06/15/2016, 16.05
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Abbot Sidoti’s martyrdom, a story of faithfulness and courage

The Japanese government has confirmed that the remains found are those of Giovan Battista Sidoti, a priest martyred in 1715. From the Roman Curia, the clergyman travelled to Japan via the Philippines, leading the life of a missionary firsthand. His faith and knowledge even impressed his jailer, who appealed to the Shogun - in vain – to have him repatriated rather than executed.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Faithfulness and courage are key words in this story. They are words that echo deeply among the Japanese for they embody the virtues of the samurai, and those of a priest, Abbot Giovan Battista Sidoti, who landed on Yakushima Island on 10 October 1708 and died a martyr’s death in Tokyo on 16 November 1715.

His remains were found in July 2014 in Tokyo alongside those of a Japanese couple. The Sicilian-born clergyman was killed 300 years ago after he baptised his attendants Chosuke and Haru, who shared his fate.

When Sidoti arrived in Japan, the country had been off limits to foreigners for almost a century. Anyone who was a Christian or, even worse, involved in evangelisation, could only expect death. Hundreds met this ultimate fate, many of whom known only unto God.

Aged 40, Giovan Battista, had a shaven pate, like a samurai, and the remaining hair was long and tied into a small queue. Like a Japanese warrior, he wore a traditional dress and carried a sword. Travelling on the Santa Trinidad, a frigate paid for by some Manila donors, he reached his destination after two months.

He had with him a portable altar, holy oils, a breviary, an image of Nuestra señora del Dedo (Our Lady of the finger), a crucifix that had belonged to the Jesuit Father Marcello Mastrilli, who had been martyred in Japan, and credentials proving that he had been sent by the Pope. He wanted to meet the Emperor. He wanted Japan to open its borders and allow Christians to proclaim Christ.

What led him to undertake this journey that ended in his martyrdom? Seven years earlier, the young priest in service at the Roman Curia asked Pope Clement XI to be sent to Japan to resume the mission interrupted by persecution.

He had read the lives and the reports of those who had evangelised in the East, first of all the Jesuit missionaries, and longed to break the isolation of a people that had been denied a chance to know Jesus. The Pope agreed but told him to stop in Manila to wait for the right time to enter Japan safely.

After about a year of travel, sailing around Africa and making stops in India, Giovan Battista Sidoti finally reached in Manila, where he spent four years and left a deep impression on the local Christian community.

Chronicles from the time note that he dedicated himself to the Gospel "teaching the Christian Doctrine to children, preaching to the people, hearing confessions day and night, helping the sick to cope with their coming death, accepting alms to help the poor".

Living out of a small hospital room close to the sick, he also set up a school to teach children, and opened a seminary named after Saint Clement in honour of Pope Clement XI.

However, he never forgot the purpose of his trip, and so studied Japan’s difficult language. Manila was then home to many Japanese Christians who had fled their homeland to avoid death, and Giovan Battista engaged some to teach their language so that he could proclaim Jesus in the land so many of them had left.

The Archbishop of the Filipino capital, and many locals did not want him to leave, but they bowed to his decision, conscious of his strong desire to complete his missionary journey.

In Japan, dressed as he was, he was easily spotted among and by the peasants as a tall foreigner and ipso facto an outlaw. After he was moved from place to place, enduring the hard travel, he finally reached Edo, Tokyo’s old name, for trial, a task the Shogun gave to Arai Hakuseki, a neo-Confucianist scholar.

Arai found a fountain of wisdom and knowledge to draw from, a patient man who answered his questions, which were eventually collected in three volumes, a precious heritage ranging in topics from geography to politics, from the world’s governments to the world of faith.

The first tome, and the most important one for Japan, was Seiyō Kibun, or Western News, a key tool to understand what was happening beyond Japan’s self-enclosed borders.

Arai’s transcription of what Giovan Battista said shows a man of faith and holiness, ending with his martyrdom. It describes his life in captivity. "He cut out a cross from red paper and pasted it on the wall looking west. At the foot of that cross he recited the prayers of his faith."

After he finished his questioning, Arai Hakuseki made his report to the Shogun and gave him three possible solutions: death, imprisonment or repatriation. He proposed the latter even though it was against the law. Instead, the Shogun decided to hold him forever, and ordered a couple, Chosuke and Haru, to attend to him. The two had already cared for a captive Jesuit, Fr Giuseppe Chiara, and had become his catechumens.

However, when the prisoner baptised his attendants, he got an even worse sentence. He was placed inside a four-metre deep well with a small opening, little room, air and food to live on. He lasted six months, as did his two converts.

How did he live his final moments of martyrdom? Arai Hakuseki’s chronicle picks up the story. "Then the Roman’s true feelings were revealed. He loudly called the couple by name, strengthening their fate, and urging them not to change their intentions even at the cost of their life. He did this day and night."

Faithfulness and courage: always looking to his origins, his mission, and thus never fearing for their lives.

He was buried near the site of his martyrdom, an area called Kirishitan Yashiki, Christian Mansion, where many tortured Christians died a martyr’s death, unwilling to repudiate their faith in Jesus Christ. Next to his remains were those of his attendants. Together they were found in July of 2014.

DNA testing confirmed the origins of the residents of this strange final resting place, namely two Japanese, a man and woman, and an Italian whose age and height fits those of Abbot Giovan Battista Sidoti.

What does Giovan Battista Sidoti’s martyrdom and remains tell us today? The discovery stirs us and compels us to see, learn and immerse ourselves in the holiness of his life and death, a witness to his faith until the last breath. (VS)

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