Two Heroic Priests: Fray Pedro and Padre João

            Hidetada (1)
             In 1617 the Shogun Hidetada (above) found out that the daimyō of Ōmura, whose Christian name was Bartolomeo (like his heroic, departed grandfather), was conniving at the hiding of Catholic priests in his domain in Kyushu, the westernmost of  the four home islands of Japan.  The Shōgun’s sledgehammer came down on this daimyō’s head: he had to expel the priests from his domain at once.
            There were some who would rather give their lives for their flocks than be expelled; among these eternal lights were Fray Pedro de la Asunción of the Franciscan Order and Padre João Baptista Machado de Távora, S. J.  Both were beheaded on Kōri hill in the domain of Ōmura for the crime of clinging to the Truth:  for being faithful servants of the God who eternally commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
           João Baptista Machado de Távora was born at Angra do Heroísmo (Cove of Heroism) on the island of Terceira, separated westward from Lisbon by about a thousand miles of the Atlantic Ocean.  His father and mother were wealthy nobles, but his life-story proves that João was no spoiled aristocrat: at the age of ten, on hearing of the Catholic martyrdoms in contemporary Japan, the boy announced that he hoped to go there and become a holy martyr himself.
            At age 16, on 10 April 1597 (64 days after the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki), he entered the Jesuit Order at Coimbra, Portugal, where he would have begun his studies at the Jesuit university.  He sailed for India in 1601 and there, at Goa, studied philosophy; next, at Macao (off the south coast of China), he studied theology, and in 1609 headed for Japan, where he made astonishing progress in Japanese.
           His assigned apostolate was in the region of Kyōto, the Imperial Capital, but in 1614, when the Tokugawa Shōgunate promulgated its Christian Expulsion Edict, Padre João Machado escaped to the port city of Nagasaki, a longtime Catholic refuge on the west coast of the westernmost of Japan’s four main islands.  His assigned apostolate was the far-flung Gotoh Islands.  These islands had become havens for Catholic refugees fleeing the Shogunate’s increasingly-bloody persecution; Padre Machado is reputed to have performed awe-inspiring miracles of healing there.  In April of 1617, detoured from an intended voyage to the islands, he said Mass at Sonogi, a village on the north coast of Ōmura Bay, a few miles north of Ōmura Sumiyori’s castle-town.  This daimyō (feudal lord), christened Bartolomeo, had been born and raised a Catholic; his grandfather had been none other than Bartolomeo Ōmura Sumitada, the very first Japanese daimyō to receive baptism, and a dauntless champion of the Faith unto his dying breath.  Sumitada’s faithless son Yoshiaki, however, apostatized, and his son, the great Bartolomeo’s namesake, became a persecutor of the Church under pressure from the Shōgun.   His soldiers arrested Padre João Machado at Sonogi immediately after he had celebrated Mass; as all were practicing Catholics, every one of them was ashamed, and explained to the Padre that it was only for fear of their lives and those of their families that they were obeying their faithless feudal lord’s orders.
             Thanks to contrary winds, the soldiers’ boat had to wait at Sonogi; thus, for a blessed space of days, Padre Machado celebrated daily Mass for both his flock at Sonogi and his captors.  No doubt word got out and the faithful came from far and wide to confess their sins and receive the Bread of Life. On 29 April, though, a fair wind having come, that boat with its life-giving cargo sailed for the faithless daimyō’s castle-town; en route, the Padre heard the contrite soldiers’ confessions.  From the dock at Ōmura, Padre Machado was led to the daimyō’s prison at Kōri in a torchlight procession, like Jesus being marched out of Gethsemane.

626px-Hidetada2

Tokugawa Hidetada in all his Finery

             When Padre João Machado walked into the prison, he was met by the Franciscan Friar Pedro de la Asunción, in prison since 8 April. Fray Pedro—born in Cuerba, near Toledo, Spain—had been caught via a stratagem employed by the sheriff of Nagayo (a town in Ōmura-dono’s domain about 9 miles NE of the port of Nagasaki), who, feigning a desire to confess his sins, had lured Fray Pedro into a trap.
            Fray Pedro had arrived in Japan in 1608 and had for some years been Father Superior of the Franciscan monastery in Nagasaki.  Despite recent animosity between their two religious orders, however, this Franciscan Friar knelt to kiss the Jesuit Padre’s feet when he saw him walk through the prison door; Padre Machado would not allow this obeisance from his brother in Christ.
            Ōmura-dono reported to the Shogunate that he had captured the two priests and then sat back to await the Shōgun’s orders; in the meantime, the imprisoned priests were celebrating daily Mass, hearing their fellow-prisoners’ confessions, and restoring korobi-kirish’tan (former Catholics who had been tortured or otherwise cowed into apostasy) to their proper home, Holy Mother Church.  On 21 May, the Shōgun Hidetada’s answer came:  kill the priests.  Since Pentecost they had been celebrating daily Mass together; that morning, during Mass, Fray Pedro said to Padre João, “We will not be celebrating many more Masses.”  The next morning he told him with certainty, “This will be our last Mass.”  Padre João agreed.
            A few hours later, Lino Tomonaga, Ōmura-dono’s apostate sheriff, came to visit the priests, talked with Padre João at length, never mentioning the death-sentence, and left; but he turned right around, came back in, and made his grave announcement.  Padre João Machado replied, “The three happiest days of my life have been: the day I entered school at Coimbra, the day I was arrested, and the day I received my death-sentence:  these three.”  The two priests burst into song: the Te Deum (Thee, O God, we Praise).  Offered a last meal, they refused.  Instead, they scourged themselves, confessed their sins to one another, and prayed.
            On their long march to Kōri Hill, Fray Pedro carried a crucifix with his scourge and the Franciscan Rule hanging from it; Padre João carried a bronze crucifix and his breviary.  All the way, they preached without ceasing.  When they arrived at the execution-ground, a Kirish’tan soldier baptized as Damian presented the holy martyrs with two cushions to kneel on.  Fray Pedro de la Asunción, the Franciscan, thanked him and said, “Now may dust return to dust.”
            The two priests knelt beside one another, a few feet apart.  First Fray Pedro’s head fell in one slash of the sword.  The Jesuit, Padre João Machado, had a more prolonged ordeal, however:  he had to endure three slashes of the sword before he could meet his God.  Perhaps the swordsman had been wrestling with his conscience as he struggled to obey his earthly lord’s orders; afterwards, he would perhaps have taken some mystical consolation from seeing the two priests’ blood flows joining together into one pool:  a visual sign of their blood-brotherhood in Holy Martyrdom.
            It was 22 May, Anno Domini 1617:  the start of a great outpouring of Christian Martyrs’ blood, a baptism of the very soil itself.   This heavenly rain, this testimony in blood to the truth of the Faith, to the Living Word who is Himself Truth, would seed a bountiful crop of steely faith throughout Japan, faith that would endure centuries of persecution to outlive the Shōguns and all their puny, merely-earthly power.