The wood crackled and gradually the flames rose. For a moment, everything seemed to indicate that the supreme sacrifice was over and the victim had been consumed on the infamous scaffold. But it was enough for the flames to die down briefly to contemplate the contrast between the dense smoke and the white silhouette of the condemned man, who remained in a constant state of prayer and praise. At last, with his eyes fixed on Heaven and his soul aflame with love for God, he surrendered his soul to the Heavenly Father.
Thus Camillus Costanzo closed his eyes to this world, a fifty-year-old priest of the Society of Jesus who had the merit of being one of the apostles of Japan. The seventeen years he spent in the Land of the Rising Sun were fertile in conversions and miracles, showing Providence’s special predilection for this people. But who was he?
From Bovalino to Naples
Camillus was born in 1571 in Bovalino, in the Calabria region of southern Italy. His parents, Tommaso Costanzo and Violante Montana, belonged to a noble family from Cosenza.
After spending his youth in his hometown, he decided to study civil law in Naples. During this period, a radical change took place in his habits. Although until then he had not been involved in religion beyond the minimum prescribed, he began, as a university student, to lead a life of great piety.
He started to attend the Marian Congregation there and to receive the Sacraments assiduously, mortifying himself and fasting when his duties allowed. Of a determined character, the young man did not seek to conceal his religious position before others, an attitude that edified some but garnered the disapproval of others…
A noble character is forged
Some of his colleagues, accustomed to a life of ease and pleasure, did not take kindly to his change of behaviour, as it amounted to a constant reproach to their bad habits.
As often happens with those who embrace the path of virtue, the young law student was eventually persecuted and despised by all. Yet it was not rare to find him exhorting his fellow students to abandon the dissolute life they led. The wickedness of his peers would soon manifest itself in the form of revenge…
It was carnival time. One evening, while he was studying in his quarters, he saw a woman enter whose lascivious ways revealed the malice of her intention. She had come to destroy that pure and chaste soul. Having asked her what she was doing there at such an hour, and realizing his danger, Camillus was filled with holy zeal and set about forcibly expelling her.
Then, with the crucifix in his hands, he thanked the Blessed Virgin that he had not fallen into temptation. When he had finished his prayer, a servant of the house approached and fiercely rebuked him for having sent that wicked woman away. Camillus answered him with two solemn slaps, saying:
“And you, who eat my bread, will you induce me to do evil?”1
Between struggles and hardships, the young Costanzo earned his law degree. However, this did not fulfil the longings of his heart. He aspired to something more, without yet knowing exactly what, although mysterious hints of grace allowed him to glimpse it.
In keeping with his aristocratic lineage, he decided to fight at the siege of Ostend in Flanders, in the Netherlands, joining the army of General Ambrogio Spinola Doria. At the time, the Spanish Empire was fighting to conquer this strategically important city, wresting it from Protestant power in a siege that lasted more than three years.
However, he did not find his ideal there either. Following the divine voice, he was led by the Lord to a much higher nobility: to be a soldier of Christ in the Society of Jesus. He entered the ranks of St. Ignatius on September 8, 1591, when he was only twenty years old.
From 1593, he taught grammar at the College of Salerno and, in 1601, he was put in charge of the oratory of that establishment. The following year, having completed three decades of life, he was ordained a priest. Now he was ready for the fight that he had so long awaited.
Missionary in the Far East
To be a missionary in faraway lands, uneducated in the Faith! This was the imperative that grace breathed into his spirit. As Fr. Camillo exercised his ministry, he felt an irresistible thirst for souls growing within him. For this reason, he began to ask insistently to be sent to China.
In March 1602, his wishes began to be realized, although not in the way he had hoped. He left the harbour of Italy for India, staying there for about a year. From there he set sail for the hoped-for country of the mandarins, landing in the city of Macau, at that time in the possession of the crown of Portugal. But it was not for this people that Providence had reserved his evangelizing work…
The Portuguese who dominated that region prevented the Italian missionaries from entering the Chinese Empire. The Jesuit, cut to the heart, then went to the mysterious Land of the Rising Sun, Japan.
So it is with great vocations. When everything leads them to believe that their holiest desires – and even those inspired by God for His greater glory – are about to be realized, they are soon visited by failure. The Lord himself, who awakens these longings, allows them not to be fulfilled.
In this way He not only proves His chosen men, but brings forth from the apparent contradiction a far greater fruit.
Authentic missionary fervour
The ardent priest landed in Nagasaki on August 17, 1605. During the first year, he devoted himself to the study of the Japanese language. He began his apostolate in the town of Buzen, in the Kyushu province, and then went on to Sakai.
His sincere and meek temperament, his affable manner and his religious zeal won him the esteem of a people attuned to fidelity and dedication. During this period, he worked more than eight hundred conversions, only half a dozen of which were lost in the persecution that followed.
In fact, a dark cloud overshadowed this apostolic labour which held so much promise. For some time, the authorities of the archipelago had feared an invasion by the Western powers, a fear that only increased as the number of conversions grew.
Expelled from Japan
Japanese Catholics have known few periods of peace. The first missionaries landed in Japan around 1549. By 1587, there were about three hundred thousand Christians, mainly in the neighbourhood of Nagasaki. In the same year, the shogun Hideyoshi, who until then had patronized the true Religion, issued a decree expelling the Jesuits, the only Order present in his territory.
The majority of the religious, worthy sons of St. Ignatius, assumed a position of discretion and prudence, silently and cautiously continuing the work of evangelization. But in 1593, the first Franciscans landed and did not adopt the same tactics. Hideyoshi ordered the arrest of all the religious, as well as any neophyte converts who were discovered. The arrests began in 1596, and the following year the first martyrs suffered death by crucifixion.
Then, in 1614, the shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, seething with religious hatred and fearful that the increasing number of Catholics would jeopardize the stability of his kingdom, banned Christianity. Missionaries were to leave and Catholics were to renounce the Faith or face death.
Fr. Costanzo was forced to abandon his sheep and return to Macau, where he remained for seven years. Despite the impossibility of carrying out the apostolate he desired, he used this period to write fifteen books refuting the Buddhist doctrine in perfect Japanese, which to this day causes admiration in those who study them.
The angel of Japan
Nevertheless, the Jesuit’s heart and attention remained with the Japanese. Like a Guardian Angel for his ward, Camillus constantly offered fervent prayers and supplications for those he had left behind, waiting for the opportune moment when he could return to the island.
In 1621 he decided, with holy daring, to resume his activities. Putting into practice the cunning of the serpent of which Our Lord speaks in the Gospel (cf. Mt 10:16), he set out for Nagasaki disguised as a soldier. His virtuous physiognomy and modest habits, however, ended up betraying him. The captain of the ship suspected that he was a religious, but, being a Catholic himself, chose not to hand him over to the authorities. At the urging of those on the ship, he set him ashore in a deserted place in Hizen province.
These setbacks, however, did not dampen his spirits. With his feet on firm land, he immediately began to strengthen the faithful he encountered, scattered throughout a multitude of villages. He worked in Karatsu and on the islands of Hirado and Ikitsuki. In many of these places he found virgin soil in which to sow the seeds of Christianity, which later bore fruit.
Such was the number of Christians who came to him for spiritual help that he travelled through those regions without rest, night and day, accompanied by two Japanese men, Augustine Ota and Gaspar Koteda.
On one occasion, he discovered many of the faithful in prison. Defying the risk, he found a way to bypass the guards, enter the prison and administer the Sacraments to them, exhorting them to imitate the Redeemer in His sufferings.
Obedience to God first!
After three months of intense labour in Ikitsuki, he left for the island of Naoshima where a pious Catholic lady, who greatly desired the conversion of her husband lived. In the hope that her husband would meet with Camillus, she revealed to him the Jesuit’s hiding place. But the pagan hastened to tell all to the governor.
Three armed boats set out in search of him, and he was arrested on the island of Uku on April 24, 1622. When asked about his true identity, he did not deny it: he was a Catholic priest and a Jesuit! Without further ado, his neck was placed in irons and he was taken to prison.
There he remained until September 15, 1622, when he was sent to Hirado for his final interrogation. When asked again why he did not obey the Japanese despot, he replied that “the Christian religion commands that the authorities be obeyed in everything that does not contradict the divine precepts; but since the edict of the Prince of Japan, which forbids the preaching of the Christian law, is utterly repugnant to the precepts of the King of Heaven, for this reason I could not obey an earthly king.”2
Such was his joy at the proximity of the meeting with Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin and his spiritual father, St. Ignatius of Loyola, he wanted to show it by sending the provincial priest a reliquary and the formula of his solemn profession, made some years before.
Immolation joyfully offered
As jubilant as the first martyrs, he was transferred to the place of torment. As Christians began to gather there, he encouraged them to live according to the dictates of Our Lord, even under persecution. He thanked not only those who had helped him in Japan, but also his tormentors for giving him the opportunity to enter the heavenly homeland.
Soon he reached his final arena: an old post to which he was tied with ropes of reeds. “Then, as if from a pulpit, he began to preach and finally to declare that he had been condemned to death for no other reason than that he had preached the holy Faith.”3 And he went on to discourse on the words of Our Lord: “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt 10:28).
The fire was kindled and, despite its slow ascent, the priest’s distinctive voice rang out steadily and emphatically. At a certain moment, marked by a brief silence, when the smoke had completely covered him, it seemed that he had expired. But the noble fighter was reluctant to surrender: he still intoned the hymn Laudate Dominum omnes gentes and discoursed in Latin and Japanese on the wonders of eternal beatitude reserved for those who follow the Catholic Faith.
It is reported that at the final moment, he raised his eyes to Heaven, sang the Gloria Patri and five times uttered the word Holy. Having said this, he surrendered his spirit and his soul flew to meet the Creator.
It was September 15, 1622. The angel of the rising sun had accomplished his mission. He had proclaimed the name of Christ in those inhospitable lands and marked the elect with the seal of holy Baptism; he had defended them against the outrages of the Evil One and his followers, and he did not fear imprisonment and martyrdom. Thenceforth, from eternity, he would do even more for this nation which had borne so much fruit for the Church, despite the intense persecution which the Mystical Bride of Christ suffered there.
On July 17, 1867, Pius IX beatified the priest Camillus Costanzo, together with two hundred and four other martyrs of Japan. ◊
1 PATRIGNANI, SJ, Giuseppe Antonio. Menologio di pie memoria d’alcuni religiosi della Compagnia di Gesú. Venezia: Niccolò Pezzana, 1730, t.III, p.127.
2 Idem, p.129.
3 Idem, p.130.