“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them,
and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
“Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were
stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins
of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy
— wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And
all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”
Remembering the Persecuted Church
February 5, 1597
It is ten o’clock in the morning. The place, the highway to Tokitsu and Omura, next to the gate of Nagasaki. All around us the surging crowds, a swelling rumble of distant thunder, tense with uneasiness and expectation.
Mt. Mubonzan or Kompira as it is called today — towers over Nagasaki City, coming down to meet her in a descending pattern of undulating hills. Nishizaka, the lowest hill, resembled a galleon’s prow jutting into Nagasaki Bay.
Part of the hill was facing the city and Nagasaki Bay. The other part looked out on a murky place, a ravine scattered with human remains, which was a haunt for wild dogs and birds of prey. Common criminals were executed there.
It was in such a place that the martyrs’ crosses had been hoisted, but some influential Portuguese prevailed on Terazawa Hazaburo, the Governor’s brother, not to deal with the martyrs as common criminals and suggested the field of wheat on the other side of the road as a better place for execution. Ierazawa Hazaburo was happy to oblige.
Terazawa was already there waiting for the 26 condemned to die. It was a painful task to perform. One of the martyrs, Paul Miki, was a close friend of his and he had often listened to his sermons. These men were guilty of no crime, and Terazawa Hazaburo knew it. Therefore, although much afraid of Taikosama, he was nonetheless willing to make concessions on minor points. One of them was to allow two Jesuits, Fathers Pasio and Rodriguez, to minister to the martyrs.
It was half past ten when the long procession finally reached Nishizaka. First, there was an escort of soldiers pushing their way through the waiting crowds. After them, the martyrs, divided into three groups, each headed by Franciscans saying the rosary. They had been walking all the way from Urakami, their hands tightly bound, their feet leaving a trail of blood along the road.
They had had their left ears cut off a month ago, just before leaving Kyoto. It had been a long Way of the cross, renewed every morning, in the heart of winter. All along the way, the wind in the pine trees had been suggesting the old chant of the psalm: “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing.” They had been sowing the seed of the gospel all the way from Kyoto. Sowing it with their mouths, which could never be chained, with their meekness of heart when blessing their torturers, and with their songs of praise to God while struggling forward through the snow. A glance was enough to show that they were neither criminals nor traitors. The were only sowers.
The 26 crosses were already on the ground. They had been neatly sawn and tailored. Most of them were over two meters high, with two cross-pieces and a prop where the victim would sit astride. The martyrs knew that each had his own cross, because they had been made to measure. Father Ganzalo, the first to arrive, went straight to one of the crosses: “Is this mine?” It was not. Taken to another cross, he knelt down and embraced it. Then one after another did the same.
After the arrival of the last martyr, the escort joined the other guards, trying to keep the crowds at a distance. One by one the prisoners were fixed to the poles. No nails were used. Hands and feet and neck were kept in position with iron rings and a rope around the waist kept the victim tightly bound to the cross. For Father Peter Bautista, iron rings would not be enough. “Nail them down, brother,” he asked the executioner, stretching out his hands.
Fixing Paul Miki to the cross proved to be unexpectedly difficult. The Japanese Jesuit was too short and his feet would not reach the lower rings. Under the pressure of time, the executioner had to do without the rings, and strapped Miki’s chest to the cross with a piece of linen. When he stepped on the martyr to tighten up the knot, a missionary standing in the crowd could not help himself. “Let him do his job-the martyr said assuringly-it does not really hurt.”
“As these men came from the Philippines under the guise of ambassadors, and chose to stay in Miyako preaching the Christian law, which I have severely forbidden all these years, I come to decree that they be put to death, together with the Japanese that have accepted that law.”
Anthony of Nagasaki could see his parents in the front row. They could not control their tears, and the boy spoke a few words of encouragement to them. He then joined his fellow martyrs in a chorus of orchestrated prayer, where each had his part to play.
Farther Martin broke into thanksgiving with a vigorous Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Others sang the Te Deum, and the “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” echoed across the hill.
The children contributed their own refrain with the psalms learned at catechism: “Praise, O ye servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord. . . From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, the Lord’s name is to be praised.” Father Francis Blanco was leading the singing, which was an orchestrated oratorio in which prayer, hope, faith and anticipated triumph had been blended together. Time was running short for words, so that the heart had to take over.
Once the martyrs had been tied to the crosses, all twenty-six were lifted simultaneously. A sudden thump dropped them into the waiting holes, sending a shock of pain through the victims bodies.
Louis Ibaraki was only twelve years old. When somebody mentioned heaven to him, the child sought to get loose from the ropes, eager to fly into the open, a captive bird longing for freedom. His high-pitched soprano voice rose above the humming clamor of the crowd: “Paradise, paradise… Jesus!”
Paul Miki was still the same composed man he always was, in full control of himself, always alert to the smallest details. He straightened himself on the cross, looked at the crowds and said in a loud voice: “All of you who are here, please, listen to me.”
One could feel the weight of silence on the hill. The same manly, vigorous voice thundered again: “I did not come from the Philippines. I am a Japanese by birth, and a brother of the Society of Jesus. 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 try to deceive you, I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way.” Witnesses told of how some of the guards kept edging nearer to Paul’s cross, spellbound by his words.
One of the martyrs Brother Philip, could not sing. The sitting prop in his cross was too low, and the whole weight of his body hung from the ring around his neck, choking him to death. With the little strength he had left, Philip invoked three times the name of Jesus. Terazawa saw him dying. It was too late to fix the cross now, but he did not want to prolong the martyr’s agony. He gave an order and the two executioners put an end to the sufferings of the Mexican martyr. A final spasm on the cross, and twin jets of blood gushed out of the martyr’s chest. Philip’s death signaled the start for the executions. There were four men to carry them out, two for each end of the rows. Their lances had sword-like blades protected with sheaths. After taking positions, they removed the scabbards and stood at attention. A guttural yell, a sudden thrust, and the two spears crossed each other in the chest of the martyr. Sometimes the blades came through the body at the shoulders. The death was almost immediate. If the victim did not die, another thrust to the neck would give the coup de gras.
The Portuguese and the Japanese Christians attending the executions could not be kept in check any longer. Breaking through the guards, they pressed forward to the crosses. The guards kept on beating them, pulling them away. The blood of the wounded mixed with that of the martyrs. Order was finally established, and Terazawa positioned guards all around the hill, with strict orders not to allow anybody near the crosses. After completing his task, Terazawa withdrew from the hill. Many noticed that even the tough soldier was crying.
It was sunset already. The last rays of the sun left a golden halo on Mount Inasa and bent down to reach the martyrs’ crosses. There they stopped, smoothly caressing the broken bodies in a chiaroscuro that set them up in bold relief. They seemed to be testing if the martyrs were really dead, because they all looked asleep, like tired travelers resting after a long journey.
Not even one had missed his appointment with death. All twenty six were there, their arms stretched out in a brotherly embrace, their lips half open with the last joyful song, the last loving prayer they could finish.
“It is true, that whoever does go must put his life in His hands, and not consult with flesh and blood; but do not the goodness of the cause, the duties incumbent on us as creatures of God, and Christians, and the perishing state of our fellow men, loudly call upon us to venture all and use every warrantable exertion for their benefit?”–William Carey
What Is Our Response?
We must be diligent in praying for and encouraging our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering for our common faith in Jesus Christ.
Consider making the following commitments today:
Ways to pray: