Saint of the Day – 11 September – Blessed Charles Spinola SJ (1564-1622) Priest, Martyr, Missionary to Japan – born as Carlo Spinola in 1564 in Madrid, Spain and died by being slowly burned to death on 10 September 1622 at Nagasaki, Japan.
Charles Spinola was born in Madrid, Spain. His father, the Italian Count of Tassarolo, was tutor to Prince Rudolph, the Emperor’s son. After his early studies in Spain, Charles was sent to the Jesuit school in Nola, Italy where he lived with his uncle Philip Spinola, the Bishop of Nola. As a youth, Charles was so moved by the Martyrdom in India of Rudolph Acquaviva’s heroic example of love for God, that he too was determined to die for Christ and the faith. He entered the Society and became a novice at the Nola novitiate. In 1584 he went to Naples for his philosophy and after taking his vows, he was sent to Brera College in Milan where he completed his philosophy and his theology studies, though at the time his health was not too good. After his Ordination in 1594, he was assigned to give parish missions in Cremona although he had requested to go on foreign missions.
Two years later in 1596 Fr Spinola together with the Sicilian Jesuit, Jerome De Angelis, finally were assigned to the mission in Japan but it took him six years, eight ships and great patience to arrive in Nagasaki, Japan after overcoming shipwrecks, pirates and many unfortunate incidents along the way.
The first ship he took from Genoa struck a rock and was forced to return to Genoa. From Barcelona, he had to walk on foot across Spain and Portugal to reach Lisbon but there the ship met with a violent storm and its rudder was shattered. After five months, the ship was repaired in Brazil, they again set forth only to meet another storm and they found themselves drifted back to the Atlantic to its starting point. His second attempt was also unsuccessful and ended when English pirates captured the ship and took it to England and only managed to escape back to Lisbon after two years. It was only in 1600, when Fr Spinola set off on his third attempt did he reach Malacca, Malaya.
Eventually he reached Japan in 1602, after 6 years of attempts and he studied Japanese before going to Miyako (today’s Kyoto) where he was Novice Master at the Jesuit College and also teacher of mathematics and astronomy. He moved to Nagasaki seven years later to care for the temporal needs of the province. In 1614, the long period of peaceful relations with Shogan Iyeyasu ended, when the number of Christians in Japan had reached two million, causing the country leaders to become fearful that the Christians proposed a national threat and that their country might be taken over by Spain. This resulted in the Shogun’s decree banishing all foreign missionaries and forbidding Japanese Christians to harbour Priests or practice their religion.
Arising from this decree, about 100 Jesuits left Japan but some remained, including Fr Spinola and he eluded Priest-hunters for four years. Fr Spinola was captured together with Bro Ambrose Fernandes and their catechist, John Chogoku and were imprisoned for four years in a bird-like cage under harsh conditions.
We have the record of a letter from one Franciscan, Blessed Richard of St Anne, to his home Monastery in France:
“I have been for nearly a year in this wretched prison, where there are with me, nine religious of our order, eight Dominicans and six Jesuits. The others are native Christians who have helped us in our ministry. Some have been here for five years. Our food is a little rice and water. The road to martyrdom has been paved for us by more than 300 martyrs, all Japanese, on whom all kinds of tortures were inflicted. As for us survivors, we also are all doomed to death. We religious and those who have helped us, are to be burnt at a slow fire; the others will be beheaded… If my mother is still alive, I beg you to be so kind as to tell her of God’s mercy to me in allowing me to suffer and die for Him. I have no time left to write to her myself.”
In September 1622, the nine prisoners who had been caged together, were taken to Nagasaki and felt Martyrdom would soon be theirs. Before they left, Fr Spinola accepted the vows of his seven novices. On 9 September, the nine Jesuits together with twenty-four other prisoners at Suzuta, each with a rope round his neck and the Jesuits in their cassocks, were led to Martyrs’ Hill escorted by 400 soldiers. There they waited for another thirty-three prisoners from the city. When the 2 groups met, they embraced. Fr Spinola recognised Isabel Fernandez among them, the wife of Dominic Jorjes, who had sheltered Charles after he had Baptised her son, Ignatius, now a four-year-old. Isabel said “I brought him [Ignatius] with me to die for Christ before he is old enough to sin against Him.” The boy knelt for a blessing from Charles, witnessed the Martyrdom of his mother and was killed himself—all without crying out.
The religious, with exception of John Chugoku (being a lay person) were condemned to death by slow fire, the Christians and Chugoku were to be beheaded.
When fastened to his stake, Fr Spinola intoned the psalm, Praise the Lord, All You Nations and the martyrs joined in a song of thanksgiving to God. The fires were lit but the wood was so arranged to prolong the victims’ suffering. Fr Spinola died within half an hour as he was greatly weakened after four years of imprisonment. Fr Kimura, endured his martyrdom for three hours and was the last to die, during which time he remained immobile with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross.
The nine martyrs died on Martyrs’ Hill on 10 September 1622. When Pope Pius IX beatified the 205 Japanese Martyrs on 7 May 1867, Bro Ambrose Fernandes, who had died in prison, was also included.