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In Bl. Peter Kasui Kibe Beat the Heart of a Samurai for Christ
Whether or not you liked Martin Scorsese's ‘Silence’, you're going to love this story.
By Angelo Stagnaro
It usually doesn't take a great deal to become a saint in the Catholic Church.
The Church is satisfied with merely heroic virtue, reverent prayer and a stalwart Christ-centered faith. An additional two miracles wouldn't hurt the accounting.
Washing a leper is fine. Caring for the poor is even better. Stopping a war wouldn't be frowned upon.
Martyrdom is nothing to ignore. For religious orders, martyrs are currency.
These signs aren’t a great deal to ask for considering Christ and the Beatific Vision are the prize.
However, every now and again, there arises a saint so remarkable that one can only imagine that even the angels must gasp as they contemplate his exploits and achievements.
That’s how, nearly 400 years ago, amidst Christianity's worse and vilest persecution, Japanese Jesuit Fr. Peter Kibe comes into the picture.
His story is the side of Christianity that Martin Scorsese's Silence refuses to tell. Interestingly, the two stories irrevocably and faithfully intersect.
Bl. Peter Kasui Kibe died on July 4, 1639. He was a samurai and the son of a samurai. In addition, he was a Jesuit and a fiercely loyal Son of the Church in whose chest beat the heart of a warrior for Christ.
His was the first name on the list of 188 Japanese martyrs beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on June 1, 2007.
The Kibes were samurai of Urabe in the province of Bungo on the island of Kyushu. Portuguese traders visited this island six years before St. Francis Xavier’s arrived on August 15, 1549—the Feast of the Assumption.
Peter was born on the same island 38 years later. His parents, Romano and Maria, were first generation converts. Peter was born the same year that Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉) (1537–1598) the daimyō or generalissimo of the Japanese Empire, first decreed a ban on Christianity.
By AD 1568, there were 30,000 Christians in Japan. By 1600, there were 300,000. That's when the Buddhists unleashed their merciless campaigns of persecutions against the nascent Christian community there.
Peter's parents were converts to Christianity who had their child baptized soon after his birth in Nakatsu.
In AD 1600, at the age of 13, Peter entered the Jesuit Seminary at Arima, southeast of Nagasaki where he learned Latin, theology and other subjects. Upon graduating, six years later, he became a catechist and a dojuku―the 17th century equivalent of a Jesuit Volunteer. Peter announced his desire to become a Jesuit.
As was the custom for dojuku, Peter chose a new name―"Kasui" which literally means "living water." Coincidently, if one believes in coincidence, happened to be the name of the Jesuit General, Fr. Claude Aquaviva, who, unknown to Peter at the time, would be the priest who would receive him into the Jesuits.
However, his religious superiors were wary of admitting anyone into their order who wasn't absolutely committed to the Faith. Thus, they asked Peter to serve as their catechist for eight years. Unfortunately, in AD 1614, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu expelled all Christian missionaries from Japan and set about trying in vain to exterminating all Christians.
Peter fled to the Portuguese colony of Macao, where the Jesuits had difficultly handling the influx of Christian refugees. Some were sent to the Southeast Asian missions. Peter, however, entered the seminary in Macao. Misfortune seemed his lot as the Jesuits had to close his seminary in AD 1618.
Peter, not a samurai to take "Iye!" for an answer, and two fellow samurai-seminarians, set out for Rome, via India to ask the Pope himself to ordain them. The two companions however, decided to leave by way of India by sea. Peter instead decided to cross Persia on foot and to enter Jerusalem as a pilgrim before heading onto Rome.
In 1617, at the age of 32, Peter took the well-worn Silk Road and walked from India to Pakistan, Persia and Arabia and finally to Jerusalem. In total, he traveled 2,000 miles on foot. Desserts, storms, hunger, violent moslem jihadiis, wild animals, nearly impassable mountain ranges and rivers were nothing to Peter―a Catholic on a mission. In 1619, he become the first Japanese ever to visit the Holy Land.
Thus, in May 1620, three years after beginning his journey, Kibe finally arrived in Rome. It would be another ten years before Peter could return to Japan.
He arrived in Rome with no papers identifying him as having finished his studies in Japan and Macao, but, his Latin was sufficiently good enough to convince religious superiors of his erudition and sanctity and, thus, on Sunday, November 15, AD 1620, at the age of 33, Peter became a priest at Rome's Lateran Cathedral.
Peter made his way to the Jesuits’ motherhouse five days later and identified himself. The Jesuits, despite having received a letter from Macao warning them of peripatetic Japanese who might show up at their front door, welcomed him with open arms. Peter, on his part, wowed them with his knowledge of Catholic theology and Jesuit spirituality and he was quickly welcomed into the Jesuit novitiate.
Providentially, Peter was present in Rome on March 12, 1622 for the canonization of Francis Xavier―the first missionary to Japan―and St. Ignatius Loyola―the founder of the Jesuits.
Generally, the Jesuit novitiate lasts two years however, upon reading communiqués from the Jesuits serving in the Japanese missions about the horrific persecution against Christians, the General of the Society of Jesus came to believe that Peter’s mission was ordained by God. Peter was given permission to leave Rome instantly and finish his novitiate in the two years it took him to return to Japan.
He made his vows in Lisbon on November 21, AD 1622 and tried to book passage on a boat to India. There were two attempts to leave Portugal but each failed. Finally, the following March, 1623, on the Feast of the Annunciation, Peter set out with twenty Jesuits on a fourteen-month voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to Goa, India. From there, he made his way to Macao however, fearful of the Japanese reprisals, the local government refused to allow missionaries to sail from their port. Stalwart Peter chose instead to go to Siam (Thailand) where he easily found a ship going to Japan. Unfortunately, pirates attacked his shop in the Malacca Strait. Both crew and passengers abandoned ship and swam for shore.
Peter sojourned for two years incognito amongst the Japanese Christian exiles in the Siamese royal capital of Ayutthaya making sure that no one outside of that community knew he was Christian.
The entire time, he pressed captains to take him to Japan but they were all instructed to demand oaths of apostasy from all Japanese Christians who wanted to return to their country. But, Peter refused.
Anything but sin.
After two years of going nowhere fast, he sailed for Manila in AD 1630 to look for more accommodating captains but none could be found. They were similarly threatened to not enter Japanese waters with Christians aboard.
However, Providence introduced Peter to a group of Japanese Christians, including another priest, Fr. Michael Matsuda, who were similarly desirous to return to Japan. The group moved to a small, nearby island and built their own boat. Unfortunately, the boat was immediately attacked by termites. Undaunted, the Christians plugged the holes with extra planking and, putting themselves in God’s hands, set out for Japan.
Their tiny, barely seaworthy boat was caught in a massive typhoon but nonetheless made it to within sight of the Japanese coastline. Unfortunately, their dreams were dashed as their boat crashed along a rocky shoreline of a small island off the shore of Kagoshima—the place where St. Francis Xavier had first landed on Japanese soil.
Despite this disaster, no one was hurt and the islanders sheltered them. Later, they ferried them on to Kagoshima.
In AD 1630, at the age of 43, Fr. Peter Kasui Kibe returned to his homeland.
His Jesuit superiors had advised him to go east and as far north as possible. Along the way, Peter met Christians to whom he ministered. He settled in Sendai, north of Edo (Tokyo) and served the hidden Christian community for nine years. If caught, the pagan authorities had devised demonic forms of torture that were designed to make even the most stalwart among us hesitate. Fear wasn't in Fr. Peter's Christian vocabulary.
In July, AD 1639, Peter was betrayed by a poor Christian who fell victim to Shogun Iemitsu's empty promises. For those not in the know, Iemitsu was a murderer, a homosexual, a pedophile, a sadist and deeply paranoid. He hated Christians simply because he disagreed with them. We see that kind of blind, ignorant rage all too often these days as well.
Pagans never change. Pagans never prosper.
Peter was dragged before the Shogun. He used the opportunity to admonish and evangelize him.
Japanese historian C. R. Boxer, pointed out that Iemitsu "derived considerable pleasure from cross-examining Christians under torture."
The pagans didn’t want to necessarily kill Christians per se. Instead, they wanted something by far worse―they wanted them to apostatize. And a priest apostate was a prize too rare to pass up.
Inoue Masashige, the Shogun's favorite torturer, the man who tortured Fr. Christovao Ferreira into abandoning Christ, personally supervised Peter's torture sessions. He brought along his magnus opus―the apostate Christovao Ferreira himself. Readers might recognize his name as he is one of the central characters in the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel entitled Chinmoku (Japanese: Silence) which has recently been made into a film.
As Ferreira had been Peter's former vice-provincial, the meeting was, at best, a strained one.
Kibe stared down both pagans.
Try as he might, Ferreira was unable to convince Peter to abandon his faith in Christ. Instead, it was Peter who evangelized the apostate urging him to return to Christ's One, True, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Japanese court records show that Ferreira failed at four interrogations and had to step down. Inoue then arranged for a meeting between pedophile Shogun Iemitsu, Peter and two other captured missionaries. This meeting also ended in failure…for the pagans…
And thus, the Buddhists used some of the worst tortures devised by man against Peter and other Christians. They would wrap their victims in tight coils of rope and hang them upside-down in a pit filled with human waste. Their waists were fitted with a wooden ring that effectively cut off their circulation and hampered their breathing unmercifully. The wooden ring would also seal the pit into which they were lowered.
Thankfully, they were Buddhists, otherwise they'd really do something cruel.
The torturers tempted Peter with release if only he would denounce Christ and praise Buddha.
Alongside Peter were several other Christians including two Catholic priests who couldn't bear the torture and immediately apostatized. Unfortunately for them, once they were hauled out of the pit, they almost immediately died from their mistreatment.
Peter, however, was suspended in a different hole along with two Japanese catechists who he exhorted and encouraged to persevere for Christ. He urged them to remember the Son of God who willingly gave up His life for them―the least they could do is give up their lives for Him.
The torturers, furious that Peter defied them and their machinations, pulled him out of the pit and built a fire on his stomach. But, even this didn’t change the saint's focus and his dedication to Christ. In a fit of rage, they ran him through with a sword killing Peter on the spot.
Just before he died a glorious martyr's death, one of the torturers asked Peter why he simply didn’t give in, the saint replied, "You cannot understand this―therefore, it is no use guiding you."
Peter Kibe entered Heaven on July 4, AD 1639. He was 52, a priest for 19 years. His Japanese court indictment read: "He ignored the edict of the shogun and he ministered to Christians."
Pope Benedict beatified Fr. Peter Kasui Kibe on, November 24, 2008 with 187 companions killed in Japan between 1603 and 1639. The ceremony took place in Nagasaki Stadium and drew more than 30,000 participants.
The site of Bl. Peter Kasui Kibe's imprisonment has been preserved and is now a museum of the Tokyo martyrs. It's located near the city's cathedral.
The Shogun’s torture master called Bl. Peter Kasui Kibe, "the man who would not say, I give in"—a fitting epitaph for a great Christian and a martyr.
Jesus tells us in the Book of Revelations: "I know what you have done; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were either one or the other! But because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth!" (Revelation 3:15-16)
Our God, Most Merciful and Loving, prompts us to love fiercely and not be namby-pamby Christians. Fr. Peter Kibe, SJ, nicknamed "living water," made his choice. What will yours be?
(Sources: Hubert Cieslik, Sekai wo Aruita Bateren: Petoro Kasui Kibe, 1984; Yakichi Kataoka, Nippon Kirishitan Junkyo-shi, 1979; C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1952; Hedwig Lewis, SJ.)
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