Five Martyrs, Four Orders, One Faith
Five missionaries to Japan — a Dominican, a Franciscan, an Augustinian and two Jesuits — offered their lives in 1617 as witnesses to Jesus Christ.
“He pulled the mule up and sat thinking, facing south. He was quite certain that this was a trap. … The oddest thing of all was that he felt quite cheerful. … He began to whistle a tune. …” —Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
Thus, Graham Greene’s “whisky priest” decides to ride on toward certain death because his Judas has told him that a wounded bank robber lies dying and needs a confessor. The police are of course waiting out of sight, more interested in capturing a Catholic priest to make an example of by firing squad than in finishing off an insignificant thief.
Using false penitents as bait to catch priests has a history.
In 1617, the Daimyo of Omura, formerly Catholic, vowed to the shogun to scrub his domain of priests lest he lose both that domain and his life. To please Lord Omura, one of his governors laid a trap to snare Franciscan Father Pedro de la Asunción, beginning a chain of events that would unite four religious orders in holy martyrdom.
The apostate governor of Nagayo, feigning a desire to confess his sins and return to the Church, lured Father Pedro out of hiding in Nagasaki. Although warned of possible treachery, Father Pedro leapt at the chance to bring that lost sheep back into the fold in the midst of a fierce persecution.
The trap closed as Father Pedro was hearing confessions in Isahaya. Local Christians warned him that soldiers were coming to arrest him, but rather than flee, he went on doing his priestly duty, calmly awaiting his captors. He was taken to the prison at Kori, not far from Lord Omura’s castle, on April 15, 1617.
Meanwhile, Jesuit Father João Machado de Távora had set out from Nagasaki for the Goto Islands to hear confessions, but contrary winds blew him instead to Hirado, where persecutions had raged since the days of St. Francis Xavier. Letters came warning him to avoid Goto, as Lord Omura’s spies were combing the islands for priests, but, determined to do his duty, he sailed for Goto as soon as the winds allowed, arriving on April 21. The next day, as he was absolving a penitent sinner, a spy came in, followed soon by Lord Omura’s men.
Father Machado thanked them for this first step toward martyrdom and gladly submitted to arrest. Providentially perhaps, contrary winds prevented his transport to Kori, and his captors let him celebrate Mass and serve the faithful until the wind changed on April 25. Boarding the boat, Father Machado asked the soldiers to bind him as a prisoner for Christ, but they declined — they were ashamed enough already and doing this only for fear of their lives.
At the age of 5 or 6, João Machado had declared his ambition to die a martyr in faraway Japan. Faraway indeed: João was born on the mid-Atlantic island of Terceira, 1,000 miles west of Portugal. Sent to Madrid on family business at the age of 16, he was ineluctably drawn to the Jesuit college at Coimbra, Portugal, where he crucified his worldly ambitions in two years’ novitiate. He embarked for study in India in 1601, reaching Nagasaki eight years later as a Jesuit priest.
Father Pedro, a Castilian from Cuerva, near Toledo, was superior of the Franciscan convent in Nagasaki until his imprisonment at Kori in Omura. Father Machado entered that prison on 29 April, tailed by a loyal Japanese seminarian, Leo Tanaka, who begged the guards to let him join the two priests. His wish would be granted the next day.
Their prison was dank and cramped, “no more than 18 palms square, or less,” with a dirt floor and no protection against inclement weather, the walls mere wooden bars with narrow spaces in between. Father Machado experienced agonies “like death itself,” but felt a God-given serenity — perhaps because, after 15 days, they were allowed to set up an altar and celebrate Mass in their tiny, rank cell. When Damian, a Catholic guard, was on duty, penitents could slip in for confession, while others brought children to be baptized.
This ministry ended on the Monday after the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, when the two priests were informed that this was their last day on earth. But the Holy Spirit had already told Father Pedro that morning that he was saying his last Mass, and Father Machado had sensed the same thing. They fasted, confessed to one another, and scourged themselves while praying and singing Psalms before writing farewell letters to fellow missionaries.
Four samurai led them out to the execution ground. One of these, Lino Tomonaga, had apostatized under orders but would later die a martyr. Damian came too, bearing mats for the priests to kneel on, or perhaps to receive their heads. Despite the dangers of flaunting their faith in sight of the shogun’s spies, Christians came in droves to witness the spectacle, and the martyrs strengthened them, singing psalms enroute to their death.
Finally, they fell to their knees and bent their heads. On the first slash of the sword, Father Pedro baptized the soil with his blood, but Father Machado’s neck proved more stubborn — at the first cut he fell forward, but then rose to his knees to twice proclaim the Name of Jesus. Only on the third slash did he join his brother in Eternity. Their bodies, in two caskets, would lie in a cave closed up with stone and lime.
Though not for long. Twenty miles west of Omura lay Nagasaki, the heart of Christendom in Japan. There the news of Lord Omura’s treachery and the two priests’ victory had fired up the populace.
Ensconced among them was Father Alonso de Navarrete, superior of six Dominican friars in Nagasaki. He resolved to go to Omura, long a Catholic stronghold, “to confess and encourage those Christians.” He recruited a friend to accompany him: Father Hernando de San José, the sole Augustinian in Japan. They set out on the Feast of Corpus Christi, first spending two or three days on the outskirts of Nagasaki, where they built “a tent of branches” and strengthened their disheartened flock with the sacraments they were starving for.
Moving on to Nagayo, the two heroic priests donned the habits of their religious orders — since the 1614 Expulsion Edict, they had gone in disguise — and shaved their heads in the monastic tonsure. From here the shoreline of Lord Omura’s castle grounds was visible across an inlet in Omura Bay. Among the penitents come to confess their sins was the very governor who had lured Father Pedro to his capture — he had expected only exile for the friar, not a death sentence, and now he felt the sting of contrition.
The flood of penitents into Nagayo was such that Lord Omura felt compelled to arrest the priests and put them to death, for the shogun’s spies were everywhere. At nightfall a three-boat flotilla full of soldiers arrived, greeted with thanksgiving and gifts from their intended captives — plus a letter for Lord Omura urging him to repent of the evils he was committing and save his soul. The gathered crowd, meanwhile, after long hours of one-by-one confessions, had been awaiting a midnight Mass, hungry for the Holy Communion that had so long been denied them. Now, seeing their pastors being taken to their deaths, they mobbed them, frantic with grief, trying to grab the merest thread for a relic or plunging into the water to stop the boats. Lord Omura’s men, wielding clubs and torches, could barely hold off the desperate Christians raking their ears with sobs and screams of protest.
They took the two to an islet near Lord Omura’s castle with guards stationed to keep the faithful away, but, as Lino Tomonaga told his lord, it could do no good, since these Christians feared neither death nor exile. Among those flocking to the islet were Lord Omura’s aunt and grandmother, both fervent Catholics. In the dark of night he had his prisoners spirited away to another, more distant islet; meanwhile, Father Machado’s and Father Pedro’s bodies were disinterred, upon which many saw lights, perhaps signs, in the night sky.
Finally, on the Octave of Corpus Christi of 1617, Father Alonso and Father Hernando found themselves on their knees on yet another islet, awaiting the edge of the sword along with Leo Tanaka, the late Father Machado’s right-hand man.
Father Hernando asked his executioner to let him touch the blade that would send him home. He kissed it and prophesied that his blood would be both a testament to the truth of Christ and a letter inviting ever more preachers to Japan. One slash took off his head. Next, Father Alonso bowed his head for the sword. It bit into his neck up to the ears and he fell, turning his gaze heavenward, but remained earthbound until the third slash. Leo Tanaka suffered two cuts of the sword.
Their flesh, weighted down with stones, would be buried at sea in holy union: Father Alonso in Father Machado’s coffin, a Preacher with a Jesuit; and Father Hernando in Father Pedro’s, Augustinian with Franciscan. Leo, Jesuit seminarian, would be buried atop them in a fisherman’s net. Thus, four religious orders united in mission, in death and in Eternity, all fearless fishers of men.
Luke O’Hara became a Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan’s martyrs can be found at his website, kirishtan.com.