Blessed Thomas Tsuji: Jesuit Priest and Martyr
Today is the feast of Blessed Thomas Tsuji (circa 1570 – 1627), a Jesuit priest and martyr.
Thomas received his early education from the Jesuits in Arima and entered the Society in January 1589. He was ordained a Jesuit in Nagasaki sometime before 1613. He was an excellent preacher and became well known throughout southern Japan. He was transferred to Hakata after he became too outspoken in his condemnation of the scandalous conduct of some Christian Japanese in the city. While exercising his priestly ministry in Hakata, the edict of 1641 which ordered the banishment of all Catholic priests from Japan was enacted. In obedience to the order, Fr Tsuji and the other eighty priests left for Macau and remained there for four years.
In August 1618, Fr. Tsuji disguised as a merchant, returned to Japan and secretly resumed his apostolic work. Unlike the European Jesuits who could only minister at night, Fr Tsuji worked day and night, achieving great results disguised sometime as a prosperous Japanese gentleman, and at times as an artisan. His favorite disguise was as a humble wood seller who could knock at the doors of Christian homes without being noticed.
As the persecution against Christians intensified and his workload increased, Fr Tsuji found his energy waning as he began to doubt whether he could match the heroic example of his brother Jesuits who were being martyred. This uncertainty of himself led him to be depressed and as he found it difficult to continue living up to the ideals that the Society demanded of its men, he was released of his religious vows in late 1619.
Within a short time of his departure from the Society, he requested to be readmitted but while immediate readmission was not possible, the Jesuit superiors allowed him to go through a period of probation. This lasted six years during which time he demonstrated more zealously by exposing himself to many dangers in order to help other Christians. After his readmission in 1626, Fr Tsuji was assigned to Nagasaki where he continued his apostolic duties until his capture the same year.
Fr Tsuji had been living with a devout Christian, Louis Maki and his son John. On the morning of July 21,1626 just after he had celebrated Mass which the Makis attended, the house was invaded by soldiers and the three were arrested. Fr Tsuji appeared before the district judge and when asked who he was and what he was doing, he responded: “For many years the people of Nagasaki have seen Thomas Tsuji, a religious of the Society of Jesus, and have heard him preach the Christian message. I am he, and I am prepared to uphold with my life and to testify with my blood to the truths that I have faithfully taught.” He was found guilty and imprisoned at the Omura prison. The Makis were also imprisoned for collaborating with a priest and offering him hospitality.
While in prison, Fr Tsuji had to endure the visits of his family who endlessly asked him to think of them and not to bring shame upon them. They appealed to him to renounce his Christian religion and return to live with them. His reply was: “What you ask me to do is wrong, and even if you offered me a thousand Japans, or the whole world, I could not do it.” After thirteen months of incarceration the three prisoners were taken to Nagasaki on September 1627 to receive the death sentence.
On September 7, 1627 they were led to the Martyrs’ Hill, made holy by many martyrs and there they were tied to stakes. Fr Tsuji comforted his two companions and urged them to think of Christ’s passion. When the stakes were on fire, he blessed his companions, raised his eyes to heaven and prayed silently. When the flames twirled and wrapped about his body, he chanted the psalm: “Praise the Lord, All You Nations.”
Many witnesses have attested that few moments before his death, his breast burst open and from it there issued a flame that rose upwards and upwards until it was lost in sight. They believed that the sacrifice offered by Fr Tsuji and his companions was found to be most pleasing to God.
Fr Tsuji, Louis and John Maki were beatified by Pope Pius IX together with other Japanese martyrs on May 7, 1867.