Two Heroic Martyr-Priests, Part One: Fray Pedro de la Asunción and Padre João Baptista Machado De Távora

Hidetada (1)

        In 1617 the Shōgun Hidetada (above) found out that the daimyō of Ōmura, whose Christian name was Bartolomeo (like his heroic, departed grandfather), was conniving at the hiding of Catholic priests in his domain in Kyushu, the westernmost of  the four home islands of Japan.  The Shōgun’s sledgehammer came down on this daimyō’s head:  he must expel the priests from his domain at once.

         There were some who would rather give their lives for their flocks than be expelled; among these eternal lights were Fray Pedro de la Asunción of the Franciscan Order and Padre João Baptista Machado de Távora, S. J.  Both were beheaded on Kōri hill in the domain of Ōmura for the crime of clinging to the Truth:  for being faithful servants of the God who eternally commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

       João Baptista Machado de Távora was born at Angra do Heroísmo (Cove of Heroism) on the island of Terceira, separated westward from Lisbon by about a thousand miles of the Atlantic Ocean.  His father and mother were wealthy nobles, but his life-story proves that João was no spoiled aristocrat: at the age of ten, on hearing of the Catholic martyrdoms in contemporary Japan, the boy announced that he hoped to go there and become a holy martyr himself.

       At age 16, on 10 April 1597 (64 days after the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki), he entered the Jesuit Order at Coimbra, Portugal, where he would have begun his studies at the Jesuit university.  He sailed for India in 1601 and there, at Goa, studied philosophy; next, at Macao (off the south coast of China), he studied theology, and in 1609 headed for Japan, where he made astonishing progress in Japanese.

       His assigned apostolate was in the region of Kyōto, the Imperial Capital, but in 1614, when the Tokugawa Shōgunate promulgated its Christian Expulsion Edict, Padre João Machado escaped to the port city of Nagasaki, a longtime Catholic refuge on the west coast of the westernmost of Japan’s four main islands.  From there he sailed to the far-flung Gotoh Islands.  These islands had become havens for Catholic refugees fleeing the Shogunate’s increasingly-bloody persecution; Padre Machado is reputed to have performed awe-inspiring miracles of healing there.  In April of 1617, detoured from an intended voyage to the islands, he said Mass at Sonogi, a village on the north coast of Ōmura Bay, a few miles north of Ōmura Sumiyori’s castle-town.  This daimyō (feudal lord), christened Bartolomeo, had been born and raised a Catholic; his grandfather had been none other than Bartolomeo Ōmura Sumitada, the very first Japanese daimyō to receive baptism and a dauntless champion of the Faith unto his dying breath.  Sumitada’s faithless son Yoshiaki, however, apostatized, and his son, the great Bartolomeo’s namesake, became a persecutor of the Church under pressure from the Shōgun.  His soldiers arrested Padre João Machado at Sonogi immediately after he had celebrated Mass; as all were practicing Catholics, every one of them was ashamed, and explained to the Padre that it was only for fear of their lives and those of their families that they were obeying their faithless feudal lord’s orders.

       Thanks to contrary winds, the soldiers’ boat had to wait at Sonogi; thus, for a blessed space of days, Padre Machado was able to celebrate daily Mass for both his flock at Sonogi and his captors.  No doubt word got out and the faithful came from far and wide to confess their sins and receive the Bread of Life. On 29 April, though, a fair wind having come, that boat with its life-giving cargo sailed for the faithless daimyō’s castle-town; en route, the Padre heard the contrite soldiers’ confessions.  From the dock at Ōmura, Padre Machado was led to the daimyō’s prison at Kōri in a torchlight procession, like Jesus being marched out of Gethsemane.

(Read Part Two tomorrow.)