Blessed Pedro de Zúñiga, Thomas of St Augustine, priests, and companions, martyrs
The first Augustinian missionaries reached Japan in 1602, the first Augustinian Recollects in 1623. Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans were also active there. Most made their way there via the Philippine Islands, a Spanish possession that these Orders were already converting into the only Catholic country of the Far East. Japan was a vast and mysterious field of mission.
The Orders, in the spirit of St Francis Xavier, saw it as a great challenge to their faith and apostolic zeal. At first there was a period of success, especially in the latter part of the sixteenth century. There were many converts, churches were built, the Orders received their first Japanese novices and introduced their traditional devotions, receiving committed lay people into their confraternities and Third Orders. Soon there was a sizeable and deeply committed native Christian community, estimated at something like half a million in a population of some twenty million.
Suddenly persecution came and the great hopes vanished. Martyrdoms began, often in the most horrific ways. The executioners were skilled in their sadistic arts and the authorities had a clear purpose in mind. This was simply the total extermination of the Christians, their missionaries, their converts and their faith from the Japanese empire. They saw them as an alien influence, different from the traditional Buddhist majority, in contact with the outside world, looking towards a new and different future for the ancient empire.
A group of Augustinian martyrs of this era was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1867. They include Spaniard Fernando Ayala (Ferdinand of St Joseph) and his catechist Andrew Yoshida, martyred in 1617; Peter Zuniga in 1622; in 1630 Brother John Shozabuco and five other Japanese aspirants and tertiaries were beheaded; in 1632 a Mexican, Bartholomew Gutierrez and the Recollects Vincent of St Anthony and Francis of Jesus were horribly tortured before being burned alive. In 1637 the first Japanese priest Thomas Jihyoe of St Augustine was martyred; he was beatified in Nagasaki in 2008.
A considerable number of Japanese lay men and women whose faith was the fruit of the missionaries’ labours also gave their lives in the persecution. In a letter to his superiors in the Philippines Francis of Jesus talks of more than 300 martyrs among the Religious, tertiaries and members of the confraternity of Our Lady of Consolation. Best known among them is St Magdalen of Nagasaki, a young catechist and Recollect tertiary who died a most cruel death at Nagasaki in October 1634 and who was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1987.
In 1989 Pope John Paul II beatified a further two Recollect priests, Martin of St Nicholas and Melchior of St Augustine who were burnt to death at Nagasaki on 11th December 1632. These beatified martyrs, natives of four different countries, represent both the international character of the Augustinian family and its missionary zeal and courage in the face of the most appalling persecution. On the day the details of their eminent execution were communicated to six of these martyrs in their prison in Omura Fr Vincent prepared a letter which was signed by all before being given to some Portugese merchant friends and later conveyed to their superiors in the Philippines: «Praised be the most holy Sacrament. To the honour and glory of God I testify that on this day, Thursday, September 2nd, the tyrant’s messenger came to this prison to say that the place of our martyrdom is ready, and that the sentence condemning us to be burnt alive will be put into effect there tomorrow or the next day. But he notified us that we would be set free and rewarded the moment we apostatized. All of us replied with one voice that we would give back to God the life we possessed as soon as they wished to deprive us of it, and that we were ready and glad to sacrifice it for love, for God’s law and for his gospel».
Though the persecution in Japan in the first part of the 17th century was relatively short it has been rightly said that it was an episode in the Church’s history that for the barbarity of the persecutors and the heroism of its many martyrs can be compared only with the worst periods of persecution under the Roman Empire. Some of these martyrs, like Martin and Melchior, were slowly burned to death using green wood and wet straw while they were loosely tied to a stake by a finger tempting them to the last moment to abandon their faith and its terrifying price.
Others, like Francis and Vincent and Bartholomew Gutierrez, were first tortured by having the notorious sulphurous waters at Unzen poured over them till the flesh was eaten from their backs. Some were forced to swallow large quantities of water and then either hanged upside down or jumped upon until the water was forced out of mouth, nose and other organs. Some had needles or bamboo splinters inserted under their fingernails before being forced to claw the walls or the ground in their prisons. Some, like Magdalen, died under the particularly horrific torture of gallows and pit, hanging upside down over a half-sealed pit for long periods until death from suffocation brought a kind of merciful release. Others were crucified or beheaded. Most of the Christians lived in or around Nagasaki and many died there on what was known as the «Hill of the Martyrs». Despite the remarkable courage of missionaries and people the persecution soon destroyed the bright hopes of a Christian future in Japan.
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