Father Antonio Rubino and the True Story behind Martin Scorcese’s “Silence”

      Humankind—as well as all creation—owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Father Antonio Rubino and his companions, fearless men of God who threw their very lives to the wind for the sake of Japan and its blessed people, to give the Japanese an example intended to lead them to freedom in aeternam.  They had set out for Japan in 1642 from Manila in a ship secretly prepared for them by the Governor of the Philippines; they had traveled disguised as Chinese; but they died as public spectacles, proudly and fearlessly proclaiming the saving truth of Christ, the Faith they had come to die for.

         In October of 1633, the acting Provincial of the Jesuit Province of Japan had apostatized under the most extreme torture and was reputed to be acting as an agent of the Shogun in effecting the apostasies of other missionaries caught by the Japanese authorities. This man, Christovão Ferreira, was indeed acting as interpreter and translator for the Shogun’s men, but there seems to be no evidence that he in fact urged the captives to apostatize; rather, he did his translating work in shame. Nevertheless, his public example of renouncing Christ was a scandal that could lead the whole Japanese nation to perdition, and Father Rubino vowed to offer himself up as a shining counter-example of faithfulness to Christ unto death, a torch of truth to dazzle the eyes and firm the wills of all Japan’s Christians:  he and his companions would sail to Japan, enter the country by stealth, and try to bring Ferreira back to life—eternal life, that is—or atone for his apostasy by dying as heroic martyrs themselves.

         Giovanni Antonio Rubino was born in Turin in 1578, thirty-one years after Saint Francis Xavier’s pioneering mission to Japan to spread the Word and save yet another race of man. Of noble birth, Father Rubino determined in his youth to devote his life to Christ by joining holy orders. Overcoming his father’s opposition, he joined the Society of Jesus and was sent to Goa in the Portuguese Indies. The consummate scholar, he served the Church in Asia for some forty years at Goa, Cochin, and Colombo as teacher or principal at those cities’ Jesuit academies.

         This man, this faithful scholar-priest, is a towering unsung giant of Christian history, a real-life version of the tortured priests in Martin Scorcese’s Silence: a giant because, unlike the fictional priest in that movie who decided to tread on an image of Christ and thus wordlessly proclaim his apostasy, Father Antonio Rubino held out for the heavenly crown of glory—held out to the end, which came on 22 March 1643, when he finally expired hanging in the Pit atop the slope called Nishi-zaka in Nagasaki, Japan’s capital city of martyrs.

         Father Rubino and his mission companions—four priests, one brother, and three lay Catholics—sailed out of Manila disguised as Chinese; on 11 August 1642 their ship ran aground on a small island in the Satsuma Strait: they had reached Japan. Within three days they were discovered, arrested, and taken to Nagasaki. There they were interviewed by the Nagasaki Bugyo, the Shogun’s deputy; the apostate priest Christovão Ferreira served as the Bugyo’s interpreter, but slunk out in shame after having been harshly scolded by Father Rubino for his faithlessness.

         The Bugyo sent Father Rubino’s party to Mount Unzen, where they would endure the boiling sulfur-water tortures of “Unzen Hell” for seven months; the torturers also burned them with rods of red-hot iron. The final torture session on Unzen, especially gruelling, they suffered on 16 March 1643. None apostatized.


                                                              Boiling springs atop Mount Unzen

         Father Rubino’s party were given their death-sentence, torture to death in the Pit, on 18 March: they rejoiced at the news, thanking God. The Bugyo, mystified, asked if they understood what he had told them; they replied that they had understood the Japanese perfectly: this was why they had come—to testify to the truth of Christ with their own precious lives, lives they held worthless if not spent for the Faith.

         They were paraded through the streets of Nagasaki as spectacles of shame: riding on pack-horses with hands tied behind their backs; their heads and beards half-shaven, the shaven half painted red; iron “tongues” in their mouths to clamp their tongues and keep them from speaking; and signs on their backs proclaiming their crime:

         The Emperor of Japan condemns these people to death for having preached the Roman Faith, long proscribed in all these domains.

         Atop the slope called Nishi-zaka, on the execution-ground overlooking Nagasaki Bay, Father Rubino and his companions were violently thrown from their horses and their bodies bound in tight coils of rope. Then each martyr was suspended from a gallows head-downward waist-deep into his appointed pit, whose bottom was filled with the vilest filth. A lid was closed around his waist, closing out fresh air, closing in the stench; the lid cut off his circulation, causing excruciating pain. To multiply the martyr’s agonies astronomically, the torturers twisted the rope from which he hung: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, each turn an eternity of earthly hell.

2008-11g                                                  The Pit (an artist’s inaccurate conception)

         Yet no-one apostatized: all five men of Father Rubino’s mission held out for the Christian crown of glory, and thus, in their dauntless silence, refuted the lie of apostasy, the vacuous notion that any temporary earthly suffering—no matter its present horror—is too high a price to pay for Eternal Life. 

         Father Antonio Rubino won the martyr’s crown on 22 March, 1643 at age 64 or 65, the second of his mission-group to gain that victory. The lifelong scholar and teacher had taught his life’s greatest lesson in silence, a silence blaring out its truth to all mankind like a startling angelic trumpet in the heavens.

Copyright 2017 by Luke O’Hara

Website:  Kirishtan.com