Double Martyrdom at Kōri, 22 May 1617
In 1617 the Shōgun Hidetada (above) discovered that Ōmura Sumiyori, the daimyō of Ōmura, was conniving at the hiding of Catholic priests in his domain in Kyūshū, the westernmost of the four home islands of Japan. The Shōgun’s sledgehammer came down on this daimyō’s head: he had to expunge the priests from his domain at once.
Ōmura Sumiyori, christened Bartolomeo, had been born and raised a Catholic; his grandfather, the illustrious Bartolomeo Ōmura Sumitada, had been the very first Japanese daimyō to receive baptism and had remained 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, reluctantly became a persecutor of the Church in the wake of the Shōgun Hidetada’s threats.
Cowed, presumably, by visions of his own unwilling martyrdom, Sumiyori ordered the expulsion of all priests from his domain on pain of death. Rather than abandon their flocks, however, there were some who were ready to give their lives for them. Among these eternal lights were Friar Pedro de la Asunción of the Franciscan Order and Father João Baptista Machado de Távora, S. J. Both were beheaded on Kōri Hill in the domain of Ōmura for the crime of being faithful servants of the God who gave His life for faithless Man.
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), João Machado entered the Jesuit Order at Coimbra, Portugal, where he began his studies at the Jesuit college. 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.
Father João Machado was based at Kyōto, the Imperial Capital, whence he spread the Gospel far and wide. In 1614, however, the Tokugawa Shōgunate promulgated its Christian Expulsion Edict, and Father João found it impossible to remain among his flock incognito, for he was by then too well-known to go unnoticed by the Shōgun’s vigilant henchmen. He therefore slipped away to distant Nagasaki, a longtime Catholic refuge on the west coast of Kyūshū, the westernmost of Japan’s four main islands. From Nagasaki, Father João’s superior would send him on pastoral visits to Sotome, a staunchly-Catholic bulwark nestled in the seaside mountains of northwestern Kyūshū, and to another bulwark of the Faith, the far-flung Gotō Islands. These islands had become havens for Catholic refugees fleeing the Shogunate’s increasingly-bloody persecution; Father João is reputed to have performed awe-inspiring miracles of healing on that archipelago.
In April of 1617, detoured from an intended voyage to the Gotōs, Father João said Mass at Sonogi, a fishing village a few miles up the coast from Ōmura Sumiyori’s castle-town on the shore of Ōmura Bay. At Sonogi the priest was betrayed to the apostate daimyō’s soldiers, who arrested him immediately after he had celebrated Mass; as they were all practicing Catholics, every last man was ashamed, and they explained to Father João 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, Father João 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 captive priest heard the contrite soldiers’ confessions. From the dock at Ōmura, Father João was led to the daimyō’s prison at Kōri in a torchlight procession, like Jesus being marched out of Gethsemane.
When Father João Machado walked into the prison, he was met by the Franciscan Friar Pedro de la Asunción, in that prison since 8 April. Friar Pedro—born in Cuerba, near Toledo, Spain—had been caught via a stratagem employed by the sheriff of Nagayo (a town in the Ōmura domain about 9 miles northeast of the port of Nagasaki), who, feigning a desire to confess his sins, had lured the friar into a trap.
Friar Pedro had arrived in Japan in 1608 and had for some years been Father Superior of the Franciscan monastery 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; the humbled Father João, refusing this show of obeisance from his brother in Christ, lifted the man to his feet.
Ōmura Sumiyori 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, Friar Pedro said to Father João, “We will not be celebrating many more Masses.” The next morning he told him with certainty, “This will be our last Mass.” Father João agreed.
A few hours later, Lino Tomonaga, Ōmura’s apostate sheriff, came to visit the priests, talked with Father João at length—never mentioning the death-sentence—and left; but he turned right around, came back in, and made his grave announcement. Father João Machado replied, “The three happiest days of my life are: the day of my entry into the college of Coimbra, that of my capture, and this one in which I receive my death sentence.” The two priests burst into song, the Te Deum (Thee, O God, we Praise). Offered a last meal, they declined. Instead, they scourged themselves, confessed their sins to one another, and prayed.
On their long march to the execution ground on Kōri Hill, Friar Pedro carried a crucifix with his scourge fixed to it; from this scourge hung a copy of the Franciscan Rule. Father João carried a bronze crucifix and his breviary. Along the way, the two brothers in Christ 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. Friar Pedro, the Franciscan, thanked him for this courtesy and said, “Now may dust return to dust.”
The two priests knelt beside one another, a few feet apart. First Friar Pedro’s head fell in one slash of the sword. The Jesuit, Father João, had a more prolonged ordeal, however: he had to endure three slashes of that 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.
The beheading of Padre Machado in an engraving by Pierre Miotte. It appeared in António Francisco Cardim´s Elogios, Rome 1646 (Latin) and Lisbon 1650 (Portuguese).