A ‘Sanctus’ for the Ages, Part I

News: Commentary
by Luke OHara  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  December 8, 2022   

Labors of Japan's good shepherd

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Part I of a series. Read Part II.

Calabria in Italy has produced some remarkable warriors for Christ, men of insuperable faith, yet even among these titans, Fr. Camillo Costanzo stands tall. Born in 1571 in Bovalino, a village perched on the Ionian Sea under the boot of Italy, young Camillo Costanzo must have glimpsed eternity awaiting him across that fabled sea, for he would live out his life as if the promise of Heaven were always before his eyes. (Camillo is commonly known in English by the Latin version of his name, Camillus.) 

Bl. Camillus Costanzo statue

Having studied law at the University of Naples and served as a soldier in Flanders, Camillo finally found his purpose in the Society of Jesus, which he entered on Sept. 8, 1591. Once ordained, he set his heart on converting China and sailed for Macao, a Portuguese outpost west of Hong Kong housing the Jesuits' Far Eastern headquarters. On his arrival in 1604, however, Fr. Costanzo saw his hopes of mission in China sunk by bureaucratic intransigence; instead, by a particular providence of God, he was sent to Japan, arriving in Nagasaki on Aug. 17, 1605.

The brilliant priest was soon fluent in Japanese and labored fruitfully in Christ's Japanese vineyard nine years: first at Kokura, in northeastern Kyushu, and then at Sakai, a major commercial center near Kyoto, the imperial capital. Yet this tireless missionary traveled all the length and breadth of Japan in his evangelical labors, for we find him in Nagasaki in 1609, where the widely-beloved Fr. Organtino Gnecchi-Soldo, three years bedridden, died in his arms, and some years later 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 up in Ezo (present-day Hokkaido) requested that a Japanese physician be sent his way. A solid Catholic was chosen for the job, and Fr. Costanzo trained him in catechesis, wrote out many prayers in common use as well as the formula for baptism, and sent him northward. The doctor soon reported back that the people of Matsumae were so open to the gospel that he was baptizing great numbers of them. Fr. Costanzo would have traveled to Matsumae himself to build a strong apostolate in that vast, virgin northland of Ezo were it not for the ruler's sledgehammer blow of 1614 on Japanese Christendom.

The people of Matsumae were so open to the gospel that he was baptizing great numbers of them.

Tokugawa Ieyasu's Christian Expulsion Edict exiled all Churchmen and banned Christianity across the Empire. Although some clerics managed to remain in country and carry on their ministries by going underground, the name of Camillo Costanzo was near the top of the Shogun's list of prominent missionaries assiduously building the Kingdom of God, and he had no choice but to surrender himself to the shogunal authorities at Nagasaki for expulsion. 

Once back in Macao, Fr. Costanzo began seven years' intensive study of Japanese and Chinese religious texts, devoting himself wholly 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, apparently, was what God had made him for: to confute the lies that had long blocked the gospel's sweeping over Japan, the "land of the gods," and open the floodgates to the very tsunami of Christ's love that the Japanese, straining as they were under the Tokugawas' cruel yoke, so desperately needed.

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With that bright dream illumining his soul, Fr. Costanzo took passage in 1621 with two other priests on a Japan-bound ship, all three disguised as Portuguese soldiers. Enroute, however, Camillo Costanzo's priestly demeanor roused the suspicions of the ship's master, who, for fear of his own life, would have turned his passenger in to the local magistrate on landing had not certain faithful Catholics stopped him in his tracks. By 1621, most Japanese Catholics had been starved of the sacraments for seven years or longer: the arrival of the tall, noble and erudite Fr. Camillo Costanzo must have come as an angelic visitation from Heaven to countless cruelly orphaned souls.

The Martyrs of Nagasaki

Having professed his fourth Jesuit vow in Japan, Fr. Costanzo was sent to Fudoyama in Hizen, not far from Higashi-Sonogi, from whose shore the 26 Martyrs had been embarked 24 years earlier to sail across Omura Bay toward Nagasaki and the execution ground where their crosses awaited them atop a slope called Nishizaka.

Perhaps Fr. Camillo visited that gray-pebbled shore and asked for those martyrs' prayers just as this author often did. Perhaps he pictured them spending their last night on earth huddled in three open boats anchored off the opposite shore, shivering in the February cold. And then, perhaps, he envisioned their being rousted from their boats at dawn in the bleak winter chill to march the seven or eight miles to the foot of that steep slope called Nishizaka, which they would climb in exhaustion to reach that execution ground and find their crosses laid out flat on the earth. There, atop that slope overlooking beautiful Nagasaki and its sparkling harbor, 12-year-old Luís Ibaraki would ask the executioners, "Which cross is mine?" and, running to the one they had pointed out — the smallest — the boy would fall to the ground to embrace that vessel that would carry him home.

A shrine in Japan depicts the 26 Martyrs

From Fudoyama, Fr. Camillo moved on to Karatsu (literally "China port") on the north coast of Kyushu, whose harried flock he shepherded three months. This was the castle town of Terazawa Hirotaka, who had pulled down churches and persecuted Catholics in Nagasaki before becoming a Catholic himself in 1595. Nevertheless, after Hideyoshi, Japan's overlord, crucified the 26 Martyrs on Feb. 5, 1597, Terazawa reverted to persecutor. His depredations would play 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.

Twelve-year-old Luís Ibaraki asked the executioners, 'Which cross is mine?'

Off the northwest corner of Kyushu lay Hirado Island. Heavily forested and largely rural, Hirado afforded ample space for hidden Christian worship, and just past Hirado, Ikitsuki Island, the fief of the staunchly-Catholic Koteda clan, stood alone like a lighthouse at the western edge of Kyushu. In this mission field, Fr. Camillo kept busy day and night traveling 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 long orphaned of their pastors. He even 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.

While on Ikitsuki, Fr. Camillo heard the confession of an earnestly Catholic woman who hoped to convert her pagan husband. Feigning interest in the Faith, this reprobate artfully mined details about the priest's itinerary from her and duly reported all to the authorities. Boatloads of armed men were dispatched to hunt down Fr. Camillo, 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 it was all to God's greater glory, as countless witnesses, human and angelic, would soon be privileged to see — as we too 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 at his website, kirishtan.com.
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