The Calabria region of Italy has produced men of insuperable courage and faith who have been remarkable warriors for Christ. Among these, Bl. Camillus Costanzo stands out.
Camillus Costanzo was born in 1571 in Bovalino, a village perched on the Ionian Sea under the boot of Italy. From Bovalino's shore, young Camillus may have glimpsed eternity awaiting him across that fabled sea, for he would live his life as if the promise of Heaven were always before his eyes.
Camillus studied law at the University of Naples and later served as a soldier in Flanders before finding his vocation in the Society of Jesus, which he entered on Sept. 8, 1591. After his ordination, Fr. Costanzo resolved to convert China. He sailed for Macao, arriving in 1604. Macao, an island outpost west of Hong Kong, served as the Jesuits' Far Eastern headquarters. However, bureaucratic intransigence dashed his hopes of a mission to China. Instead, by a particular providence of God he was sent to Japan, arriving in Nagasaki on Aug. 17, 1605.
The brilliant Fr. Costanzo soon became fluent in Japanese and labored in Christ's Japanese vineyard for nine years — first at Kokura, in northeastern Kyushu, and later at Sakai, a major commercial center near Kyoto, the imperial capital. This tireless Jesuit traveled the length and breadth of Japan in his evangelical labors, for we find him in Nagasaki in 1609, where the beloved Fr. Organtino Gnecchi-Soldo, three years bedridden, died in his arms, He was also in Tsugaru, at the northernmost end of Japan proper, visiting Catholics exiled to the wintry north by shogunal command.
While Fr. Costanzo was in Tsugaru, the daimyo of Matsumae in Ezo (present-day Hokkaido) requested a Japanese doctor for Matsumae. A Catholic doctor was chosen for the job. Father Costanzo trained him in catechesis, transcribed many prayers in common use, listed the formula for baptism and sent him on his mission.
The doctor soon reported that the people of Matsumae were so open to the gospel that he was baptizing great numbers of them. Father Costanzo would have traveled to Matsumae himself to build a strong apostolate in that vast, virgin northland of Ezo were it not for the Tokugawas' sledgehammer-blow of 1614 to Japanese Christendom.
Tokugawa Ieyasu's Christian Expulsion Edict of 1614 exiled all Churchmen and banned Christianity across the empire. Although some clerics remained in the country and carried on their ministries by going underground, the name of Camillus Costanzo was near the top of the shogun's list of prominent missionaries assiduously building the Kingdom of God. Therefore, Fr. Costanzo had to surrender to the shogunal authorities in Nagasaki for expulsion.
Back in Macao, Fr. Costanzo began a seven-year intensive study of Japanese and Chinese religious texts, devoting himself to a new mission he now envisioned. He would use the idolaters' own "sacred" texts to prove the vacuity of their doctrines. The memory of that Catholic doctor's glowing report from northerly Matsumae on the sprawling landscape of Ezo must have burned in his Ignatian heart all those seven years. This seemed to be God's purpose for Fr. Costanzo — refute the lies that had long blocked the gospel from sweeping over Japan and open the floodgates to the tsunami of Christ's love that the Japanese, his adopted brothers and sisters, desperately needed.
With that bright dream illuminating his soul, Fr. Costanzo traveled in 1621 with two other priests on a Japan-bound ship, all three disguised as Portuguese soldiers. Most Japanese Catholics had been starved of the sacraments for years, so the arrival of the tall, noble and erudite Fr. Camillus Costanzo must have appeared to them as an angelic visitation from Heaven.
Having professed his fourth Jesuit vow in Japan, Fr. Costanzo was sent to Fudoyama in Hizen, not far from Higashi-Sonogi. This was the same place from which the 26 Martyrs departed 24 years earlier, to sail across Omura Bay toward Nagasaki and the execution ground where their crosses awaited them atop a slope called Nishi-zaka. Perhaps Fr. Costanzo visited that gray-pebbled shore and asked for those martyrs' prayers just as this author often did. Perhaps the priest imagined how they spent their last night on earth huddled in three open boats anchored off the opposite shore, shivering in the February cold.
Then, perhaps, he envisioned them marching nearly eight miles in the bleak winter chill to the foot of the steep slope called Nishi-zaka. From there, they would climb in exhaustion to reach that execution ground to find their crosses laid out flat on the earth. Atop that slope overlooking beautiful Nagasaki and its sparkling harbor, 12-year-old Luís Ibaraki asked the executioners, "Which cross is mine?" Running to the one they had pointed out — the smallest — the boy fell to the ground and embraced the cross that would carry him home.
From Fudoyama, Fr. Camillus moved on to Karatsu (literally, "China Port") on the north coast of Kyushu, where he worked for three months. This was the castle town of Terazawa Hirotaka, who, after pulling down churches and persecuting Catholics in Nagasaki, became a Catholic himself in 1595. After Japan's overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi crucified the 26 martyrs on Feb. 5, 1597, Terazawa rejected Catholicism and reverted to persecution. His depredations played a role in the seeding of the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637–1638, which eventually left 37,000 Catholic men, women and children brutally slaughtered in its wake.
Off the northwest corner of Kyushu lay Hirado Island. Heavily forested and mostly rural, Hirado afforded ample space for hidden Christian worship. Just past its western shore was Ikitsuki Island, the fief of the staunchly Catholic Koteda clan. Throughout this region, Fr. Camillus traveled to towns, hamlets and islets ranging across Hirado, Ikitsuki and even the Goto Islands in the East China Sea, delivering the sacraments to forlorn Catholics orphaned from their pastors. He managed to slip into Hirado's prison to confess three faithful souls — Hernando Jimenez, his wife and his servant — who had given shelter to Fr. Luís de Flores and would thus be martyred.
On Ikitsuki, Fr. Camillus heard the confession of an earnestly Catholic woman who hoped to convert her pagan husband. Feigning interest in the Faith, the reprobate husband artfully mined details about Father's mission route from her and duly reported all to the authorities. As a result, boatloads of armed men hunted Fr. Camillus — that dauntless, tireless shepherd of human souls whose very existence on Japanese soil seemed to irk the Devil's minions like a barbed arrow in the belly.
But all to God's greater glory, as countless witnesses, human and angelic, would soon be privileged to observe, as we shall see in Part II of this story.
Luke O'Hara became a Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan's martyrs can be found on his website, kirishtan.com.