Father Pietro Paolo Navarro, S.J. : a November Sacrifice, a December Reckoning

This story begins on Christmas Day in the Year of Our Lord 1560, when the town of Laino Borgo in Cosenza, Italy was graced with the birth of a boy of noble blood. Eschewing the life of privilege that could have awaited him, the boy chose instead to serve his God and save the souls of his fellow men in a foreign land.

View of Laino Castello, near Laino Borgo. Photo by Mboesch (Creative Commons. see license link below)

Pietro Paolo Navarro entered the Society of Jesus at Nola (Kingdom of Naples) in 1579, the very year that Father Alessandro Valignano, the great Italian Jesuit, entered Japan at the port of Kuchinotsu to remake the face of her Church and spread its fame across the Catholic world. Father Navarro arrived in Japan in 1586, landing at the port of Hirado along with seven other priests aboard the trading-ship of Domingos Monteiro. Saint Francis Xavier had visited Hirado in 1550, leaving a number of converted souls in his trail of miracles, along with great hopes for the future of the Japanese Church.

First, Father Navarro applied himself assiduously to the study of Japanese. He learned the language quickly and could soon preach powerfully to the Japanese in their own tongue, so he was sent to Iyo in Shikoku to found a new apostolate. Sadly, that was to be short-lived.

On July 24, 1587, the Feast of St. James, the dictator Toyotomi Hideyoshi proclaimed a ban on the Catholic Faith and ordered the expulsion of all clergy. Fr. Navarro withdrew from Iyo but stayed on in Japan, moving secretly around the island of Kyushu to serve her orphaned Christians.

By 1596, Father Navarro was pastoring the church of Yamaguchi, famously founded by St. Francis Xavier with an astounding display of courage. In the face of constant threats to his life, the saint had preached the Gospel in the streets of that city, railing against the unspeakable abuses committed by the Buddhist clergy of his day, particularly the “abominable sin” of pederasty so rampant among them. He had preached the same lesson in an audience with the ruler of Yamaguchi, an addicted pederast, while Brother Juan Fernández, his companion and interpreter, trembled for their lives.

Saint Francis Xavier

On February 5, 1597, Hideyoshi crucified the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki in a fit of megalomania. The following year he died in a frenzy, babbling incoherently about “a thousand things out of context” and talking about crowning his little son King of Japan.[1] This dream never saw fruition, nor did Hideyoshi’s command, in his last will and testament, that he be deified after death as Shin-Hachiman, i.e. the New God of War.

Father Navarro professed his fourth solemn Jesuit vow at Nagasaki in 1601. It seemed a time of great promise for the Japanese Church: Hideyoshi was dead, and his successor, the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, seemed anything but hostile to the Catholic mission. Dutch and English protestants, bitter enemies of everything Catholic, had arrived in Japan in 1600, however, and their calumnies were quick to find the Shogun’s ear. In 1612, things came to a head when the Catholic lord of Arima got duped into bribing a shogunal official for a phony promise to enlarge the Arima domain. Both schemer and victim were Catholic; this infuriated the Shogun, who banned the Faith in all shogunal territories. The ban would extend to all Japan in 1614.

1617 was a year replete with the shedding of Christian blood on Japanese soil. We find Father Navarro in the domain of Bungo, where, given the frantic hunt to round up and exterminate Catholic missionaries, he was forced to hide for some days on end in a hole he had dug. There, having no help from his fellow man, he turned to God, who not only sustained him, but gave him strength to ‘return to his work with ardor’ once the danger had passed. He went about disguised as a baggage-porter, wearing a straw hat under which he could presumably hide his face in shadow.[2]

In May of 1619, Fr. Navarro was given responsibility for all of the Shimabara Peninsula (Arima) and the far flung Amakusa Islands to the south, among the most fervently-Catholic regions of all Japan. He must have foreseen his end, for, come Advent of 1621, he made a general confession to the Jesuit Provincial at Kazusa in southern Arima. He sailed northward from there to the hot-springs town of Obama and, two days later, passed by night to the village of Hachirao, where he went on retreat to do the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. He had intended to then celebrate the Nativity at the old Catholic castle-town of Arima, but the locals wrote him urging him to stay away for fear of the daimyo’s spies. He thus celebrated Christmas at Hachirao and afterwards set out for Arima in the night, a risky journey, for he had to take the main road in bright moonlight. He was readily spotted by a servant of the daimyo’s, who grabbed him by the robe; the priest submitted without protest.

Matsukura Shigemasa, the daimyo of Arima, was as yet no enemy of the Christians. He had taken over the domain from Arima Naozumi, an apostate who had failed in his promise to the Shogun to purge his ancestral religion from the land. Matsukura put Fr. Navarro under house arrest but gave him the privilege of receiving visitors, saying Mass and hearing confessions. In the meantime, he strove to get shogunal permission to merely deport the well-beloved priest to Macao rather than burn him alive as the Shogun’s law demanded, often summoning him to his fortress, Shimabara Castle, to question him about the Catholic Faith.[3] Father Navarro’s answers clearly moved Matsukura profoundly, for at their final meeting, he, the lord of the castle, escorted the priest of that banned ‘foreign’ religion outside, fell to his knees, put his palms to the earth, and bowed his head to the ground—a gesture that could have cost him his life.

Shimabara Castle. Photo by Luke O’Hara

The Shogun’s answer—death by fire—arrived on the eve of the Feast of All Saints. On the morning of 1 November, 1622, Father Navarro said Mass “with an abundance of tears,” apparently informed by the Spirit that this was his last day in this Vale of Tears, for he had not yet been told of his death sentence. Matsukura gave him the word two hours before noon.

Father Navarro “put his chaplet around his neck to prepare himself for the final combat” and stepped outside into a windy autumn day.[4] He would be burned along with three companions—Jesuit brothers Dennis Fujishima, 38, and Pedro Onizuka, 18; and layman Clemente Kyuemon— none of whom could keep up with 64-year-old Fr. Navarro in his zeal to reach the site of his holocaust. The condemned Christians were accompanied by fifty armed soldiers to the execution-ground outside the gate of the city, all of them presumably sprinting to keep up with that old Italian priest burning with an unquenchable love of the Lord he would soon meet face to face.

Reaching his appointed stake, he took off his hat and bowed to it before the guards tied him to the instrument of his death as they would the three others. When Matsukura arrived, the firewood was lit, and a gust of wind engulfed Fr. Navarro’s mantle in flame, yet he used all his strength to encourage his companions to hold on for the crown of glory. When his ropes had burnt away, he fell onto his side shouting, “Jesus! Mary!” These holy names he shouted to his last breath, with the hair-shirt he had worn for penance clinging to his skin, revealed under his burnt-away mantle. His three companions, too, held on to the end, all worthy sons of St. Francis Xavier.

Fr. Navarro in the flames. Note his hair-shirt. (from Cardim, Elogios)

In 1623 a new Shogun took over: Tokugawa Iemitsu—sadist, pederast, and such an enemy of Christ that it seemed he was possessed by a demon. Matsukura Shigemasa he soon won to his side, turning him into a persecutor who tortured his Catholic subjects by mutilation, branding, and boiling them in the hot sulfur springs atop Mount Unzen.

Matsukura fell mortally ill in 1630 and summoned 200 apothecaries to bring their cures to Shimabara Castle. In a panic he took all their concoctions together, creating a brew that boiled noxious in his stomach and drove him to a frenzy in which he hallucinated demons from hell. Or were they hallucinations? For stones came flying from out of nowhere in the corridors of Shimabara Castle, and ‘long, supernatural howls’ resounded within its walls.[5]

Mephistopheles flying over Wittenberg, in a lithograph by Eugène Delacroix (Public Domain)

On 19 December, Matsukura fled to the hot-springs town of Obama, where he slipped into a bath whose water his servants had tested and found merely tepid. Yet their raving master felt himself burning, and he thought that the fire inside him could devour his surroundings. This was his final frenzy.[6] The mountain atop which he had tortured and killed so many Christians in boiling sulfur-springs towered over his bath-house; perhaps as he died he was hearing the voices and seeing the faces of the martyrs he had murdered.

I wonder if he saw the face of Father Pietro Paolo Navarro looking benignly down at him as he bowed his forehead to the earth to do the priest reverence on that bygone day at Shimabara Castle? Or did he see him wrapped in flames, cheering on his companions in martyrdom? Either memory, with a wriggle of repentance, might have saved poor Matsukura Shigemasa’s soul.


Copyright © 2021 by Luke O’Hara

[1] François Solier, Histoire Ecclesiastique des Isles et Royaumes du Japon, v.2 (Paris: Sebastien Cramoisy, 1627) 127.

[2] Solier, 767-8.

[3] James Murdoch, A History of Japan during the Century of Early Foreign Intercourse 1542-1651 (Kobe: Office of The “Chronicle”, 1903) 647 note.

[4] Solier, 766.

[5] Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651: pte. Texte (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1869) 732.

[6] Ibid, 732.

Photo of Laino Castello Creative Commons license link: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en