June 1, 1617: Friars Alfonso Navarrete, Hernando de San José, and Faithful Layman Leo Tanaka

It was the first of June, Octave of Corpus Christi, in the Year of Our Lord 1617. On the virgin soil of an offshore islet in Ōmura Bay, three brothers in faith were on their knees awaiting the executioner’s blade. Two were foreign priests, the other a Japanese Catholic layman.

The layman, surnamed Tanaka, had been christened Leo at his baptism. Leo Tanaka had lately been laboring as assistant and host to Padre João Machado, a Jesuit martyred just ten days before on the orders of Ōmura Sumiyori, the apostate daimyō of the Ōmura domain. This ruler of tens of thousands of Catholics, christened ‘Bartolomeo’ like his grandfather before him, had by his apostasy besmirched the very name by which his heroic grandfather had planted the Faith in Ōmura and defended it at great peril against the frenzied opposition of zealous enemies of Christ.

Now that frenzy ruled all Japan. Under the heel of the Shōgun Hidetada, every visible manifestation of the Faith that Saint Francis Xavier had brought to Japan sixty-eight years earlier was now being stamped to bloody pulp and ground into the dust. To his private horror, Sumiyori, the erstwhile Bartolomeo, must partake in this holocaust lest he provoke the Shōgun’s lethal displeasure.

On the Japanese Lunar New Year of 1617, Sumiyori had visited the Shōgun Hidetada at his palace in Edo to make his obligatory annual show of obeisance. Bartolomeo Ōmura Sumiyori was a third-generation Catholic. His grandfather, the great Bartolomeo Ōmura Sumitada, had been the first daimyō in Japan to receive baptism. This first Bartolomeo of Ōmura had championed Christ at risk of his domain, his fortune, and his life, facing treason and rebellion because of his conversion, and he had maintained the Faith unto death in spite of all that hell could throw at him. His son, though, christened Sancho, had thrown away the Faith in a fit of pique, and his son, the benighted grandson christened Bartolomeo, had been a faithful Catholic all his life—until that wrenching visit to the Shōgun’s palace in February of 1617. There, having avowed to the Shōgun Hidetada that he had expelled all Catholic priests from his domain, Bartolomeo Ōmura Sumiyori was confronted with reports from Nagasaki to the effect that he was in fact conniving at the continued presence of priests in Ōmura. The shaken daimyō, kowtowing to the lethal pressure of the Shōgun’s will, submitted to the ruler’s orders: he would hunt down and execute some Catholic priests in a bloody display of fealty to his Christ-hating earthly lord.

On May 22, 1617, Sumiyori made his demonstration with the double beheading of Jesuit Father João Machado and Franciscan Friar Pedro de la Asunción atop a hill named Kōri just north of his castle. By this one blood sacrifice of his own Catholic conscience, Sumiyori intended to frighten all Christian missionaries out of his domain and thereby prove his fealty to the Shōgun once and for all. Contrary to the apostate former-Bartolomeo’s expectations, though, the killing of those two priests aroused fervor among the Catholics of Ōmura and its environs, a fervor that would culminate in a holy tsunami of faith, hope, and death-conquering love sweeping over nearby Nagasaki to flood back into Ōmura and engulf the traitorous apostate in the backwash of his sin.

Let us behold that victory of Eternal Life over merely-mortal death. When news of that double martyrdom in Ōmura reached Nagasaki, the cradle of Japanese Christendom, Friars Alfonso Navarrete, Dominican, and Hernando de San José, Augustinian, met to confer on an inspiration stirring both their hearts. They concurred that there was only one course of action that could satisfy their Christian consciences: they must strike out for Ōmura and there preach the Gospel far and wide to bring back into the Church the many apostates who had succumbed to the pressures of the Shōgun’s persecution. Next they would try to win the apostate Daimyō of Ōmura’s soul back to Christ; that failing, they would render up their own souls to God by handing their bodies over to martyrdom. Having vowed to carry out this mission, the two priests pledged obedience to one another. Father Navarrete then met with his Dominican brethren in Nagasaki to announce his decision; he also appointed a successor to replace him as the Dominican Provincial in Japan. Father Hernando, the sole Augustinian in Japan, wrote to his brethren in Manila, urging them to send more laborers into the harvest.

Japan was now in its third year of an absolute, empire-wide ban on Christianity that would extend for the next two and a half centuries and beyond. Public worship had not been risked since the early days of 1614, with all priests hiding underground or going incognito, saying Mass only in secret lest they be delivered up to the authorities for imprisonment and inevitable execution. Nevertheless, a mere three days after that double martyrdom in Ōmura, Father Alfonso Navarrete and Father Hernando de San José marched out to the city gate of Nagasaki, set up a makeshift altar, and said Mass before a crowd of thousands. Penitent Christians flocked to the front of the crowd, falling to their knees to confess their sins sacramentally. Many couples who, robbed of their pastors, had been living in common-law marriages, came to partake of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Faithful Christians long starved of the Bread of Life found their souls’ hunger fulfilled in the Eucharist.

The next day—Friday, May 26—the two priests set out for the Ōmura domain. Their first stop was Ikiriki, a farming village nestled in the verdant hills overlooking the southwestern shore of Ōmura Bay. These sun-blessed hills produce luscious crops of mandarin oranges, a sanative God-given, perhaps, to counter the deathly gloom that had settled on the daimyō’s castle on the opposite shore. At Ikiriki, Fathers Alfonso and Hernando restored 300 apostates to communion with the Church; among these was Lino Tomonaga, the very sheriff who, feigning a desire to confess his sins, had lured the recently-martyred Friar Pedro de la Asunción into a trap and arrested him.

On Sunday the two priests set up an altar outdoors and said Mass before a multitude. Friar Hernando preached his homily “with great zeal,”1 and afterwards both men taught the crowd from Friar Luis de Granada’s Sinner’s Guide. From Ikiriki they moved on to Nagayo, where they said their final public Mass before a crowd starved of the Sacraments and hungering for the Bread of Life. In the night, under the twinkling vault of Heaven, came a cloud of flickering lights crawling across the bay from the apostate former-Bartlomeo’s castle: boats full of men with flaming torches, underlings sent by that Judas to do his dirty work—to tear the two Heaven-sent shepherds away from their forlorn lambs. At the sight of the approaching horde, the priests intoned the Te Deum, a hymn of welcome to their coming Passion.

Once arrived on shore, their captors, all baptized-but-fallen Catholics, fell to their knees with faces and palms to the earth in grave bows of shame and apology. The priests presented gifts to these men, a custom congruent with a visit to a patron of high degree. For the wretched apostate daimyō to whom their lives and fortunes would soon be delivered, however, their only gift was a letter to be put into his hand on their arrival on the far shore: a plea not for their lives, but for his return to sanity—a warning and instruction that he, a baptized Catholic, was most certainly bound for hell should he not repent of his recent, barbaric crime, restore his own soul to the Faith, and free his subjects to do the same.

When these two faithful priests arrived at the apostate lord of Ōmura’s castle on the southeastern shore of the bay, he charged them with crimes against the dictates of the bloodthirsty Shōgun up in Edo. In reply, Father Navarrete explained—as if a baptized, born-and-raised Catholic lord should need such basic schooling—that he acknowledged the reign of the Emperor of Heaven above the throne of any earthly king. Silenced by that insurmountable truth, Ōmura Sumiyori had his captives thrown in jail while he hunkered down with his council of advisors to mull over his options. Certainly the thought of returning to Christ, whatever the earthly consequences, must have entered his head. In the end, though, the formerly-Catholic ex-Bartolomeo could not find within his harried soul the grit to scale that Everest of truth from whose summit he would assuredly view Beatitude in aeternam. Instead, he surrendered to the crushing gloom that had descended on his soul, his castle and his state, a slavering leviathan whose taste for Christian souls would not be quenched by any head-count of priests or brothers or catechists or simple children of the Faith.

He would kill the priests along with that irksomely-faithful Catholic Leo Tanaka, the lay churchman who had been languishing in Ōmura’s jail ever since the prison guards gave in to his pleas that he be thrown into that stinking hell to join his pastor, Father João Machado. Machado, the Jesuit, Sumiyori had beheaded along with a Franciscan named Friar Pedro; he had hoped that those killings would end all this trouble. How very naïve he had been; perhaps he had never heard that axiom about the blood of martyrs being the seed of the Faith, or perhaps he had never really believed it. Perhaps he simply had never believed. At any rate, after three days his orders went out, along with minute instructions as to how the appointed place of death was to be shrouded from the public eye.

The three faithful servants of Sumiyori’s former God would be spirited out of his prison at the edge of his castle-town, slipped into a boat, and shunted from islet to islet in a furtive, zigzag pilgrimage across Ōmura Bay, a frantic wriggle to shake off the clinging believers, the proscribed Catholic faithful who nevertheless showed up at every landfall to hear a word of healing, to beg a final blessing, to wring out rushed confessions from their long-tortured souls. For their land itself, the very womb from which had sprung Christian Nagasaki, was in the mighty Shōgun’s vise, and all Heaven’s ears would be witness to the shrieks of those souls abandoned to its iron teeth by their ruler’s treason. Among these were the ex-Bartolomeo’s own grandmother and aunt.

On their furtive voyage to martyrdom, the two priests managed to write letters of instruction and encouragement to the brethren they would leave behind, pleading for unity among the Catholic religious orders struggling to keep the Faith alive beneath the Shōgun’s heel. Father Navarrete urged his soulmate in Nagasaki, Paolo Garrucho de la Vega, to keep up the work closest to his heart, the saving of abandoned babies.2

Finally, arrived at the last stop—an islet called Takashima—the condemned men thanked their executioners with affection and offered them the sakazuki, a farewell drink, having saved some good wine made for Mass for this glorious farewell.3 Leo Tanaka, meanwhile, had been joined to their party on the third islet in their pilgrimage to eternal life via blessed death. Their time was at hand, the fullness of God-given time in their meager tents of flesh: now to kneel on that virgin soil appointed to be baptized with their blood.

The three fell to their knees with Father Navarrete in the middle, a crucifix in one hand and a candle in the other. Friar Hernando, to his right, held a candle and a rosary, as did faithful layman Leo Tanaka, on the left. Thus: three witnesses, three lights, two rosaries, with Christ crucified in the center.

The first head to fall was Friar Hernando de San José’s. He requested permission to touch the headsman’s sword; taking the blade into his hand, he kissed it and blessed it with these words: “Our death is a living epistle that will go to Spain and Rome to awaken other evangelical laborers.”4 That blade took off his head in one perfect slash.

Father Navarrete was next. At the first cut, the sword merely bit into his neck to reach his ears: the dauntless priest rose to his feet and looked up to regard the heavens. Perhaps he was granted a glimpse of the eternal home prepared for him. On his knees once more, he felt the sword’s bite a second time, but still his stubborn tent of flesh clung to life and breath. Only with a third, reluctant slash did the swordsman finally find his mark and send Alfonso Navarrete home.

Now Leo Tanaka, so long prepared for death, found himself alone. He thought himself unworthy to die with the two heroic Fathers whose heads now lay on the earth before him, their headless corpses just to his right, seeding the land with holy martyrs’ blood—but this, after all, was ordained. Humbly Leo bowed his head to add his own lifeblood to that Faith-seeding stream: he joined his brethren on the second slash of the sword.

On their hurried voyage to martyrdom, the two priests had written pleas for Christian unity in Japan. In death their prayer was answered by a sign: the coffins of the priests martyred ten days earlier were opened, and Father Navarrete’s body was put in with the beheaded corpse of Father João Machado; Friar Hernando was united with Friar Pedro de la Asunción. Thus, four religious orders united in death: Dominican, Jesuit, Augustinian, and Franciscan.

Their two coffins were weighted with stones and furtively sunk into the sea: perhaps the apostate lord of Ōmura feared the power of relics as much as he did the Truth those living witnesses had preached to him. Even Leo Tanaka’s remains he had whisked away to be sunk into the same waters, wrapped in a net and also charged with stones.

The Faith, however, did not sink into oblivion with those stones. Indeed, her seeds were germinating far and wide: in Ōmura and Nagasaki, in Urakami, Sotome, and the Gotō Islands, in Shimabara and Amakusa—a far-flung seedbed of heroic souls hidden from all but God’s all-seeing eyes, reaching for Heaven, groping for the Light, ready to burst through that soil stamped hard and dull beneath the Shōgun’s heel.

Copyright © 2019 by Luke O’Hara


1 Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651. (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1869), 360.

2 Pagès, 363.

3 Ibid, 364.

4 Ibid, 365.