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


Tokugawa Hidetada in all his Finery

             When Padre João Machado walked into the prison, he was met by the Franciscan Friar Pedro de la Asunción, in prison since 8 April. Fray Pedro—born in Cuerba, near Toledo, Spain—had been caught via a stratagem employed by the sheriff of Nagayo (a town in Ōmura-dono’s domain about 9 miles NE of the port of Nagasaki), who, feigning a desire to confess his sins, had lured Fray Pedro into a trap.

Fray Pedro had arrived in Japan in 1608 and had for some years been Father Superior of the Franciscan convent in Nagasaki.  Despite recent animosity between their two religious orders, however, this Franciscan Friar knelt to kiss the Jesuit Padre’s feet when he saw him walk through the prison door; Padre Machado would not allow this obeisance from his brother in Christ.

Ōmura-dono reported to the Shogunate that he had captured the two priests and then sat back to await the Shōgun’s orders; in the meantime, the imprisoned priests were celebrating daily Mass, hearing their fellow-prisoners’ confessions, and restoring korobi-kirish’tan (former Catholics who had been tortured or otherwise cowed into apostasy) to their proper home, Holy Mother Church.  On 21 May, the Shōgun Hidetada’s answer came:  kill the priests.  Since Pentecost they had been celebrating daily Mass together; that morning, during Mass, Fray Pedro said to Padre João, “We will not be celebrating many more Masses.”  The next morning he told him with certainty, “This will be our last Mass.”  Padre João agreed.

A few hours later, Lino Tomonaga, Ōmura-dono’s apostate sheriff, came to visit the priests, talked with Padre João at length, never mentioning the death-sentence, and left; but he turned right around, came back in, and made his grave announcement.  Padre João Machado replied, “The three happiest days of my life have been: the day I entered school at Coimbra, the day I was arrested, and the day I received my death-sentence:  these three.”  The two priests burst into song: the Te Deum (Thee, O God, we Praise).  Offered a last meal, they refused.  Instead, they scourged themselves, confessed their sins to one another, and prayed.

On their long march to Kōri Hill, Fray Pedro carried a crucifix with his scourge and the Franciscan Rule hanging from it; Padre João carried a bronze crucifix and his breviary.  All the way, they preached without ceasing.  When they arrived at the execution-ground, a Kirish’tan soldier baptized as Damian presented the holy martyrs with two cushions to kneel on.  Fray Pedro de la Asunción, the Franciscan, thanked him and said, “Now may dust return to dust.”

The two priests knelt beside one another, a few feet apart.  First Fray Pedro’s head fell in one slash of the sword.  The Jesuit, Padre João Machado, had a more prolonged ordeal, however:  he had to endure three slashes of the sword before he could meet his God.  Perhaps the swordsman had been wrestling with his conscience as he struggled to obey his earthly lord’s orders; afterwards, he would perhaps have taken some mystical consolation from seeing the two priests’ blood flows joining together into one pool:  a visual sign of their blood-brotherhood in Holy Martyrdom.

It was 22 May, Anno Domini 1617:  the start of a great outpouring of Christian Martyrs’ blood, a baptism of the very soil itself.   This heavenly rain, this testimony in blood to the truth of the Faith, to the Living Word who is Himself Truth, would seed a bountiful crop of steely faith throughout Japan, faith that would endure centuries of persecution to outlive the Shōguns and all their puny, merely-earthly power.