On August 25, 1624, five Christian heroes were executed “by slow fire” for the crime of bringing Christ to the Japanese. Burned at the stake in Ōmura, east of Nagasaki, were the Jesuit Father Miguel Carvalho, the Franciscan Fathers Luís Sotelo and Luís Sasada, the Dominican Father Pedro Vázquez, and Brother Luís Baba, a Lay Franciscan Japanese catechist who made his religious profession before his martyrdom.[i] A decade had passed since the “retired” Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had promulgated his ironclad Anti-Christian Edict, and all five of the holy martyrs knew full well that a grisly death awaited anyone caught in the act of obeying Christ, the Prince of Peace, in furthering His Great Commission; daring the flames of death, they all obeyed nevertheless.
Padre Miguel Carvalho, the Jesuit, had entered Japan in 1622 on a Portuguese trading-ship, disguised as a Portuguese soldier. The three Franciscans had been arrested on their return to Japan from an ambassadorial mission to King Philip III of Spain and the Vatican sponsored by a Japanese daimyō, Date Masamune. Fray Pedro Vázquez, the dauntless Dominican, had once disguised himself as a Japanese official and gained entry to Nagasaki’s prison, where he heard the confessions of Catholic prisoners bound for execution.[ii]
On the day of their martyrdom they were taken to the execution-ground with ropes around their necks, the four priests carrying crosses. The Palme of Christian Fortitude (Douai, 1630) relates their ordeal thus:
“They arrived at the place appointed for their death, a field called Hokonohara[iii], when giving thanks unto those who had conducted them, … the Priests lifting on high the crosses which they bare in their hands, they began to recite psalms with a loud voice; when Father Carvalho, perceiving now a great multitude to be assembled, turning unto them, you must understand, said he, that we are Christians, and that we die of our free and voluntary accord, for the faith of Christ our Lord. The admirable serenity of their countenances put their joy so clearly in view of the beholders, that amazed thereat they said, these men seemed to go rather to some feast or banquet, than unto death.”[iv]
They were loosely tied to their stakes in order that they might provide amusement to the crowd, flailing about in their agonies; the loose cords would also burn away quickly, giving each victim the chance to flee the flames and apostatize.
None did. The first to die was Brother Luís Baba, the native Japanese catechist. Freed by the burning cords, he ran to the stakes of his priest-companions to kneel and kiss their hands,
“then exhorting with a loud voice the standers by to embrace the faith of Christ in which alone is true safety and salvation, he returned generously unto the stake again, and leaning himself unto it, without any further tying … he endured, without ever moving himself, the fury of those flames, until at length he rendered his invincible soul to God.”[v]
The next to die was Father Carvalho, and then Father Luís Sasada, another native-born Japanese who tried, like Luís Baba, to leave his stake and do reverence to the surviving priests but could not move his feet, already burnt to cinders. The longest survivors were Fathers Luís Sotelo and Pedro Vázquez, who endured the torment of a slow, smoky fire of straw “and other dry litter” artfully heaped in two piles about their feet to make their deaths as lingering and torturous as possible—to the end of effecting their apostasies. Needless to say, these two champions of Christ hung on
“3 hours in the fire, ever immovable, consuming away in lingering slow flames; after which space of time they ended the course of a combat so much [the] more glorious, as it was produced longer, upon the twenty-fifth of August 1624, by order of the Governors of Ōmura and Nagasaki.”[vi]
Five glorious examples of superhuman faith, five men to remember when asking for prayers in Heaven.
©2014 by Luke O’Hara
[i] Directorio Franciscano, Año Cristiano Franciscano, at: http://www.franciscanos.org/agnofranciscano/m08/dia0825.html
[ii] Boxer, C. R. The Christian Century in Japan. Manchester: Carcanet, 1993, p. 358.
[iii] Hōkonohara, now known as Hōkobaru.
[iv] Boxer, quoted on p. 436.
[v] Ibid, quoted on p. 437.
[vi] Ibid, quoted on p. 437.