Tag Archives: jesuit

1622: Charles Spinola, martyr in Japan

On this date in 1622, Jesuit Charles Spinola was martyred in Nagasaki.

He was the son of both Spanish noble stock and the spirit of missionary martyrdom that swelled in Europe’s Age of Discovery. As a young man, Spinola thrilled to reports of evangelists suffering for the faith in the New World, for “to die for the faith, to shed his blood for Jesus Christ, seemed to him supreme happiness. Thenceforward all his thoughts tended to the means of attaining this end.” Indeed, his very decision to enter the Jesuit order was “impelled by his ardor for martyrdom.”*

And he would need the ardor, because merely to attain the scene of this hoped-for Calvary in distant Japan would require a Homeric six-year odyssey featuring a shipwreck, a pestilence, a stint in an English prison, nearly drowning in the Caribbean, nearly dying of fever in Goa, and outmaneuvering the attempted interpositions of his powerful family who aspired to a more comfortable and proximate appointment for their kin.

Finally alighting in Nagasaki in 1602, Spinola enjoyed or endured (as the mathematically disposed reader will infer) a twenty-year chase for the palm of martyrdom. He passed most of those years in the small and unglamorous labors of religious and managerial constancy necessary to tend the growing flame of Christianity in Japan.

Around 1612 Japan’s tenuous toleration of Christian proselytizing began taking a turn very much for the worse. The only recently coalesced state had long feared that the Catholic priests dispatched by Spain and Portugal portended the imperial domination visited elsewhere in Asia. Were these Christians, now perhaps two million strong, being prepared as a fifth column?

Spinola went underground, going by the foreshadowing alias “Joseph of the Cross”, a haunt of the shadows who was obliged to conceal himself from daylight because his foreign features were instantly recognizable. With the help of Nagasaki’s ample Christian community he eluded capture for an amazingly long time.

For nearly two years and a half I have devoted myself to encourage and support the Christians of this country, not without great difficulty. Having no home, I pass secretly from house to house, to hear confessions and celebrate our holy mysteries by night. Most of my time I spend in utter solitude, deprived of all human converse and consolation, having only that which God gives to those who suffer for his love … However I am tolerably well, and, though destitute of almost everything and taking but one scanty meal a day, I do not fall away. Does not this prove that “man liveth not by bread alone?”

-Letter of Spinola dated March 20, 1617

He wouldn’t be caught for almost two more years yet after that letter, in December 1618 — whereupon, “seeing that he was discovered, he raised his eyes and hands towards heaven, and in a burst of unutterable joy, humbly thanked God.” God was still going to make Charles Spinola wait another four years for martyrdom, time mostly spent in the “tedium” (Spinola’s word) of prison with some other Christians, on a diet of meager rice portions and regular penitential self-flagellation.

Spinola burned when the time finally came with twenty-one other holy martyrs … plus three Japanese converts who attempted to apostatize to escape the flame, but were put to the stake just the same.

* These quotes, and a good deal of this post’s narrative, come from the public domain hagiography Life of the Blessed Charles Spinola, of the Society of Jesus.

1761: Gabriel Malagrida, Jesuit nutter

On this date in 1761,* the Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida became a late casualty of the Tavora Affair and the Lisbon earthquake when he was garroted for heresy.

Malagrida (English Wikipedia entry | Portuguese) was a 72-year-old Italian with decades of missionary service to the Portuguese New World colonies under his belt.

He had, in his time, been a prominent exponent of the Jesuits missions’ policy in the Amazon, which amounted to asserting their own jurisdiction against the secular government’s attempt to order its overseas territories. (There’s more on that conflict here.)

And this only exacerbated his principal sin of being a Jesuit — an order whose diminution was eagerly sought by the rising statesman of Enlightenment Portugal, the Marquis of Pombal.

The shock of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake would deal Pombal the trump hand he needed to start reshaping both city and society to his liking.

Malagrida, meanwhile, carped that the earthquake’s causes

“are not comets, are not stars, are not vapors or exhalations,** are not phenomena, they are not natural contingencies or causes; but they are solely our intolerable sins … I do not know how a Catholic subject dares to attribute the present calamity of this tragic earthquake to causes and natural contingencies. Do not these Catholics understand this world is not a house without an owner?”

This published pamphlet merely echoed what many of the order were saying in the pulpits, and Pombal was not about to let the backwards, superstitious crowd** own the catastrophe.

Malagrida was banished from Lisbon: and, when the Tavora family was implicated in an attempt to assassinate the Portuguese king, Malagrida, their confessor, found himself clapped in prison.

Though the now-septuagenarian priest did not share the Tavoras’ grisly public butchery, he was left to molder. A couple years in a dungeon saw him go a bit strange, and supposedly he published treatises with such eccentric features as God’s personal instructions to Malagrida, and Malagrida’s fascination with St. Anne’s uterus. Catholic sources, which consider Malagrida a martyr, doubt that he ever published any such thing; if he did, it seems apparent that it was dementia rather than heresy that afflicted the old man.

But Pombal had installed his own brother as judge of the tribunal, so the matter was prearranged. The execution itself was

staged in a dramatic way, even to the point of Malagrida’s appearing on the scaffold in Jesuit habit, to impress upon the Portuguese and the world at large that an old order had come to an end and a new one was to be established … one might say that … symbolism at the cost of one human life was a relatively humane procedure in comparison with the symbolic elimination of whole classes of society in the twentieth century.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Malagrida executed at a Lisbon auto de fe. CC image from Ricardo Mealha, original provenance unknown.

Pitying the superstitious Jesuit at the stake, Enlightenment secularist Voltaire inveighed against Enlightenment secularist Pombal for conducting the execution … just part of Voltaire’s queer ideas about not killing people over their religious beliefs.

“It is all pity and horror,” Voltaire wrote in a private correspondence. “The Inquisition has found the secret to inspire compassion for the Jesuits.”

Voltaire’s appraisal in Candide (already published by this time) of a country in the grip of religious superstition unjustly stands as one of the lasting literary monuments to an event that actually rolled back clerical influence: “the sages of [Portugal] could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for … the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.” That the philosophe who penned those words waxed so immoderately outraged at the demonstrative chastisement of a man who preached precisely all that hocus-pocus — that Voltaire ascribed his execution to “the Inquisition” — plants the cherry on the irony sundae.‡

But Pombal’s expedient use of the Inquisition’s medieval machinery to make an example of Father Malagrida would not be the start of a pattern; the Pombaline reforms of the years to come brought the Inquisition sharply to heel, and it was Malagrida himself who was its last victim (pdf) in Portugal in its classical ecclesiastic form.


The house where Malagrida was born in Menaggio, Italy is marked with a plaque. Image (c) kallipyg and used with permission.

* Some sources give September 20 as the date.

** The “God is pissed” hypothesis was posited against theories of earth’s vapors promulgated by the Pombal-sponsored scientist Ribeiro Sanches.

† Anti-Jesuit sentiment was widely abroad in Europe at this time; increasingly resented as political manipulators, the Society would be suppressed by papal order in 1773, only to revive during the post-Napoleonic reaction.

‡ Malagrida was well-known to contemporaries in Europe, but that does not mean sympathy for him was universal. The British pol Lord Shelburne was satirized as “Malagrida” for his putative duplicity.