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The Dominican Martyrs of Japan

Thursday, November 06, 2008

During his life our Holy Father St Dominic dreamed of going to the pagan mission fields of the East to proclaim the Gospel and suffer martyrdom. He never fulfilled this dream but his spiritual children have never forgotten it. This is seen today in our celebration of the martyrdom of Alphonsus Navarrete, a friar and priest, Alexius Sanbashi, a lay Dominican and catechist, and their companions.

St. Alphonsus was born into a devout Spanish family in Logroño in 1571. He entered the Order as a very young man and in 1585 he volunteered to be a missionary in the Far East. He arrived in Manila in 1595 (via Mexico). However he was plagued by ill-health and returned to Spain in 1600. He spent the next few years recruiting friars for the mission in Asia and after assembling a sizable group of friars from across Europe he returned to the Philippines and was assigned to the House of the Holy Rosary in Kyoto in 1611.

Alphonsus was reassigned to St Dominic’s House in Nagasaki in 1612 just as the first major wave of persecutions against Christians was beginning. By the end of the year he and all missionaries were exiled from the region. Undeterred Alphonsus led his band of friars to Oita on the other side of the island of Kyushu. Over the next five years Alphonsus helped to build a thriving and fervent Christian community. The strength of the Christians in Oita however only highlighted the suffering of the church in Nagasaki. Alphonsus and the Augustinian, Hernando de Ayala, decided they would return to Nagasaki. Within four days of their return Alphonsus was captured by the authorities. On the first of June 1617 he was beheaded for publically preaching the faith, the first Dominican martyr of Japan.

Little is known about Alexius Sanbashi, except that he was a native of Nagasaki and that he was a lay Dominican catechist with Blessed Joseph of St. Hyacinth. It has been suggested that he had been a secret Christian until St. Alphonsus returned to Nagasaki. Inspired by Alphonsus’ preaching he became a lay Dominican and began publically instructing people in the faith. He was captured in 1621 during the second major wave of persecution and burned alive the following year.

Over one hundred members of the Dominican family and their benefactors have been recognized as martyrs by the Church. Their blood helped establish a small yet significant Christian community in Japan, especially in and around Nagasaki, until the Second World War.

Let us today pray, through the intercession of Our Lady of Akita and these glorious martyrs, for the conversion of Japan. Let us also follow their example and proclaim our faith in a world which is hostile to it.

Mark Davoren

You can read more about the martyrs of Japan here. See also a review of Martin Scorsese's film Silence.



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