Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Oct - Dec 2001

A Filipino who dared :
St Lorenzo Ruiz, Martyr (+1637)


Sanctity is a note of the true Church, of the Catholic Church. It can flourish and shine in Asia as well as in other continents. It is the fecundity of the Cross that gives to the Church its eternal youth, so that from all races and cultures the seeds of the gospel develops and blossoms at all times and in all places. The call to sanctity is a common vocation of all the members of the Church. The first Filipino saint reminds us that this call, this challenge is still relevant and that as Catholics we must always be ready to bear witness of Our Lord Jesus Christ, even unto blood.

Our saint was born in the outskirts of the walled city of Manila, in a place called Binondo along the opposite bank of the Pasig River. Born of a Chinese father and a Filipina mother, he was baptized sometime between 1600 and 1610 and was given the name Lorenzo Ruiz. The exact date of his birth is unknown since the baptismal records of the church of Binondo were destroyed. Nevertheless, it was the common practice here in the country to name the child with the name of the saint on whose feast-day the child was born. So probably, our saint was born on the feast of Saint Lawrence, the deacon martyr.

Little is known of his childhood, except that he worked in the convent of the Dominican Fathers in Binondo as a houseboy and sacristan. Later he joined the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary and lived a pious and practical Christian life as prescribed by the association. He received a good education from the Dominicans and they hired him as the "escribano", the secretary and calligrapher of the convent. Thus he earned a living by rendering documents with his good penmanship. He later got married and had two sons and one daughter. Such meager biographical highlights do not give us a full picture of the man, it is true, but they do help us to figure him as an active parishioner involved in church services and activities, nourishing his soul by the frequentation of the sacraments and having a fervent Marian devotion especially towards the recitation of the Holy Rosary.
Misfortune got hold of him in 1636. He was accused of being involved in a criminal case of unspecified nature. It was certainly a serious one, since the civil authorities sought him for questioning and trial. We do not know - perhaps we will never know - whether he was innocent or guilty, but Lorenzo, knowing the prejudices of certain officials, dreaded the trial or mistrial. Thus, he sought to escape for his life and decided to leave the country. And so, he embarked with a group of Dominican priests and a Japanese layman who were leaving Manila, thinking that they were going to Macao. There, in that Portuguese colony, he hoped to find a living as an "escribano". But, the missionaries were heading to a land he would never have imagined to go, to the land of martyrs, to Japan! Much less did he imagine what lay ahead for him, for instead of escaping, death seemed to have caught him with its paws.

Christianity was proscribed in Japan by an edict of the military dictator Tokugawa Yeyasu, Shogun of the empire in 1614, expelling all missionaries and catechists, and forbidding the profession of the Christian faith. From that year until 1636, the Catholics in Japan were subjected to one of the most cruel and devastating persecution of the Church. At this juncture, Lorenzo entered Japan still without the slightest intention - as he latter confessed to his judges - of becoming a martyr.

The difficulties of travelling had already started in Manila. The Spanish authorities had forbidden the religious to go Japan for they saw it useless and self-defeating as missionaries who attempted preaching the gospel would be captured from the moment of their arrival and put to death. Such however, was not the opinion of the Dominican Fathers. They would not abandon their persecuted Japanese brethren. They would not leave the flock without shepherd, without assistance and consolation. On June 10, 1636, in great secrecy - so that the guards of Governor Sebastian Hurtado de Cocuera would not notice them - a band of six men in a small champan left the shores of Manila. They were four Dominican priests: the Spaniards, Fathers Antonio Gonzalez (Superior of this mission) and Miguel Aozaraza, the Frenchman Father Guillelmo Courtet, and the Japanese Father Vicente Shiwosuka de la Cruz; and two laymen, Lorenzo Ruiz and a Japanese leper Lazaro, of Kyoto.
A month latter, they landed on the shore of the Lequios Islands, renamed today the archipelago of Okinawa. The islands being a time loosely a part of Japan, they thought they could easily slip unnoticed into continental Japan. Such however was not case for on July 10, they were identified as Christians, arrested and put to jail while the higher authorities were informed. Here they waited one year for their trial in Nagasaki where the ordinary tribunal of Christians was established.

Lorenzo arrived in Nagasaki with the Dominican Superior Father Antonio Gonzalez and Lazaro, of Kyoto, on September 21, 1637. Eight days latter the other Fathers arrived. They were taken to the tribunals of the governors of Nagasaki, Sakakibara Hida-no-kami and Baba Saburozayemon, jointly holding the reins of Nagasaki by appointment of the Shogun. They were questioned and repeatedly tormented by two kinds of torture, the water torture and the torture of needles. With the water torture, water was forced through the mouth by a funnel until the belly could take no more. Then, the executioners would put a long board on the stomach and step on either end of the board to force the water out violently through all natural exits. The needle torture consisted in thrusting long needles between the flesh and the nails of each finger. Then the executioners would play with the needles as if playing a guitar. Momentarily one of these priests, Father Shiwozuka de la Cruz gave in to the excruciating pains and apostatized; but shortly after, while in prison, he repented and was reconciled with God, suffering the remaining martyrdom with exemplary fortitude.

Father Gonzalez, Lorenzo and Lazaro were interrogated upon their arrival. After some questions regarding their beliefs and how they came into Japan, Father Gonzalez was subjected to the water torture and was asked to renounce his faith by trampling a image of the Virgin Mary, but he suffered the torments valiantly rather desecrate Our Lady's image. Lazaro was terrorized by this, he apostatized at first, but in the seclusion of the jail and aided by his companions, he acknowledged his sin and received absolution. After witnessing the torments of his two companions, Lorenzo was asked if he would apostatized. He had a moment of doubt and asked for an interpreter to whom he asked that if his life would be spared should he renounce his faith. But, strengthened by God's grace, even before receiving the answer of his judges, he called back the interpreter and told him that he had just spoken like an ignorant, because (in his own words): " I am a Christian and this I profess until the hour of my death; and for God I shall give my life; and although I did not come to Japan to be a martyrs, but rather because I could not stay in Manila, however, as a Christian and for God I shall give my life. And so, do with me as you please." To this, the judges ordered the ministers to give him the water torture. Even with these repeated tortures, Lorenzo refused to recant his faith. After these sessions, they put him back with his companions.

Two days latter, on September 23, 1637, he stood before the tribunal determined to stand firm until the end. The judges asked him straight a final question: "If we grant your life, will you apostatized?" The response was categorical and immediate: "That I will never do, because I am a Christian, and I shall die for God, and for Him I will give many thousand lives if I had them. And so do with me as you please." The judges then sentenced him to be executed. It was a clear case of a Christian resolved to die for his faith, and so the judges sentenced him to be executed. The first one to die of their group was the Superior, Father Gonzalez who was devoured by high fever caused by the water torture. He died in prison on September 24. The Japanese burnt his body and threw the ashes into the sea.

On September 27, Lorenzo and his companions were withdrawn from their prison to be executed. They were paraded along the streets of Nagasaki, on horseback, hands tied and muzzled with the motive of death sentence announced by placards. In this manner they were taken to Nichizaka Hill, outside the city, where they had to undergo the final torture of the "gallows on the pit". From gallows in the shape of a football goal, each one of them was hanged by the feet with their body falling into a pit down to the waist. The mouth of the pit was closed by two boards adjusted to the waist of the body and pressed down with stones placed on these boards. This torture was created to last for several days until the victim would either apostatized or died by bleeding or suffocation. Lorenzo's agony lasted two days. On September 29, 1637, the judges wishing to go on a hunting trip ordered their ministers to extract the five victims and have them beheaded. Lorenzo and Lazaro were already found dead. The three priest were then beheaded. Their bodies were set on fire and the ashes carried out of the Nagasaki Bay and thrown into the sea near the little island of Io-Juma, to prevent their veneration by the Christians.

Three months latter, the news of his death arrived in Manila and was received with extraordinary enthusiasm. Moved by religious fervor, a big crowd of people assembled in the Church of San Ignacio in commemoration of the martyrdom of the Jesuit Father Marello Mastrilli, also martyred in Japan. They then proceed to Santo Domingo, led by the religious authorities including Archbishop Hernando Guerrero and by the civil authorities. In both churches a solemn "Te Deum" was sung in praise of God for the triumph of the Christian faith in Japan.
Lorenzo Ruiz and his companions were beatified by Pope John Paul II in Manila on February 1981. This was the first beatification held outside of Rome. They were later canonized by the same Pontiff in Rome on October 18,1987.

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