The Life and Death of Father Marcello Mastrilli

An Atoning Sacrifice, a Shout to Earth and Heaven

Father Marcello Mastrilli, S.J.


   Father Marcello Mastrilli, S.J. is a martyr credited in his lifetime with countless miracles, an intrepid warrior for Christ whose dream was to convert the Emperor of Japan to the Faith or die martyred as a testimony to its absolute truth. Twice he testified to that truth with his lifeblood, first on a parchment signed in his own blood and placed in the hand of Saint Francis Xavier’s corpse in its sepulchre at Goa, India. His second and final blood testament was his voluntary death by torture in Nagasaki, the fulfillment of his longing to atone for the apostasy of a fellow Jesuit who had preceded him to Japan.

Marcello Mastrilli was born in Naples on 14 September 1603, the son of the Marquis of San Marzano. Although born into a life of aristocratic privilege, at age 14 Marcello recognized his calling to religious vocation and announced this to his parents. Despite his father’s opposition, the determined Marcello left home in 1618 and entered the Jesuit novitiate at Naples. Soon thereafter he had a vision of Heaven opening and instantaneously understood his life’s purpose: a mission to the Indies. In that same instant, he was infused with a love for Christ that he knew he must live out by suffering for Him. [1] During his years of novitiate, he was often visited by apparitions of Saint Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the Indies, in the form of a horseman dressed in white.

On 11 December 1633 a workman was hanging draperies in the Cardinal’s palace at Naples for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception when he dropped a hammer from a great height; it hit Fr. Mastrillii’s right temple.  The priest fell into delirium and lingered on the edge of death for ten days. On the 21st he was visited by yet another apparition of that friend of his in Heaven, who led him through a series of prayers and vows, finally declaring, “You are healed: kiss in thanksgiving the sacred wounds of the Crucifix.” [2]

And healed he was, restored to perfect health. [3]

Although the news had not yet reached Catholic Europe, on October 18th of that same year, the Jesuit Provincial in Japan had apostatized under torture at Nagasaki. This man, Christovão Ferreira, had given in after five hours’ hanging in “the pit”—perhaps the most horrible torture ever devised by man. When the disconcerting news did finally arrive, many European Jesuits came forward to volunteer themselves for an atoning mission to Japan, hoping to die there as martyrs. Father Mastrilli was chosen as the mission’s superior, with good reason: he had earlier asked the Father General of the Society of Jesus for permission to go to the Indies to convert souls, whereupon the Father General responded that he need not ask him for the permission that Saint Francis Xavier—in apparition—had already given him.

The mission left Lisbon on Holy Saturday, 7 April 1635. Forty religious were originally to have left for Japan, but, “due to the parsimony of the Royal Treasury” of Philip IV, only 33 embarked.[4] On 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, they reached Goa, the capital of Portuguese India. There they learned of the martyrdom in Japan of twenty-four Jesuits the preceding year.

In Goa, Father Marcello spent many hours praying at St Francis Xavier’s tomb; he had it opened and the Saint’s corpse dressed in a “magnificent chasuble” donated by the Spanish Crown. He also got leave from the Provincial to take relics from the body—a handkerchief soaked in Francis Xavier’s blood and a little box containing a relic of his flesh—and left in the Saint’s hand a letter signed in his own blood. [5]

From Goa the mission sailed to Macau—the Portuguese base in East Asia—hoping to proceed onward to Japan, but they found there that no Japan-bound Portuguese ship would take a priest aboard. For fear of cutting Macao’s economic lifeline—the Japan silk trade—and of putting all Portuguese in Nagasaki at risk of capital punishment by the Shōgun’s deputies, the clerical authorities in Macao had banned the smuggling of clergy into Japan on pain of excommunication. [6] The Jesuits sailed on to Manila to try their luck there, arriving on 3 July. The Governor of the Philippines, Don Sebastián Hurtado de Corcuera, was enthusiastic about their intended mission to Japan, but the Spanish populace opposed the plan for fear of the mass slaughter of clergy that it would almost certainly entail; they dissuaded Father Mastrilli’s companions from accompanying him, and all but he returned to Macau.

His companions gone, Father Mastrilli accompanied Governor Hurtado de Corcuera on an expedition against the Mindanao pirates. The Spanish forces flew two standards: an image of Saint Francis Xavier and an image of Christ crucified that had been rescued from the pirates’ hands. During the battle Father Marcello was struck on the flank by a cannonball; it bounced off him, leaving him unharmed. In the end the Spaniards achieved a resounding victory—which they attributed to the power of Saint Francis Xavier and Father Mastrilli’s intercession. [7]

With that victory sealed, Father Mastrilli joined the Japanese exile community in the Philippines and devoted himself to learning their language. He also procured their services in building him a boat of Japanese design in which he planned to slip into Japan in Japanese guise; many of the Japanese exiles insisted on going with him. A Chinese ship carried Father Mastrilli, his companions, and their boat to Macau, where the Governor became their secret ally: he pardoned a certain ship’s pilot condemned to death for transporting a Dominican Friar to Japan on condition that he carry Father Mastrilli’s mission to Japan. Embarking on a Spanish ship that would carry them and their landing craft to Japanese waters, they met with numerous vicissitudes along the way, including a fierce storm off Formosa. Father Mastrilli is reported to have calmed the storm by making the Sign of the Cross over the sea with his reliquary containing a relic of Saint Francis Xavier. [8]

Once lowered onto the waves, the little vessel [9] carrying Father Mastrilli and his companions struck out for shore, making land at Satsuma on 19 September. He entered Japan with one Japanese companion and was immediately discovered, but he bribed his discoverer and set off inland; as their boat lay offshore, all his other Japanese companions were recognized as Christians and seized. Eventually they confessed that they had sailed with Father Mastrilli, which information sparked a frenzied search of the countryside for the intrepid priest. After several days he was discovered, his captors led to him by the smoke of his campfire. When they arrived he told them, “My sons, come and seize me.”

Taken to Nagasaki, Father Mastrilli appeared before the Shōgun’s magistrates on 5 October 1637. When asked why he had come to Japan, he answered that he had come to speak to the Emperor, to restore him to health were he still alive, and to teach him the law of Jesus Christ.[10] (The “Emperor” of whom he spoke was in fact the Shōgun Iemitsu, who was thought to be afflicted with leprosy.[11]) He then told them that he had been sent as an ambassador by Saint Francis Xavier, whom the magistrates knew to have been long since dead, and he recounted to them the story of his miraculous healing by Xavier’s spirit.

Impressed though they were by their prisoner’s apparent sincerity and strength of character, the Nagasaki magistrates had to carry out the Shōgun’s law. To urge Father Mastrilli’s apostasy, they subjected him to the water torture for two days on end. The first day they used the funnel technique, wherein the victim has a funnel shoved into his mouth and great amounts of water poured into him so that water and blood come gushing out through the victim’s mouth, ears and nose. [12] The second day’s torture was more refined. A contemporary eyewitness, quoted by historian C. R. Boxer, describes this method:

“They tie the martyr down on a board, leaving his left hand free so that he can place it on his breast if he wishes to give a sign that he will recant. His head is left hanging down a little, and the torturers do not stop pouring great quantities of water on his face … The victims make such frantic efforts to breath[e] that they usually burst a blood-vessel.” [13]

Boxer tells us, “the record for enduring [this torture] is still that of the seventeenth-century Italian Jesuit, Mastrilli, who is said to have withstood it for two days, and received four hundred jars of water on the second day alone.” [14]

Having been unshaken by the water torture, Father Mastrilli was returned to his prison cell, where he discovered that all his companions but one had apostatized; Andrew Koteda had died in the pit, holding out to the glorious end. [15] While interrogating the others, the magistrates gleaned information that Mastrilli had withheld from them; they interrogated him again, threatening direr torments. He told them to do their worst, adding, “My God will give me the strength to bear it.” [16]

Handed over to the torturers, he was stripped naked and subjected to scorching of his private parts with red-hot tongs. His modesty offended, he shamed the torturers for stooping to such vile torments; they put away their branding-iron and subjected him to the water-torture for a third time. [17] Although tortured to the edge of death, he still clung to his faith. [18]

Father Mastrilli was returned to his prison to recuperate for the final torture: he had been sentenced to die in the pit. Joyfully welcoming the bearer of his death-sentence, he prophesied that he would not die in the pit but would instead be beheaded. [19] It would prove to be his last night before the final horrors began. “He passed the rest of the night in an ecstasy accompanied by miracles,” reports Léon Pagès. [20]

At eleven o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 14 October 1637, Father Mastrilli was led from his prison to the execution-ground atop the slope called Nishi-zaka that overlooked Nagasaki Bay. The Jesuits’ report on his martyrdom reads:

His mouth was gagged by an iron tongue with sharp, projecting points that prevented him from proclaiming our Holy Faith. Trussed with ropes and chains he was borne astride a horse. The right side of his head was totally shaven, while the left side was painted red, a token of extreme ignominy to the Japanese. [21]

Yet he was not jeered at by the crowd. Behind him was carried a banner proclaiming:

The Grand Shōgun, Emperor of Japan, orders this sentence to be inflicted on the person of this madman for coming to Japan to preach an alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō, so that all others may learn from his punishment. [22]

And learn they did. When the “iron tongue” was removed from his mouth on that mountaintop killing-ground sanctified with countless martyrs’ blood, Father Mastrilli thanked the magistrates, who themselves had come to Nishi-zaka, and proclaimed to them, to the torturers, and in the hearing of all the crowd, the thousands of citizens of Nagasaki who had come to see this spectacle, “Now you shall know, Sirs, how great is the God whom we adore, and how precious the Paradise for which we hope.”[23]

This was the life-defining moment: from his youth Marcello Mastrilli had studied and labored and yearned precisely for this great and precious hour. The very proving-ground where Christovão Ferreira, his unhappy predecessor, had abandoned Christ, His Church, and the religious order called by His Name—the Society of Jesus—would be the stage upon which the integrity, truth, and power of that Name would shine forth in all its dazzling glory. Indeed, Ferreira’s own given name, Christovão, derived from the Greek Christophoros: “Bearing Christ.” Certainly, Mastrilli the scholar would have known that etymology and wrestled in his soul with its implications: he must bear the burden, the Cross, the honor and the glory of that Name into the darkness and horror of the Pit—bear the Name unflinching, unyielding, undaunted by the Pit’s dank, claustrophobic closeness, its unvented stench, its inferno of unrelenting, unendurable agonies that must be endured, that were his chosen path to Paradise, with no turning back short of apostasy. For Father Marcello’s apostasy would declaim the falsity and the madness of his “alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō”; were he to break down after having proclaimed to all of Nagasaki—indeed, to all Creation—that his end would redound to the glory of his God and to his unshakable faith in that God’s promise of Heaven, then news of that breakdown, bruited far and wide, would gravely wound his already-brutalized religion and smear that spotless Name he bore into the Pit with the foul muck of cowardice, a fault unforgivable in martial-spirited Japan. Countless earthbound souls would indeed “learn from his punishment”—to the horror and dismay of all the onlooking souls up in Heaven.

Father Marcello, hands tied behind his back, was wrapped in coils of rope from his feet up to his chest and, hanging by his feet from a gallows, lowered head-down into the pit. Then the wooden lid—made in two halves, with cut-outs in the center to clamp and pinch the victim’s body—was closed on him. This method of “persuasion,” invented by Takenaka Uneme-no-Shō, [24] a former magistrate of Nagasaki, had proven more effective in procuring forced apostasies from Christians than had any other regime of torture. This was understandable, given its effects on the victim:

It felt like his head was going to explode; his mouth, nose and ears would soon start oozing blood. François Caron, the chief of the Dutch trading-post in Hirado, wrote, “This extremitie hath indeed … forced many to renounce their religion; and some of them who had hung two or three days assured me that the pains they endured were wholly unsufferable, no fire nor no torture equalling their languor and violence.” [25]

Contrary to the executioners’ expectations, however, this Bateren, [26] this priest, neither squirmed nor groaned, but kept perfectly still. Thinking him prematurely dead, the executioners opened the lid; Father Mastrilli told them, “I desire nothing; I am in Paradise.” When the magistrates renewed their effort to tempt him to apostasy, he told them that the sun would reverse its course before his faith would fail. When the guards, perhaps to tempt him or perhaps out of real concern, asked him if he wanted water, he answered, “I want neither water nor anything else; only glory, glory!” [27]

Normally, when a Christian had been hung upside-down in the pit for an extended time, toxic blood would collect in his head, blood that must be vented by means of incisions on the temples lest he die too soon—for, after all, the magistrates wanted apostasy through torture, not death. Yet, after four days’ torture in the pit, Father Mastrilli showed none of the usual symptoms. Reports of this phenomenon alarmed the magistrates. One can guess their fears: perhaps the Paradise this dauntless Bateren had spoken of was real. Perhaps the people of Nagasaki, the guards and executioners included, were witnessing an ongoing miracle granted this Bateren by his foreign God, a sign that all others might indeed learn from—but a lesson prejudicial to “the Grand Shōgun, Emperor of Japan,” an incontrovertible sign of the truth of that “alien religion contrary to the beliefs of Buddhism and Shintō.” If so, then they must act, and fast. [28]

The magistrates ordered that the priest be beheaded at once. On hearing the news, Father Mastrilli was jubilant, as this was precisely the end he had predicted. After the executioners had pulled him from the pit, he knelt on the sacred earth atop Nishi-zaka and, invoking his patron in Heaven, “he cried out with great emotion, ‘Father Saint Francis Xavier, Father Saint Francis Xavier,’ words that were heard by the Portuguese who were present.” [29]

And heard, no doubt, by that friend of his in Heaven and all the heavenly host.

It took three slashes of the sword to sever his venerable head. Perhaps the swordsman, in the silence of his heart and in that Name the Bateren had borne into the pit, was shouting his own cry to Heaven as he raised his sword atop Nishi-zaka—whose earth, mixed with holy Martyrs’ blood, overlooked Christian Nagasaki and its sparkling bay, Japan’s door to the wider world.

Copyright © 2016 by Luke O’Hara

[1] Léon Pagès, Histoire de la religion chrétienne au Japon depuis 1598 jusqu’à 1651. (Paris: Charles Douniol, 1869), 828, note.
[2] Pagès, 829.
[3] For interesting details on this apparition, see: Ines G. Županov, “Passage to India: Jesuit Spiritual Economy between Martyrdom and Profit in the Seventeenth Century” in Journal of Early Modern History, Vol. 16, Issue 2 (2012), pp 121-159.
[4] Pagès, 830.
[5] Pagès, 831.
[6] C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650. (Lisbon: Carcanet, 1951), 369-370.
[7] Pagès, 832.
[8] Pagès, 833.
[9] A replacement for the boat the Japanese exiles had built; it had been found unsuitable.
[10] Pagès, 834.
[11] He may in fact have had smallpox. See Liam Matthew Brockey, The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia.  ( Cambridge, Mass:  Belknap Press, 2014), 405.
[12] Saint Magdalena of Nagasaki received that torture, described here:
[13] Boxer, The Christian Century, 351.
[14] Ibid, 351.
[15] Pagès, 836.
[16] Willis, Clive. “The Martyrdom of Father Marcello Mastrilli S.J.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 53 (2013): 220.
[17] Willis, 220-221.
[18] Pagès, 836.
[19] Pagès, 836-837.
[20] Pagès, 837.
[21] Willis, 222. A translation from the original Portuguese.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Pagès, 838.
[24] 竹中采女正, Nagasaki Bugyō from 1629 to 1633, when he was removed from his post for illegal trading. He was forced to commit seppuku in 1634.
[25] Borrowed from . The excerpt from François Caron is quoted in Boxer, The Christian Century, 354.
[26] Japanese borrowing of the Portuguese ‘padre.’
[27] Pagès, 838.
[28] The Jesuits’ report notes an additional reason: “The reason for their hurry was a forthcoming celebration in the temple the next day, a day on which acts of judicial punishment were forbidden.” Willis, 223.  Also noted in Léon Pagès, Histoire, 838.
[29] Willis, 223.