Spiritual Independence on July Fourth (Part I)

News: Commentary
by Luke O’Hara  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  July 19, 2022   

Fr. Peter Kibe's martyrdom

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"He who receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true," (John 3:33).


St. Peter Kibe

(Photo: Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific)

Enduring Hell to gain Heaven: What better declaration of freedom could mortal man make than testifying to the truth of Christ in one's own death? This is the essence of martyrdom, and thus does "martyr" derive from Greek μαρτύριον (martyrion), i.e., testimony, proof.

Meet the scion of a Catholic family, a samurai youth who saw the Dayspring from on high on the remotest shore the Catholic Church had ever reached and pledged to Him his life and breath and blood. He traversed half the world to become a priest and risked countless mortal dangers to get back home, knowing he would face a gruesome death there, for he had vowed to bring light to his benighted land if only for a day, a week, or, God willing, a few restless years. His name is Peter Kibe.

Peter Kasui Kibe was born in Urabe, a seaside hamlet in the northeast of Japan's Kyushu island perched beside the Bungo Strait. His parents were both samurai and Catholic, kin of the castellan of Kibe Castle. The word "samurai" derives from the verb "saburau," meaning "to serve," but Peter Kibe had a higher calling than serving a merely mortal lord. Peter's birth in 1587, the very year of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's ban on the Faith, looks like the hand of providence taking up a fiery sword. He was baptized in the church at Nakatsu, a coastal town north of Urabe, where Miguel Kuroda, samurai and future lord of Akizuki, was baptized on Easter Sunday of that very year.

 A miraculous apparition, a burning cross, would appear on a mountaintop on the Easter Vigil of 1616.

At age 13, Peter entered the Jesuit seminario at Nagasaki, but the school was moved to Arima, the staunchest redoubt of Catholic Japan, after a fire in November 1601. While studying in Arima, young Peter must have imbibed the spirit of that land so Catholic that the Faith would flourish there even when driven underground, its flame burning brightly until all its adherents were slaughtered by the Shogun lemitsu's horde in April of 1638.

On his graduation in 1606, Peter requested admission to the Society of Jesus, but first, he would have to labor as a humble dojuku — a lay helper, preacher, translator and catechist. He chose the name "Kasui" as his dojuku surname; some presume it was written "living water" in kanji ideographs, though no record of its kanji spelling survives. Notably, Peter labored in Miguel Kuroda's Catholic haven of Akizuki, where a miraculous apparition, a burning cross, would appear on a mountaintop on the Easter Vigil of 1616, in the early years of the Tokugawa persecution.

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The elder shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu set loose that persecution in 1612, a juggernaut that bared its fangs with a demonic venom specially destined for Arima, where hundreds of Catholics signed their names to registers of those willing to suffer for the Faith rather than apostatize. The tortures inflicted on them by leyasu's governor in Nagasaki, Hasegawa Sahioye, are too repulsive to recount here; suffice it to say that he left behind virtual mountains of human flesh when he withdrew from Arima with his 10,000 shogunal troops.

This was the prelude to Ieyasu's exile of all Catholic missionaries to Macao and Manila in November 1614. Undaunted, Peter continued his studies in Macao, dreaming of a future as an underground Jesuit priest serving his countrymen under the heel of the Tokugawa tyranny.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

But the Jesuits in Macao, finding their resources strained by the huge influx of Japanese exiles, discontinued their Latin lessons in 1618 and later closed their seminario entirely. Clearly, the top brass were reluctant to see these young Japanese ordained and sent back into the inferno of Tokugawa Japan. Many dojuku left Macao for Manila, while three sailed for India, seeking ordination in Rome: Miguel Minoes (from Mino), Mancio Konishi (grandson of the famous Catholic general Augustine Konishi, beheaded by the Shogun Ieyasu), and Peter Kibe. From India, Miguel and Mancio would sail for Rome via Portugal, but the intrepid Peter Kibe would set off on foot, aiming first for the Holy Land, trekking through 3,000-odd miles of mountains, deserts and countries hostile to Christians to reach Jerusalem (the first Japanese to do so), and thence on to Rome.

There, having appeared out of the blue with no proof on paper of his studies in Japan and Macao, he nevertheless conquered the Churchmen's doubts, and on Sunday, Nov. 15, 1620, he became Fr. Peter Kibe by the laying-on of the bishop's hands in a chapel at the Lateran. He was 33 years old. When he showed up in his cassock at the Jesuits' door in Rome five days later, they didn't turn him away despite the Jesuit visitor's exhortations, written from Macao, to distrust wandering Japanese exiles like him; he won them over too, and he entered the Jesuit novitiate — normally lasting two years.

But two years was too long to wait for a samurai priest determined to save his countrymen's souls. Father Peter asked the general of the society for permission to complete his novitiate en route to Japan, and his fervor won the day — a fervor stoked, no doubt, by the canonization Mass of St. Francis Xavier, which Peter Kibe attended and which possibly shook him to his knees.

More fuel was added to that fire in his soul, no doubt, by his studying in Rome with St. John Berchmans and his acquaintance with St. Robert Bellarmine. On June 6, 1622, he left Rome for Portugal and, while in Madrid, read the Jesuits' 1621 report from Japan: The persecution was worsening, with house-to-house searches for underground priests and once friendly daimyos turning up the heat on Catholics in their domains — not only priests and dojuku but even laity were now in their sights.

YouTube: Saint Stories - Petro Kasui Kibe

Finishing his novitiate on Nov. 21, 1622, Peter Kibe made his public Jesuit vow in Lisbon and then entered the colegio there to await passage to India. A fleet of six ships — three huge, lumbering carracks and three galleons to protect them — embarked on the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1623, carrying an archbishop, two auxiliary bishops and 17 missionaries, and ran into a fierce gale that very afternoon. They returned to port to wait out the storm and get repairs. One carrack had a broken mast and a galleon had smashed into rocks.

Two years was too long to wait for a samurai priest determined to save his countrymen's souls.

A few days later, they set sail again into the crucible of nature's dangers and Dutch and English pirates' predations, aiming for the Cape of Good Hope. In the tropics, their food and water would putrefy; cholera, typhus, dysentery and the like would flourish; and many of the passengers and crew would spend weeks flat on their backs, mortally ill, as their vessels crawled interminably under the merciless sun. The archbishop himself was bled nine times during two months' prostration. Rounding the Cape, they met a gale that destroyed the mainsail of the archbishop's carrack, then doldrums, and finally a contrary wind that blocked their way to India; they wintered in Mozambique.

On May 28, 1624, the fleet would reach India, only a rest stop for Fr. Peter Kibe. He was off to Macao, whence he had begun his pioneering journey.

(to be continued)

Luke O'Hara became a Roman Catholic in Japan. His articles and books about Japan's martyrs can be found at his website, kirishtan.com.
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