Japan all was under the heel of one man, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had banned the Christian religion in 1587 and ordered all the priests out; most had gone underground instead.  This was the beginning of three centuries of persecution—the grisliest persecution Christianity has ever seen, anywhere.
     Arima Harunobu, the lord of Arima, had bravely invited the Jesuits of Nagasaki into his domain after Hideyoshi’s crackdown, but his castle-town of Arima was becoming an ever-more-risky place for a Jesuit school, so they moved the Seminario first to another town in his domain, and then out of Arima entirely, deep into the interior of Amakusa-shimo Island to the south.  While at Rome the boys had asked for admission to the Society of Jesus; they finally entered on July 25, 1591, and after two more years of schooling, made the Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  During their novitiate Hideyoshi’s spies would sometimes come sniffing round; the four would then disperse and become refugees, holing up in farmers’ huts in the backwoods.  This too was training for a darker time to come.
      On February 5, 1597, Hideyoshi had twenty-six Franciscans, Jesuits and lay Catholics crucified in Nagasaki for the crime of being Christian; only his providential death in 1598 gave the Japanese Church a breathing-space, as well as the larger world:  his planned invasion of China would be cancelled, and Japanese forces withdrawn from Korea.  The future began to look promising again for the Japanese Church; but the Tokugawa Shoguns who succeeded Hideyoshi saw to it that being Catholic in Japan would become, instead, an ever-surer sentence of death.  In 1612 Tokugawa Ieyasu promulgated his first edict against Christianity.  Arima Harunobu was executed that year, and the Arima domain—long Japan’s Catholic haven—became a testing-ground for the Shogunate’s plan to exterminate the Faith.
     Julian had been ordained a priest in 1608, and was one of those who went underground when all religious were ordered deported to Manila or Macao in 1614.  For some years his base was the port-town of Kuchinotsu at the southern tip of Arima; he probably kept a boat tied up in the harbor for quick escapes to the Amakusa Islands, southward across the Hayasaki Strait.  In 1622 Julian wrote a letter to Father Nuño Mascarenhas, S.J., whom he had met in Rome on his mission to the Pope more than three decades earlier.  It gives a hint of the sort of life he was living in Kuchinotsu:  “Still the persecution continues unabated; because of it we cannot take a minute’s rest.  I cannot even calmly finish writing this letter to Your Excellency.  That is because, news having arrived that the lord of this domain has begun a new, special persecution, a believer has come to tell me that I am to be moved to a safer place.  The [feudal] lord hopes to uproot the teaching of the Gospel from this domain and see to it that not even one person remains who maintains the Faith and thus violates the command of the Tenka—the ruler of all Japan.”  The “special persecution” had already killed twenty-one believers in Kuchinotsu; but Julian adds, “Thanks to the Grace of God, I still have sufficient health and strength of spirit to shepherd the Christian charges of the Society of Jesus.”  He signs the letter, “Worthless servant / Julian Nakaura.”
      Strength of spirit and body he would need, and in superhuman abundance.  The Shogun’s police wanted broken clerics to parade in front of the Christians of Nagasaki and Arima and Omura and the other stubborn Catholic holdouts:  they hoped to start a landslide of apostasies that would empty Japan of Catholics.
     This was their method of persuasion:  they would coil their victim tightly in rope from the feet up to the chest, tie his hands  behind his back, and then hang him upside-down from a gallows with his head and torso lowered into a hole, six feet deep, perhaps containing human waste or other filth and covered with a lid to trap the stench.  The lid was made of two boards closed together; crescent cutouts in the center closed tight around the victim’s body, pinching his waist and cutting off his circulation. It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood.  François Caron, the chief of the Dutch trading-post in Hirado, wrote, “This extremitie hath indeed … forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three days assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence.”
      On the Eighteenth of October, 1633, Julian faced the test.  He had been in prison for almost a year awaiting his turn as his fellow-servants of God were taken away to the pits, dug where the Twenty-Six Martyrs had been crucified thirty-six years before.  On that autumn morning he was herded with seven other men—Jesuits and Dominicans—up the hill called Nishi-zaka to the execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay.  Julian was about sixty-five years old, and no longer robust:  he had largely lost the use of his feet and the climb was a struggle for him; but arriving, he faced his executioners and shouted, “I am Father Nakaura, who went to Rome.”  He was determined to die; he had shoved the fact into their faces, a challenge to do their worst.  They would.
      One of Julian’s brethren broke down:  Christovaõ Ferreira, the Jesuit Provincial, gave the signal of surrender after five or six hours of the pit.  The executioners came and told Julian.  Ferreira was his superior:  if he had apostatized, why not just give in?  Julian didn’t flinch:  he was there to die.  He endured the unendurable; and he no doubt prayed.  Perhaps he remembered that day in Rome when, as a teenage boy, his heart bursting with hope, he had ignored strict orders to stay in bed and, despite a high fever, insisted on joining the other three boy-ambassadors for their first audience with the Pope.  If only he could have His Holiness’s blessing, he told them, he would get well, and he refused to be restrained by either his anxious doctors or all the Jesuits in Rome.  He did take his place in the ambassadorial party and, shivering, marched forward and knelt before the Pope.  Gregory XIII conferred his blessing on faithful Julian and ordered him back to bed immediately.  This voice the boy obeyed.
     In the pit atop Nishi-zaka, that sacred slope overlooking Nagasaki Bay, Julian hung on to the end.  God took him home on the Twenty-first of October in the Year of Our Lord 1633.  No “Worthless Servant” he.

(Blessed Julian Nakaura was beatified on November 24, 2008; he is counted among the 188 Blesseds known as Peter Kibe Kasui and 187 Companions, Martyrs.)
Text and Photo Copyright 2005/2012 by Luke O’Hara
 (A version of this story first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor.)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

November 11, 1634: Saint Marina of Ōmura

             November the Eleventh marks the martyrdom of Saint Marina of Ōmura, canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 18, 1987.  I first learned of her story on seeing her statue in the courtyard of the Kako-machi Catholic Church in Ōmura, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan—a lady in black-and-white Dominican habit clutching a crucifix to her breast and standing atop a crown of flames that would send her straight to Heaven, her face aglow with faith and hope and love—and superhuman strength. 
          In 1626, entering the Dominican Order as a Tertiary, or lay Dominican, she had dedicated her life and her virginity to Christ:  a vow which was anathema to the Shōgun up in Edo (modern-day Tokyo):  Iemitsu, a sin-enslaved sadist who, heavily guarded, would prowl the streets of his capital at night in disguise, looking for innocent victims to test the sharpness of his sword on. Of all his imagined enemies he feared Christ the most.    
          Marina lived in Ōmura, a very long way from the capital but not far from the port-town of Nagasaki, the Christian capital of Japan. Ōmura itself had been a Christian stronghold in former times. Indeed, Ōmura Sumitada, lord of Ōmura three generations past, had been Japan’s first-baptized Christian domainal lord, and had had his own daughter baptized as ‘Marina’. Alas, since those days, a profusion of anti-Christian tyrants had put an end to the freedom of conscience that some parts of Japan had once known: in Saint Marina’s day, to profess Christ was death throughout Japan.
          Her supposed crimes were legion:  she had manifested charity selflessly, giving refuge in her home to hunted priests and persecuted Christians at risk of her life. Thank God that Saint Marina—like so many Holy Martyrs before her—despised the pains of death, for in her eyes these were but the merest footsteps in her steady climb to Heaven to meet her one true Spouse and Lord.  Once arrested, she was stripped naked and paraded through the whole domain of Ōmura to shame her, yet she marched with perfect modesty: as a virgin self-promised to Christ, she remained untainted. She was transferred to Nagasaki and immolated by ‘slow fire’ on Nishi-zaka, the holy execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay—the sacred soil that had held the crosses of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan back in February of 1597.  Many holy souls had followed their path to Heaven since that icy winter day thirty-seven years before; Marina of Ōmura would stand tall among them as a paragon of indomitable faith. 
          ‘Slow fire’ meant that the firewood prepared for her execution had been covered with saltwater-wetted straw, leafy green branches and soil to produce noxious, stinging smoke; it was also placed at a distance from the stake to which she was bound in order to prolong her miseries by slow roasting, thus delaying merciful death. Marina, however, did not amuse her torturers with displays of agony; instead she prayed for her persecutors and her fellow persecuted Christians: thus is she remembered in Ōmura and beyond as a Christian heroine of remarkable strength. 
          Superhuman, supernatural strength, modesty, and courage, as befits a faithful spouse of Christ.

          Saint Marina of Ōmura, pray for us.

Copyright © 2015 by Luke O’Hara


Witnesses of the Faith in the Orient, Ed. Ceferino Puebla Pedrosa, O.P., Trans. Sister Maria Maez, O.P. 2nd. Ed. (Hong Kong: Provincial Secretariat of Missions, Dominican Province of Our Lady of the Rosary, 2006) 78-79.

Boxer, Charles Ralph, The Christian Century in Japan 1549-1650 (Lisbon: Carcanet, 1993) 363-364.

On “slow fire”:  P. Ángel Peña, O.A.R., Santa Magdalena de Nagasaki (Lima: Agustinos Recoletos, Provincia del Perú, no date) 39-40.