On the night of 6-7 January 1620, Father Ambrósio Fernandes, S.J. died in prison in Omura, east of Nagasaki, at age 69.
His crime, of course, was being a missionary of Christ. He had been in Japan since 1579, the year that Fr. Alessandro Valignano arrived in Kyushu with broad papal authority to remold and revitalize the Church in Japan to suit the unique conditions of the country. Father Ambrósio remained in Kyushu until his death four decades later in a stinking hellhole of a prison where, malnourished, possibly poisoned, and exposed to the elements and the filthy infestations accruing to living trapped in a virtual sewer, he vomited blood, fell into a deathlike state and breathed his last after receiving the Last Rites at the hands of Father Carlo Spinola, who would later be burned alive.
Father Ambrósio had stayed on in the country after the great expulsion of 1614, knowing full well that his end would be some kind of martyrdom for Christ. Thanks perhaps to a special grace, even in his seeming coma he was able to signal to Father Spinola that he felt sorrow for his sins, at which he received absolution, and he said an audible ‘Yes’ when offered Extreme Unction.
The guards having refused Father Spinola a light by which to administer the Sacrament in the predawn darkness, he managed with the dim glow of an arquebus match, i.e. a rope fuse for igniting a matchlock gun. Curious perhaps that the technology used to light Father Ambrósio’s flight to Heaven had come to Japan in the hands of three Portuguese merchants who, in 1542, landed by chance at Tanegashima Island in a damaged Chinese junk driven by a storm. The news of that new mission field would bring the first three Jesuits to Japan in yet another Chinese junk—Saint Francis Xavier, Father Cosme de Torres, and Brother Juan Fernandez—and, three decades later, in a Portuguese carrack, Father Ambrósio Fernandes of Sisto, Portugal, all bringing the dazzling light of the Gospel to a people starved for light.
Copyright © 2022 by Luke O’Hara