A Ladder to Heaven

A Ladder to Heaven, Part I

The Kirish’tan battle-flag of the Shimabara Rebellion

It all started in 1620 with some Japanese Catholics, bereft of their pastor, pleading for his return to Nagasaki to console them in their sufferings and their needs.

After Tokugawa Ieyasu’s expulsion of all Catholic clergy from Japan in 1614, Augustinian Friar Pedro de Zúñiga had stayed on to minister to his flock in secret, his survival in that deadly task being due in large part to the connivance of Hasegawa Gonroku, the Shogunal Governor of Nagasaki. Gonroku had succeeded the former governor, his uncle Sahioye, in 1615 — but, unlike him, had no taste for overseeing gory scenes of torture and bloodshed in the name of the Shogun’s law.

By 1619, though, finding himself increasingly compelled to shed the blood of Christians, Gonroku urged Father Zúñiga, whom he knew and respected, to leave for the Philippines lest he be forced by the Shogun Hidetada to burn him alive. On conferring with the Augustinian Vice Provincial in Japan, the friar was ordered to do just that, for he was known to all and sundry in and about Nagasaki. With Gonroku’s guarantee of safe passage out of Nagasaki, Father Zúñiga sailed for Manila via Macao.

The following year, two letters arrived in Manila from Father Zúñiga’s former flock — one for the friar himself and another for the Definitor of the Augustinians in the Philippines — requesting that he return to them. In exchange for that favor, they offered to send the remains of the Augustinian martyr Friar Hernando de San José, which they had managed to fish out of the depths of Omura Bay, where the bodies of five martyrs had been sunk together on 1 June 1617.    

The letters arrived just as the fathers of the Augustinian Province of the Philippines were holding their provincial meeting of 1620.

Léon Pagès writes,

After having consulted one another on the fruits that might be expected if Fr. Zúñiga were sent [back to Nagasaki], they proposed to him the apparent advantages of this new voyage.

Fr. Zúñiga, with a wealth of onsite experience under his belt, pointed out that, being so well known in Nagasaki, he would be seized immediately upon arrival, and although his inevitable suffering and martyrdom might redound to the greater glory of God, his former parishioners’ desire of his pastorship would remain unfulfilled; nevertheless, he added, he would render obedience to his superiors, whatever they decided.  

Fr. Zúñiga’s orphaned flock had promised in the letter to rendezvous with his ship and bring it to safe haven. Given that assurance, the Augustinian fathers felt compelled to grant those persecuted Christians that gift they so desired, and Fr. Zúñiga surrendered himself to the will of God.

Among the local Dominicans, meanwhile, Fr. Luís Flores, aged and infirm, had retired from active mission work in Nueva Segovia, Philippines, and settled into a life of prayer and contemplation. News of the Japanese persecution fired his spirit, though, with a desire to join the Japan mission, which could bring him suffering, Pagès explains, and, perhaps, martyrdom. In early June of 1620, Fr. Flores found himself in Fr. Zúñiga’s company, along with two other Spaniards, headed for Japan aboard a junk captained by Joachim Hirayama, a staunch Japanese Catholic. They soon hit heavy seas and were forced to dump part of their cargo and put in at Macao. The suffering had already begun.

On 2 July they set out again and, 20 days later, were within sight of Formosa when English pirates on the bark Elizabeth attacked, took them captive, and commandeered their ship. The Elizabeth, captained by Edmund Lenmyes, had sailed out of Batavia (now Jakarta) in a merchant-pirate fleet of five sail, three English ships and two Dutch, to prey upon Portuguese and Spanish shipping and sell their booty (as well as some trade goods) to the Japanese at Hirado.  

Captain Lenmyes soon sussed out the fact that two of his prisoners were “Papist” priests, a fact discernible in their deportment. He locked them below in the hold without food or drink, jammed in among a heap of deerskins whose stench was insufferable, afraid, apparently, of losing such valuable cargo as those two friars. If their priestly identities were proven, the captured junk would, by the Shogun’s law, become the pirates’ prize, with her captain and crew condemned to death for transporting Catholic priests to Japan.

As the Dutch and English were cooperating in brigandage in the Eastern seas, the captured junk and its cargo became their common property. They sailed their prize to the Dutch trading-post at Hirado with her passengers and crew imprisoned below, all chained together so closely that none could move without jostling the others. At Hirado, the Dutch found three letters in their captives’ luggage, one conferring the title of Augustinian Provincial Vicar on Fr. Zúñiga and two confirming Fr. Flores’ authority among Dominicans in Japan, yet neither priest would acknowledge his identity for fear of thereby condemning Captain Hirayama and his Japanese crew to death. Now the real suffering would begin.

The priests were lowered into a dark pit, where they languished in filth and near-starvation for thirteen days, squatting on the naked earth as vermin fed on them. This was but a prelude to their torture. The Dutchmen pulled them, crawling with vermin, out of the pit to strip them to the waist, tie their hands behind their backs, and hoist them up to hang them by their wrists with boxes full of gunpowder attached to their feet. They threatened to light the powder if the fathers didn’t confess their identities, to no avail; they would move on to more exquisite tortures in due time.

Eventually, thanks to the concerted pleading of the Spaniard Alvaro Muñoz — a friend of the English trading-chief in Hirado — the fathers were moved into a small cell with a narrow window, a distinct improvement over the torture-chambers they had grown used to.

On 16 February 1621, Gonroku left Nagasaki to head up to the Shogun’s court in Edo (Tokyo) and pay his New Year’s respects. On the way he stopped at Hirado, where he summoned the Dutch merchant-pirates to appear before him in audience and bring along the two prisoners in whom they placed such high hopes of lucre. Although the Dutchmen produced the aforesaid letters as proof that their prisoners were priests, the two friars denied the charge, and Gonroku rejected the proffered evidence as counterfeit, upbraiding the brigands for scheming to appropriate a Japanese merchant’s ship and holding its passengers hostage without substantiating their charges. He even warned them that he might cut off trade with Holland entirely if they couldn’t produce real proof. He sent the Dutchmen packing with a warning to look after their prisoners carefully until his return, assigning two of his own men to see that they did just that.

Incidentally, as Gonroku knew Fr. Zúñiga quite well, he must have strained his acting skills to the limit — and his performance would have unexpected and unforgettable consequences: consequences that will play out in Part 2 of this story.

A Ladder to Heaven, Part II

          On 22 July 1620, English corsairs on the barque Elizabeth seized a Japanese junk headed for Japan carrying two friars disguised as Spanish merchants: Augustinian Fr. Pedro de Zúñiga and Dominican Fr. Luís de Flores. Soon, the two were imprisoned in the Dutch trading-post at Hirado, north of Nagasaki, while the Dutchmen and their English cohorts strove to prove to the authorities that their prisoners were Catholic priests. If successful, they would see the two burned alive and keep the ship as their prize to boot.

The Dutchmen decided to wrench the truth out of their prisoners with torture: they bound Fray Pedro to an X-shaped “Saint Andrew’s cross” and poured a flood of water onto his face and down his throat so that he could hardly catch his breath; during this torture, blood vessels in the victim’s neck would often burst in his struggle to breathe. Once Fr. Zúñiga’s belly was swollen with water, his torturers beat on it to force it back out; as he vomited the mess out, bloody water seeped out through his pores. Jacques Specx, the Dutchmen’s boss, then demanded that the friar confess his true identity, and this failing, ordered more water poured. They repeated this procedure again and again, emptying a full hogshead of water onto Fr. Zúñiga’s face and down his throat before resignedly sending the tortured priest back to his cell in defeat.

Fr. Flores was next. Elderly and frail, he looked like a corpse by the time his torture was over. Nevertheless, neither man had given in, for the lives of Captain Joachim Hirayama and his crew hung on the fiction that their former passengers were merchants, not Catholic priests come to save endangered human souls.

In November, Hasegawa Gonroku, Governor of Nagasaki, visited Hirado to clear up the problem of the imprisoned friars and the sequestered ship. Along with Matsuura Takanobu, the local daimyo, he held four hearings wherein the Dutch merchant-pirates laid on the charge that their prisoners were the vanguard of Spanish conquest, agents sent by the very king who had subdued the Philippines and many other lands. Will Adams, the famous Englishman-turned-samurai, and Richard Cocks, his compatriot in Hirado, had kept that same bug of suspicion buzzing in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s ear as long as he lived, a bug now grown into rage in the mind of the Shogun Hidetada, Ieyasu’s son.   

Gonroku therefore had to tread as if on eggs as he pretended to disbelieve the ever-more-convincing proof that the prisoners were indeed priests. Witnesses from Nagasaki who knew Fr. Zúñiga were brought in, one of them a blind man who swore he recognized the friar’s voice. Richard Cocks, head of the English trading-post in Hirado, had earlier said he wanted his own head cut off if the man before him was not in fact Fr. Zúñiga. Ignoring the mounting evidence could wind up being Gonroku’s self-inflicted death-sentence.

He had priests brought in from the prison in Omura: Jesuit Fr. Carlo Spinola, Dominican Fr. Francisco de Morales, and Fr. Pedro de Avila, Franciscan — pallid men (and future martyrs) who looked like walking corpses with hair and beards grown wild and fingernails curling beyond their fingertips. They barely had the strength to stand when called upon, yet all answered with discretion, neither lying nor admitting that they knew Fr. Pedro to be a priest as they tried to preserve the lives of Joachim Hirayama and his crew — and perhaps Gonroku’s life as well.

But things had gone too far: to go on denying the obvious could only lead to scandal, the priests concurred together, and thus, on 7 December, the feast of St. Ambrose, Fr. Zúñiga donned his Augustinian habit, shaved his tonsure, and declared himself a priest, insisting that the mariners he had sailed with hadn’t known.

Gonroku duly proceeded up to Edo to report this news to the Shogun. Infuriated, Hidetada ordered the priests and Captain Hirayama roasted by “slow fire” and all the ship’s crew beheaded. James Murdoch writes that all religious held in prison, along with their hosts, were also to be burnt alive, and the wives and children of the latter beheaded, “as well as the wives and children of the martyrs immolated three years before.” All the latter would be accomplished in the Great Martyrdom of 1622.

Just outside of Nagasaki lay a plain between two mountains stretching from the town to the sea. Nishi-zaka, also known as Martyrs’ Hill, overlooked the scene. Léon Pagès writes:

A stockade enclosed the place of execution. Three large stakes of two palms’ diameter were destined for the confessors who were to be burnt alive; the wood and the fascines lay twenty-five palms, or twelve feet, distant. … Opposite the stakes, a long table, arrayed with pegs, would receive the heads of the twelve condemned to decapitation.

         The firewood was set at a distance to prolong the martyrs’ agonies. The condemned arrived to find a sea of Christians spread across the plain: Nagasaki’s faithful, numbering thirty or sixty or even one-hundred-thirty thousand — various sources differ — raising their voices to Heaven in prayer and song. Children’s choirs were intoning Magnificat; Laudate, Pueri; Laudate Dominum, Omnes Gentes; songs that would not cease until all was accomplished. The martyrs knelt to pray once inside the execution-ground, and the twelve sailors were quickly beheaded. Seeing their heads lined up on the table, Fr. Zúñiga called them flowers of Paradise.

The three knelt and recited the Creed. Then, before being tied to their stakes, the two priests blessed the crowd. Captain Hirayama, finding his stake unsteady, stamped the dirt around it, firming up the vessel he would ride to Heaven. He then preached to the crowd, telling them that the Son of Man came to heal mankind of the infirmities they suffered because of sin. He went on:

The fathers you see, O Japanese people, are come from the ends of the earth, sent by the Lord Jesus to work your salvation, to reap the divine fruits of Redemption, and to make you worship the true God instead of idols of stone and wood.

Meanwhile, the executioners were beating him to shut him up, to no avail: what terror could they inflict, he asked them, when they were about to burn him alive? Captain Hirayama proclaimed to all Nagasaki that the bloody scene before their eyes was in fact a ladder to Heaven.

The fire was lit; to keep the flames from blazing too freely, the wood was doused with water, for “slow fire” was the torture the Shogun prescribed. It took forty-five minutes of roasting to wrench the souls out of those three images of God standing firm against the ruler’s odium fidei: first Fr. Luís de Flores, the eldest, bowed his head in death, and then Joachim Hirayama — the ship’s captain who had dared to bring Christ to his beloved land — followed him up that ladder to eternal life. Fr. Pedro de Zúñiga held on the longest, enduring hellish agonies for the sake of his former flock, whose dream of his return to them was being immolated before their eyes.

Yet they knew that in that fiery hell their precious pastor’s soul was climbing straight to Heaven.


A version of this story (not edited by me) first appeared on ChurchMilitant.com