November the Eleventh marks the martyrdom of Saint Marina of Ōmura, canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 18, 1987. I first learned of her story on seeing her statue in the courtyard of the Kako-machi Catholic Church in Ōmura, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan—a lady in black-and-white Dominican habit clutching a crucifix to her breast and standing atop a crown of flames that would send her straight to Heaven, her face aglow with faith and hope and love—and superhuman strength.
In 1626, entering the Dominican Order as a Tertiary, or lay Dominican, she had dedicated her life and her virginity to Christ: a vow which was anathema to the Shōgun up in Edo (modern-day Tokyo): Iemitsu, a sin-enslaved sadist who, heavily guarded, would prowl the streets of his capital at night in disguise, looking for innocent victims to test the sharpness of his sword on. Of all his imagined enemies he feared Christ the most.
Marina lived in Ōmura, a very long way from the capital but not far from the port-town of Nagasaki, the Christian capital of Japan. Ōmura itself had been a Christian stronghold in former times. Indeed, Ōmura Sumitada, lord of Ōmura three generations past, had been Japan’s first-baptized Christian domainal lord, and had had his own daughter baptized as ‘Marina’. Alas, since those days, a profusion of anti-Christian tyrants had put an end to the freedom of conscience that some parts of Japan had once known: in Saint Marina’s day, to profess Christ was death throughout Japan.
Her supposed crimes were legion: she had manifested charity selflessly, giving refuge in her home to hunted priests and persecuted Christians at risk of her life. Thank God that Saint Marina—like so many Holy Martyrs before her—despised the pains of death, for in her eyes these were but the merest footsteps in her steady climb to Heaven to meet her one true Spouse and Lord. Once arrested, she was stripped naked and paraded through the whole domain of Ōmura to shame her, yet she marched with perfect modesty: as a virgin self-promised to Christ, she remained untainted. She was transferred to Nagasaki and immolated by ‘slow fire’ on Nishi-zaka, the holy execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay—the sacred soil that had held the crosses of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan back in February of 1597. Many holy souls had followed their path to Heaven since that icy winter day thirty-seven years before; Marina of Ōmura would stand tall among them as a paragon of indomitable faith.
‘Slow fire’ meant that the firewood prepared for her execution had been covered with saltwater-wetted straw, leafy green branches and soil to produce noxious, stinging smoke; it was also placed at a distance from the stake to which she was bound in order to prolong her miseries by slow roasting, thus delaying merciful death. Marina, however, did not amuse her torturers with displays of agony; instead she prayed for her persecutors and her fellow persecuted Christians: thus is she remembered in Ōmura and beyond as a Christian heroine of remarkable strength.
Superhuman, supernatural strength, modesty, and courage, as befits a faithful spouse of Christ.
Saint Marina of Ōmura, pray for us.
Copyright © 2015 by Luke O’Hara
Witnesses of the Faith in the Orient, Ed. Ceferino Puebla Pedrosa, O.P., Trans. Sister Maria Maez, O.P. 2nd. Ed. (Hong Kong: Provincial Secretariat of Missions, Dominican Province of Our Lady of the Rosary, 2006) 78-79.
Boxer, Charles Ralph, The Christian Century in Japan 1549-1650 (Lisbon: Carcanet, 1993) 363-364.
On “slow fire”: P. Ángel Peña, O.A.R., Santa Magdalena de Nagasaki (Lima: Agustinos Recoletos, Provincia del Perú, no date) 39-40.