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Blessed Vicente de San Antonio

Fidelity until Death (Ablaze in Love’s Embrace)

By Enrique A. Eguiarte, OAR

 

 

The devastating typhoon that threatened the sinking of the fragile boat in the midst of China Sea made Blessed Vicente de San Antonio recall his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean about three months before, towards 1620, when a tempest had put the ship where he was travelling in harm’s way on the way of Mexico. He further recalled how he had made a promise to God that, if saved from the storm, he would become a religious upon reaching Mexico. Both storms did not succeed in sinking any of his two ships and soon after he survived the storms a new horizon was opened for Blessed Vicente de San Antonio. In the wake of the storm over the Atlantic , the Augustinian Recollect habit awaited him. He received it in Mexico City in 1621 when he commenced his novitiate before departing shortly after for the Philippine missions. In the wake of the typhoon over China Sea, the Clandestine apostolic work waited for him in Japan as well as the persecution and finally the glorious martyrdom in Nagasaki on 3 September 1632.

 

Thus after the tempest over China Sea the Recollect missionaries disembarked at the shores of Japan in the vicinity of the city of Nagasaki in 1623, Blessed Vicente de San Antonio had to separate himself from his companion, Blessed Francisco de Jesus, since that same year the Japanese authorities had expelled all the Spanish merchants from the country. For that reason, Blessed Francisco, a Spaniard had to ensconce himself in the mountains, while he disguised himself as a merchant and could stay in Nagasaki without being noticed, mixing himself with his compatriots, the Portuguese merchants who abound in that region. He had been born thirty-three years before in Portugal, specifically in Albufeira, about 1590. His parents were Antonio Simόes and Catalina Pereira.

 

So Blessed Vicente de San Antonio found in Nagasaki a flourishing clandestine Christian community that despite the terrible persecution kept the Faith, gave abundant fruits of martyrdom since the Christians remained faithful to their beliefs in the face of all those adversities. Thus, Blessed Vicente at once put himself at the service of the People of God in Japan, celebrating the mass very late at night or in the wee hours of the morning — because during those hours there was less vigilance by the authorities—and after spending the evening hearing confessions and preaching to the faithful.

 

In his own wish to proclaim Christ, Blessed Vicente learned the language of the country in spite of its being “terrible”. As he himself indicated in his letters. Once he had learned the Japanese language, he devoted himself untiringly to preaching, even as he hid himself and continuously changed his place of residence in order to avoid falling into the hands of the guards and spies of the emperor, who persecuted them to the end. In some occasions he would wear disguises and would play the guitar as he had a good voice and a great fondness for music, and succeeded in evading his persecutors. All this made Blessed Vicente remember his youthful years in Lisbon “amidst his delights and leisure periods.” He remembered as well how by the grace of God he was converted and was ordained as priest in 1617 at age 27. From Lisbon he travelled to the Canary Islands and thence to Mexico where in fulfillment of a vow, as we have said , he donned the Augustinian Recollect habit . And this habit and the Recollect lifestyle had taken him to Japan, despite the fact that it was only a short time that he was a member of the Order of Augustinian Recollects.

 

Four years after his arrival in 1627, the fruits were abundant but the persecution intensified since the Emperor of Japan wanted to eradicate Christianity and for that purpose he availed himself of all means in his power. Two years later, through the information of a Christian which had been tortured, his hideout was discovered. But Blessed Vicente de San Antonio was not an easy prey. He hid in an island near Nagasaki and thirty-six boats and six hundred men were needed to set fire to the island. Barely a week after the harassment, cold, downpour, eating the three hosts he had brought with him Blessed Vicente was arrested on 25 November 1629 after six years of intense pastoral activity in Japan.

In Nagasaki prison, he came upon an old friend –The Mexican Father Bartolomé Gutierrez –the Augustinian religious with the longest residence in Japan, a total of sixteen years. In that same prison he likewise met his Augustinian Recollect confrere Father Francisco de Jesus, from whom he  had been reunited like authentic Recollects in order to celebrate together the feast of Saint Augustine on 28 August 1629. There was also a Japanese Jesuit priest named Antonio Ygida. Much later, a Franciscan religious brother also joined them in prison.

In this Nagasaki jail they were to stay for two weeks only because on 11 December 1629 they were taken to the dreadful prison of Omura where they were put in small individual cages made of wood and they could not even stretch themselves to rest. These cages are hung inside the excavated hollow in the mountain, which made the site humid and foul-smelling on the account of the squalor and decay, so much so that “even with covered noses nothing could be expelled.” In these “Jails” of Omura Blessed Vicente would stay for two years together with his companions.

Nonetheless, the cage was converted into another pulpit for Blessed Vicente and the other friars, as in another huge cage they imprisoned a big number of Christians. In this manner, day and night, they encountered them with words in order that they could bear the painful conditions of the prison and finally martyrdom. All of them were laypeople –men , women, and children –who were martyred on 28 September 1630, almost a year after Blessed Vicente had arrived at Omura. In spite of the grueling conditions, paradoxically at some time the Augustinian Recollect Blessed Vicente de San Antonio and Francisco de Jesus, Had the rare opportunity to communicate with their superiors in Manila through letters. In fact, twenty-five of the thirty letters we have preserved were written during that period.

Yet still the most painful trial preceded Blessed Vicente’s martyrdom. On 28 November 1631, he was taken out of the prison of Omura together with his companions, and transferred to Nagasaki, and from there to the horrifying Unzen in Arima.It is necessary to make it clear that the word “Unzen” means “hell” in Japanese and truly a place was hell. The Unzen or “hell” of Arima was a valley of sulphurous waters at the foot of the perpetually snow-capped mountains. In this place Blessed Vicente de San Antonio, Blessed Francisco de Jesus and their companions  were subjected to the painful treatment of sulphurous waters and, once their habits were taken off and their hands and feet tied up, the acidic sulphurous water was poured on them over their shoulders and ribs. Slowly and painfully their flesh was scalded like flaming tongues of fire greedily licking their bodies entirely, form the shoulders and back down to their heels. To the excruciating waters, we have to add the terrible freezing snowfall of that winter of 1631.

Blessed Vicente was tortured with these acidic waters for five consecutive days and was on the verge of death. His Augustinian Recollect brother Blessed Francisco de Jesus was given seven sessions for he was endowed with a robust physique. As no one renounced for apostatized their Faith, which was what the governor had been trying to force them to do, they were transported again to Nagasaki in early 1632, after spending thirty-one days in that “hell” of Arima. Blessed Vicente de San Antonio was maltreated and so maimed by the sulphurous waters of Arima that he was unable to return to Nagasaki on horseback like the rest of his companions, but on a stretcher which was but a “tomb of canes.”

 

The missionaries remained in Nagasaki nonetheless for eight months inside the jail, bearing the excruciating pains form the open wounds stemming from their sojourn at the Unzen of Arima. They had to sleep on the bare icy floor without any protective outer garment. They ate one sardine a day-or at most two-and a plate of black rice “that not even dogs would eat.’’

After so months of horrendous suffering the day of their happy martyrdom finally came; and so on 3 September 1632 they were hauled off to what is now known as the ‘Hill of Martyrs’’ in Nagasaki where they were bound by the finger to a tree trunk so they could be easily untied if they wished to renounce their Faith. They were surrounded by a wet wood which when it started it burn would cause so much smoke that would suffocate the martyrs in a brief period of time. Later on, their bodies were burned and their ashes scattered in the sea.

 

That sea which with its tempestuous waves had made Blessed Vicente embrace the Augustinian Recollect life now received his ashes. But the fire of his life and love of Christ goes on enlightening the Augustinian Recollects, the Church of Japan and the Universal Church. Presently, on the ‘Hill of Martyrs’’ in Nagasaki rises a gigantic cross dedicated to the Martyrs of Nagasaki. Among the glorious names remembered in the adjoining museum are those of the four Augustinian Recollects. One of them is that of a young Portuguese who embraced the Augustinian Recollect life in Mexico and after professing in Manila bore witness to Christ in Japan-Blessed Vicente de San Antonio.

 

Blessed Vicente de San Antonio was beatified on 7 July 1867 by Pope Pius IX. His feast is celebrated on 28 September together with other Martyrs of Japan of the Augustinian Family.

 

Blessed Vicente de San Antonio was born circa 1590 in Albufeira, Portugal. His parents were Antonio Simôes, who was probably a physician, and Catalina Pereira. He was known as Vicente Simôes Carvalho. After his studies at the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, he was converted to the Christian Faith. In 1617, he was ordained as priest. In 1619, he went to the Canary Islands for some business matters and there he decided to travel to Mexico. In his Transoceanic voyage a storm at sea caught him by surprise and he made a vow to enter a religious order in Mexico if God saved him. In1621, he donned the Augustinian Recollect habit in Mexico City . On 25 March 1622, he embarked on his continuing journey to Manila. On 22 September 1622, he made his religious profession at the convent in Intramuros, Manila.

 

On 28 April 1623, he boarded a boat to Japan where he arrived on 20 June 1623. On 11 October 1623, he travelled to Nagasaki. On 25 November 1629, he was arrested in an island near Nagasaki and was incarcerated for almost two years. On 11 December 1629, he was taken to Omura prison. On 26 November 1631, he was transported back to Nagasaki and later to the Hell ( Unzen) of Arima where he was jailed and tortured for 31 days . On 5 January 1632, he was transferred back to the prison in Nagasaki. He suffered martyrdom on 3 September 1632.

 

Pope Pius IX beatified him on 7 July 1867. His feast is celebrated on 28 September together with the other Martyrs of Japan of the Augustinian Family.