Japan, first evangelized for Christ in the 16th century, produced Christians relatively few in number but strong in faith. This heroic faith of the early converts and their descendants was especially demonstrated during the years 1617-1632, when the Japanese shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa aimed every effort at abolishing Christianity. His war on the Church reached a peak in 1622, when the “great martyrdom” took place. Pope Pius IX, in 1867, beatified 205 of its victims.
A large group of the martyrs were Franciscan priests and members of the Franciscan Third Order. The leading figure here was Friar Apollinaris Franco, a Spaniard who headed the Japanese Franciscan mission. He was first imprisoned at Nagasaki for years, along with other Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits, and a large number of native Christians. They knew that they would eventually be burned to death or beheaded, as 300 Japanese Christians had already been; but they realized that their foul prison and rice-and-water diet were only preparatory torments.
In 1622 the prisoners at Nagasaki were joined by another contingent of prisoners from Omura. The latter group included two Jesuits of note. Father Charles Spinola, an Italian, was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. Father Sebastian Kimura was a descendant of a Japanese baptized by St. Francis Xavier, the pioneer missioner to Japan.
The executions took place outside Nagasaki. Some of the Catholics were decapitated, others killed by fire. The priests were treated with special cruelty. Tied to stakes between fires, they died either of burning or of smoke-inhalation.
Layfolk, however, made up the greatest percentage of those executed. An English skipper, Richard Cocks, saw 55 die at one time. “Among them little children five or six years old burned in their mothers’ arms, crying out, ‘Jesus, receive our souls!’.” Lucy de Freitas, the 80-year-old Japanese widow of a Portuguese, who had become a Franciscan tertiary and spent years in charitable work, was executed because she had given shelter to a priest. Isabel Fernandez, a Spanish widow, also arrested for sheltering a priest, was beheaded in the presence of her four-year-old son Ignatius. She had brought him with her, she said, so that he could “die for Christ before he is old enough to sin against Him,” The boy soberly watched her die and then loosed his own collar for the executioner. Two young Japanese begged for mercy, not for life but for an easier end. It was denied to them, and they were killed with the rest. As Richard Cocks testified, “Many more are in prison who look hourly when they shall die, for very few turn pagan.”
We who live in a free country sometimes become slack in our faith, and for want of challenge to this “pearl of great price” even give it up when faced by sudden trials. That is why it is important for us to recall every now and then these who (as we ourselves should) put so high a value on Catholic Christianity as to die a thousand deaths rather than forsake it.
–Father Robert F. McNamara