Today, in the 1962 Dominican Rite Calendar, we celebrate the feast of Blessed Alfonso Navarrete and Companions. The feast is III Class, so the ordinary office is prayed according to the rubrics. A commemoration is made of St. Nicholas of Tolentino, Confessor. The lesson at Matins describes the heroic virtue of these martyrs of Japan. The Dominicans made up a large contingent of those who were killed. Also represented were the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Augustinians.
From “Short Lives of the Dominican Saints” (London, Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1901):
On July 7th, A.D. 1867, just after the celebration of the eighteenth centenary of the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul, Pope Pius IX solemnly beatified two hundred and five martyrs who had suffered for the faith in Japan at various dates during the persecution which raged in that country between A.D. 1614 and A.D. 1643. Fifty-nine of these blessed martyrs belonged to the Order of Saint Dominic; of these, some were European missionaries, for the most part Spaniards from the Philippine Islands, others native Friars, and others again Tertiaries; fifty-eight more were members of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary. There were also Jesuits, Franciscans, and Augustinians, and numbers of native converts.
The first Dominican who laid down his life for the faith in this persecution was the Blessed Father Alfonso Navarrete, who for his heroic deeds of charity has been termed the Saint Vincent de Paul of Japan. He was captured by the pagans when on his way to succor the afflicted Christians of Omura, an act which was equivalent to offering himself for martyrdom. After dragging him from one desert island to another, in order to find some spot where his execution might take place unknown to the Christians, the soldiers at length struck of his head as he knelt in prayer, holding his rosary and a blessed candle in one hand, and a wooden cross in the other. His martyrdom took place on June 1st, A.D. 1617.
During the five years which ensued, numbers of missionaries and of native Christians fell into the hands of the persecutors, and were at length all imprisoned together at Omura. There were nine Dominicans, nine Franciscans, nine Jesuits, amongst whom was the famous Father Charles Spinola, and a few seculars. During their long and painful captivity, they kept up all the exercises of community life, rising at midnight to recite their Office, and celebrating as many Masses as they could at daybreak. They also imposed on themselves many fasts and other austerities, in addition to the sufferings which they had to undergo in their wretched prison. Yet so full of joy were they at the thought of suffering for the name of Christ, that Father Alfonso de Mena of the Order of Saint Dominic used to date his letters, “From this prison of Omura, the paradise of my delights.” On September 9th, A.D. 1622, four-and-twenty of the prisoners were removed to Nangasaki, and on the following day were led out to the Holy Hill, consecrated twenty-five years before by the crucifixion of the twenty-six canonized martyrs of Japan. A Christian went before them, bearing the banner of the Confraternity of the Holy Name, whilst they followed joyfully, singing the Litanies and the Te Deum. Father Joseph of Saint Hyacinth addressed the crowds who had gathered together to witness the scene, exhorting them to be faithful to the devotion of the Holy Rosary, which would continue to instruct them when their pastors should be no more. A state was prepared for each of the martyrs, the horrible death of burning having been assigned to several of them. Another procession of native Christians from Nangasaki now joined them, clad in robes of ceremony and preceded by a Dominican Tertiary, clothed in the habit of the Order and carrying a cross. Some of them bore their little children in their arms. The victims numbered upwards of fifty; about half of them were sentenced to be burnt and the rest beheaded.
The former were fastened to their stakes in such a way as to allow of their escaping, should they choose to save their lives by apostasy. The fire was applied slowly, so as to prolong their agony; but only two of the heroic company evinced any sign of being conscious of their sufferings. Both of them were young Japanese and implored the Governor to grant them a quicker death; but the boon was denied, and Blessed Paul Nangasci, a Dominican Tertiary, left his stake to lead them back to the altar of sacrifice. The Blessed Father Angelo Ferrer Orsucci was seen to rise gradually in a kneeling posture several feet above the flames, and thus continued for some time in ecstasy. One by one the Martyrs passed to their reward. The Blessed Father Hyacinth Orphanel lingered in agony for sixteen hours, expiring at length with the names of Jesus and Mary on his lips. This martyrdom is known in history as the Great Martyrdom. All the religious orders in Japan shared the triumph, but that of Saint Domini was most numerously represented, offering to God on that day five of its priests, and three professed Brothers, besides numbers of Tertiaries and members of the Confraternity of the Rosary.
A few weeks previously the Blessed Father Lewis Florez had been executed at the instigation of the Dutch, on August 19th, and two days after the Great Martyrdom, there more Dominicans suffered death by fire. In the following year, A.D. 1623, on the 25th of August, the Blessed Father Peter Vazquez was burnt in company with four companions, singing the litanies in the midst of the flames. On July 26th, A.D. 1627, Blessed Father Lewis Bertrand, cousin and namesake of the great Saint Lewis Bertrand, was burnt with two native Friar Preachers. Next year the Blessed Father Dominic Castellet shared the same fate, in company with two Dominican lay-brothers and two Franciscans.
So fiercely did the persecution rage, and so fiendish were the measures taken for preventing the landing of fresh missionaries in the country, that at length the Japanese Christians were left without pastors and continued in that condition for two hundred years. Nevertheless, when, in our own days, the long closed Empire became once more accessible to the Europeans, it was found to contain a considerable number of Christians who had preserved the form of baptism with the utmost accuracy, were well instructed in the essential doctrines of religion, and familiar with man of the prayers in common use among the faithful, and who still cherished with great veneration a picture representing the Fifteen Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. What stronger testimony can be alleged to the truth of the Catholic Church which could thus sustain its life, drawn from a Divine source, under circumstances that must have crushed any religion of human origin?
O God, in the triumph of blessed Alphonsus and his companions you give us joy. We pray you, to grant us through their merits and intercession, a like steadfastness in faith and fruitfulness in work. Through our Lord…