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December 2007

Dazzled by that fantastical "New Springtime" of postconciliar imaginings, Pope John Paul II was tragically blind to the Modernist persecutors within the Church, refusing to act against episcopal wickedness of the sort detailed in the preceding article. And yet, ironically, he spoke with authority about martyrdom. Having suffered both ends of the Socialist spectrum - the formal materialism of Nazism and Communism - he returned to this theme repeatedly throughout his reign. He clearly saw that, true to their marxist roots, the Social Democracies of the consumerist West were rapidly developing their own materialistic dogmas, to be secured by legalistic persecutions which would brook no Catholic dissent. To prepare for the coming secular onslaught, therefore, he was at pains to remind his affluent Western flock that persecution and martyrdom is the normal lot of Christians; and that we should take heart and inspiration from our Catholic forebears in every age who knew how to embrace suffering and death joyfully for Christ. To that end, let us consider the much neglected Japanese persecution of the late 16th and 17th Century, one which rivalled in fury that of ancient Rome. Despite the heroic witness of many martyrs the once flourishing Catholic mission in Japan was almost wiped out. Almost but not quite. This fascinating summary, reprinted in Christ to the World, was taken from The Jesuits 1534-1921, Volume 1, Encyclopedia Press, New York, 1921.


The Japanese Persecution


[By 1589 there were] 300,000 Christians in Japan - among them kings and princes, and the three principal ministers of the empire. But it happened that, in the year 1589 two Christian women had refused to become inmates of [the Shogun] Taicosama's harem, and that turned him into a terrible persecutor. Ucondono [the Christian commander of the imperial armies] was deprived of his office and sent into exile; Father Coelho, [the Jesuit Provincial] was forbidden to preach in public, and the other Jesuits were to withdraw from the country within twenty days, while every convert was ordered to abjure Christianity. The two hundred and forty churches were to be burned. The recreant son of the famous old king of Bungo gave the first notable example of apostasy, but, as often happens in such circumstances, the persecution itself won thousands of converts who, up to that, had hesitated about renouncing their idols.

At this juncture, Father Valignani appeared as ambassador of the Viceroy of the Indies, and in that capacity was received with royal magnificence by Taicosama. But the bonzes, who had now regained their influence over the emperor, assured him that the embassy was only a device to evade the law, and, hence, though he accepted the presence, he did not relent in his opposition; yet in his futile expedition against China two Jesuits accompanied the troops.

Slow progress

Blood was first shed in the kingdom of Hirando. Fathers Carrioni and Martel were poisoned and Carvalho and Furnaletto, who took their places, met the same fate. A fifth, whose name is lost, was killed in a similar fashion.

Unfortunately, the Spanish merchants in the Philippines just at that time induced the Franciscan missionaries of those islands to go over to Japan, for the rumour had got abroad that the Jesuits in Japan had been wholly exterminated, although there were still, in reality, twenty-six of them in the country. It is true they were not in evidence as formerly, for with the exception of the two army chaplains, they were exercising their ministry secretly. Of that, however, the Spaniards were not aware and probably spoke in good faith.

The Franciscans, on arriving, discovered that they had been duped into believing that the persecution was prompted by dislike of the Jesuits' personality, some of whom no doubt they met. Nevertheless, they determined to remain, and Taicosama permitted them to do so, because of the letters they carried from the Governor of the Philippines, who expressed a desire of becoming Taicosama's vassal.

Meantime, a Spanish captain whose vessel had been wrecked on the coast had foolishly said that the sending of missionaries to Japan was only a device to prepare for a Portuguese and Spanish invasion. Possibly he spoke in jest, but his words were reported to Taicosama, with the result that on February 5, 1597, six Franciscans and three Jesuits were hanging on crosses at Nagasaki. The Jesuits were Paul Miki, James Kisai, and John de Goto, all three Japanese. On the same day a general decree of banishment was issued.

Just then Valignani, who had withdrawn, returned to Japan with nine more Jesuits and the coadjutor of the first bishop of Japan - the bishop having died on the way out. Valignani, who was personally very acceptable to Taicosama, was cordially received and the storm ceased momentarily; but unfortunately, Taicosama died a year afterwards and, strange to say, two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Organtini, who had won his affection, were with him when he breathed his last, but they failed to make an impression on his mind or heart.

He left a son, and Daifusama became regent or Shogun. Fortunately, Valignani had some success in convincing him that to establish himself firmly on his throne it would be wise to extend his protection to his Christian subjects. Moreover, the King of Hirando, though at first bent on continuing the persecution, was constrained by the threatening attitude of his Christian subjects, who were very numerous and very powerful in his kingdom, to desist from his purpose, at least for a while.

Probably he was assisted in this resolution by the fact that in the first year after the outburst, namely in 1559, seventy thousand more Japanese had asked for baptism. In 1603 there were 10,000 conversions in the single principality of Fingo.

Father Organtini succeeded in getting quite close to Daifusama who, to strengthen himself politically, allowed the churches to be rebuilt in the empire and even in Kyoto. Unfortunately, however, in 1605 he heard that Spain was sending out a number of war vessels to subjugate the Moluccas, and fancying that its objective was really Japan, he gave orders to the Governor of Nagasaki to allow no Spanish ships to enter the harbour. To make matters worse, it happened that Valignani, who exercised an extraordinary influence on Daifusama, was not at hand to disabuse him of his error. He was then dying, and expired the next year at the age of sixty-nine.

For the moment Daifusama was so much affected by the loss of his friend that he forgot his suspicions and gave full liberty to the missionaries to exercise their ministry everywhere. In fact, he summoned to his palace the famous Charles Spinola, who appears now for the first time in the country for which he was soon to shed his blood. The imperial summons was eagerly obeyed by Spinola and the bishop, for such progress had already been made in the formation of a native clergy that five parishes which they had established in Nagasaki were at that time in the hands of Japanese priests, and an academy had been begun in which, besides theology, elementary physics and astronomy were taught. Organtini, who had laboured in Japan for forty-nine years, had even built a foundling asylum, to continue the work which Almeida had inaugurated elsewhere. A hospital for lepers had also been started.

Hostility renewed

Nothing happened for the moment, but though outwardly favouring the missionaries, Daifusama was in his heart worried about this amazingly rapid expansion of Christianity, and when in 1612 two merchants, one from Holland and one from England, which were plotting to oust the Spanish and Portuguese from the control of the commerce of Japan, aroused his old suspicions by assuring him that the priests were in reality only the forerunners of invading armies, the old hostility flamed out anew.

The opportunity to work on Daifusama's fears presented itself in a curious way. A Spanish ship had been sent from Mexico by the viceroy to see what could be done to establish trade relations with Japan, and on coming into port it was seen to be taking the usual soundings - a mysterious proceeding in the eyes of the Japanese. The fact was reported to Daifusama, who asked an English sea-captain what it meant. "Why," was the reply, "in Europe that is considered a hostile act. The captain is charting the harbour so as to allow a fleet to enter and invade Japan. These Jesuits are well known to be Spanish priests who have been hunted out of every nation in Europe as plotters and spies, and the religion they teach is only a cloak to conceal their ulterior designs."

Whether Daifusama believed this or not is hard to say, but greater men than this rude barbarian have been deceived by more ridiculous falsehoods. There was no delay. Fourteen of the most distinguished families of the empire were banished, and others awaited a like proscription. Then the persecution became general; the churches were destroyed and all the missionaries were ordered out of the empire. Daifusama died in 1616, but his son and successor outdid him in ferocity though there was a short lull on account of internal political troubles.

It was during this period that thirty-three Jesuit slipped back into the country under various disguises. Their purpose was to work secretly, so that the government would not remark their presence. Unfortunately, twenty-four Franciscans, deceived by a rumour that a commercial treaty had been made with Spain and under the impression that the root of the trouble was personal dislike for Jesuits, landed at Nagasaki at the end of the year 1616, and insisted on going out in the open and proclaiming the Gospel publicly. They reckoned without their host.

A decree was issued making it a capital offense to harbour missionaries of any garb. Not only that, but it was officially announced that death would be inflicted on the occupants of the ten houses nearest the one where a missionary was discovered. The Jesuits took to the mountains and marshes to save their people, but the Franciscans defied the edict.

The result was that immediate orders were issued to take every priest that could be found. Nagasaki was first ransacked. The Jesuits had all vanished except Machado; he and a Franciscan were captured, and on May 21, 1617, were decapitated. In spite of this warning, however, a Dominican and an Augustinian publicly celebrated Mass, under the very eyes of Sancho, an apostate prince who was an agent of the Shogun. The result was immediate death for both. The same useless bravado was repeated elsewhere.

Different tactics, as we have said, were adopted by the Jesuits. Thus, de Angelis covered the mountains of Voxuan; Navarro and Porro lived in a cave in Burrgo, and crept out when they could, to visit their scattered flocks. There was a group also on the rich island of Nippon - among them Torres, Barretto, Fernandes and a Japanese named Yukui. From this place of concealment they spread out in all directions, usually disguised as native peddlers; all of them, even in those terrible surroundings, winning many converts to the Faith.

Extraordinary fervour

A phenomenon not unusual in the Church, but carried to extraordinary lengths in this instance, now presented itself. Instead of striking terror into the hearts of the Christians, the very opposite result ensued.

A widespread eagerness, a special devotion for martyrdom, as it were, manifested itself. Crowds gathered in every city to accompany the victims to the place of execution; the women and children put on their richest attire; songs of joy were sung and prayers aflame with enthusiasm were recited by the spectators, who kept reminding the sufferers that the scaffold was the stairway to heaven. At Kyoto there was no trouble in filling out the lists of those who were to be executed. People came of themselves to give their names. Those who did not were rated as idolaters. The number ran up to several thousands and the emperor was so alarmed that he cut them down to 1700.

There were fifteen Jesuits in the city. Six of them were banished, but the other nine went from place to place, keeping up the courage of their flocks. Gomes and the bishop had died in the midst of these horrors; and the duties of both devolved on Carvalho.

Unfortunately, at this juncture, a paper was found signed in blood by a number of Christians pledging themselves to fight to death against the banishment of the missionaries. That was enough for the Shogun. The Jesuits, to the number of one hundred and seventeen, with twenty-seven members of other religious orders, Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans, were dragged down to Nagasaki and shipped to Macao and the Philippines. With them was Ucondono, the erstwhile commander of the forces of Taicosama. On the vessels. also were several families of distinguished people. Some died on the journey; and others, Ucondono among the number, gave up the ghost shortly after arriving at the Philippines.

Twenty-six Jesuits and some other religious succeeded in remaining in Japan. As the provincial, Carvalho, was among the exiles, he named Rodrigues as his successor, and appointed Charles Spinola to look after Nagasaki and the surrounding territory.

The work had now become particularly difficult. Thus, one of these concealed apostles tells how most of his labour had to be performed at night. Often he found himself groping along unknown roads through forests and on the edges of precipices, over which he not infrequently rolled to the bottom of the abyss. Another says: "I am hiding in a hut, and a little rice is handed in to me from time to time. The place is so wet that I have got sciatica, and cannot stand or sit; most of my work is done at night, visiting my flock, while my protectors are asleep." So it was for all the rest.

Catholic witness

The Protestant historian Kampfer is often quoted in this matter. In his History of Japan he says:

"The persecution was the worst in all history, but did not produce the effect that the government expected. For, although, according to the Jesuit accounts, 20,570 people suffered death for the Christian religion in 1590, yet in the following years, when all the churches were closed, there were 12,000 proselytes. Japanese writers do not deny that Hideyori, Taicosama's son and intended successor, was suspected of being a Catholic, and that the greater part of the court officials and officers of the army professed that religion. The joy that made the new converts suffer the most unimaginable tortures excited the public curiosity to such an extent that many wanted to know the religion that produced such happiness in the agonies of death; and when told about it, they also enthusiastically professed it."

Spinola, who was seized at Nagasaki, was called upon to explain why he had remained in Japan, in spite of the edict. He replied: "There is a Ruler above all kings and His word must be obeyed." The answer settled his fate, and he and two Dominicans were condemned to a frightful imprisonment. It is recorded that as the three victims approached the jail, they intoned the Te Deum, and that the refrain was taken up by a Dominican and a Franciscan who had already passed a year in that horrible dungeon. When the martyrs met inside the walls they kissed each other affectionately and fell on their knees to thank God.

Leonard Kimura, a Japanese, was arrested at Nagasaki on suspicion of having concealed the son of the Shogun, and also of having killed a man while defending the prince. He was acquitted, but when withdrawing he was asked if he could give the court information about any Jesuit who might be hiding in the vicinity.

"Yes, I know one," he said, "I am a Jesuit." After three years in a dungeon he was burned at the stake.

In 1619 the Jesuits, Spinola and Fernandes, with fourteen others, Dominicans and Franciscans, were brought out of prison and kept in a pen with no protection from cold or heat and so narrow that it was impossible to assume any but a crouching posture. It was hoped that by exposing them publicly, emaciated, hungry, filthy, and diseased, that the heroic element which the executions seemed to develop in the victims would be eliminated, and their converts alienated from the Faith.

The contrary happened, and from that enclosure Spinola not only preached to the people, but actually admitted novices to the Society. As he stood at the stake where he was to be burned, a little boy whom he had baptized was put in his arms; Spinola blessed him, and the child and his mother were executed at the same time as their father in God.

Diabolical cruelty

Five Jesuits died in 1619; and in 1620 six others came from Macao to replace them. Next year brought down an edict on all shipmasters, forbidding them to land such undesirable immigrants as missionaries. Nevertheless, two months after the edict was published, Borges, Costanza, de Suza, Carvalho and Tzugi, a Japanese, appeared in the disguise of merchants and soldiers. The Dutch and English traders volunteered after that to search all incoming vessels, and report the suspicious passengers. An attempt at a prison delivery precipitated the condemnation of Spinola and his companions in the pens. They were burned alive on September 10, 1622; on the 19th of the same month three more met the same fate, and in November two others went to heaven through the flames.

In 1623 de Angelis and Simon Jempo, with a number of their followers, were burned to death, after having their feet cut off. Carvalho and Buzomo were caught in a forest in mid-winter, and on February 21, 1624, were plunged naked into a pond and left there to freeze for the space of three hours. Four days afterwards the experiment was repeated for six consecutive hours. But the night was so cold that they were both found dead in the morning, wrapped in a shroud of ice. Another Carvalho perished in the same year.

Petitions were sent from the Philippines and elsewhere, imploring a cessation of these horrors, but the appeals made the Shogun more cruel. As the persecutions had produced only a few apostacies, the executioners were told to scourge the victims down to the bone, to tear out their nails, to drive rods into their flesh or ears or nose, to fling them into pits filled with venomous snakes, to cut them up piece by piece, to roast them on gridirons, to put red-hot vessels in their hands, and, what was the most diabolical of all, to consider the slightest movement or cry a sign of apostasy.

Another favourite punishment was to hang the sufferer head down over a pit from which sulphurous or other fumes were rising, or to stretch them on their backs and by means of a funnel fill them full of water till the stomach almost burst, and then by jumping on the body to force the fluid out again.

It is unnecessary here to enter into all the details of these martyrdoms; but it will be enough to state that in a very few years, twenty-eight native Japanese Jesuits, besides multitudes of people who were living in the world, men, women and children, gave up their lives for the Faith, side by side with those who had come from other parts of the world to teach them how to die.

In 1634, only a handful of Jesuits remained. Chief among them was Vieira. He had been sent to report conditions to Urban VIII, and in 1632, he returned to die. He re-entered Japan as a Chinese sailor, and for nearly two years hurried all over the blood-stained territory, facing death at every step, until finally he and five other Jesuits stood before the tribunal and were told to apostatize or die.

Vieira, the spokesman, said: "I am 63 years old, and all my life I have received innumerable favours from Almighty God; from the emperor - nothing, and I am not going now to bow down to idols of sticks and stones to obey mortal man like myself. So say the others." They were put to death.

Fall and redemption

In that year, however, it is painful and humiliating to be obliged to say there was a Jesuit who apostatized: Father Ferara. It was the only scandal during those terrible trials. He had been provincial, at one time, but when the test came, he fell, and the glorious young Church was filled with horror at seing a man who had once taught them the way to heaven now throwing away his soul.

The shame was too much for the Society, and it resolved to wipe it out. Marcellus Mastrilli, a Neapolitan, made the first attempt to atone for the crime. No one could enter Nagasaki without trampling on the cross - a device suggested by the Dutch and English merchants. However, Mastrilli made up his mind to enter without committing the sacrilege. He succeeded, but was arrested and led through the streets of Nagasaki, with the proclamation on his back: "This madman has come to preach a foreign religion, in spite of the emperor's edict. Come and look at him. He is to die in the pit." For sixty hours he hung over the horrible opening through which the poisonous fumes continually poured. Finally he was drawn up and his head struck off. It was October 17, 1637, and Ferara was looking on. Three years afterwards a similar execution took place. There were four victims this time, and the apostate stood there again.

In 1643, the final attempt was made to win back the lost one. Father Rubini and four other Jesuits landed on a desolate coast. They were captured and dragged to Nagasaki. To their horror the judge seated at the tribunal was none other than Ferara. "Who are you, and what do you come here for?" he asked.

"We are Jesuits," they answered, "and we come to preach Jesus Christ, who died for us all."

"Abjure your faith," cried Ferara, "and you shall be rich and honoured."

"Tell that to cowards whom you want to dishonour," answered Rubini. "We trust that we shall have courage to die like Christians and like priests."

Ferara fled, and the missionaries died, but the shaft had struck home, though it took nine years for Divine grace to achieve its ultimate triumph.

The victory was won in 1652, when an old man of eighty was dragged before the judge at Nagasaki. "Who are you?" he was asked. "I am one," he replied, "who has sinned against the King of Heaven and earth. I betrayed Him out of fear of death. I am a Christian; I am a Jesuit." His youthful courage had returned, and for sixty hours he remained unmoved in the pit, in spite of the most excruciating torture. It was Ferara; and thus Christianity died in Japan in his blood and in that of 200,000 other martyrs. Eighty Jesuits had given their life for Christ in this battle. [ ... ]

Glorious remnant

The crushing out in blood of the marvellous Church which Xavier and his successors had created in that part of the world cannot be considered a failure - at least in the minds of Catholics who understand that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." Nor can such a conclusion be arrived at by any one who is aware of what occurred in the city of Nagasaki as late as the year 1865.

The ports of Japan had been opened to the commerce the world in 1859. But even then all attempts to penetrate into the interior had been hopelessly frustrated. On March 17, 1865 Father Petitjean, of the Foreign Missions, was praying, disconsolate and despondent, in a little chapel he had built in Nagasaki. No native had ever entered it. One morning he became aware of the presence of three women kneeling at his side. "Have you a Pope?" they asked.

"Yes," was the answer.

"Do you pray to the Blessed Virgin?"


"Are you married?"


"Do you take the discipline?"

To the last interrogatory he replied by holding up that instrument of penance.

"Then you are a Christian like ourselves."

To his amazement he found that in Nagasaki and its immediate surroundings, which had been the principal theatre of the terrible martyrdoms of former times, there were no less than 2,500 native Japanese Catholics. In a second place there was a settlement of at least a thousand families, and, later on, five other groups were found in various sections of the country; and it was certain that there was a great number of others in various localities. As many as 50,000 Christians were ultimately discovered.

Pius IX was so much moved by this wonderful event, that he made the 17th of March the great religious festival of the Church of Japan, and decreed that it was to be celebrated under the title of "The Finding of the Christians."

A Church that could preserve its spiritual life for over two hundred years in the midst of pagan hatred and pagan corruption, without any sacramental help but that of baptism, and without priests, without preaching, without the Holy Sacrifice, and could present itself to the world at the end of that long period of trial and privation with 50,000 Christians, the remnants of those other hundreds and hundreds of thousands who, through the centuries, had never faltered in their allegiance to Christ, was not a failure. 

* * *

"I have committed no crime, and the only reason why I am put to death is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause, and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord. At this critical time, when, you can rest assured that I will not deceive you, I want to stress and make unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves."

- Fr. Paul Miki, S.J., speaking on behalf of his companions before their crucifixion in Nagasaki on 5 February 1597.



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